Ruchira Jain
Guest Article

'Vocal for Local' is not a marketing strategy

Does political ideology really translate to consumer demand? What should marketers consider before jumping on the bandwagon...

As soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared his latest 'Mann ki Baat', many marketers jumped on the 'Vocal for Local' brandwagon, and are using their Indian roots as part of their advertising campaigns. Does political ideology really translate to consumer demand? We might want to be careful before jumping on this bandwagon and consider a few things.

Is Brand 'Made in India' desirable today?

Brand 'Made in India' had, indeed, gained currency over the last decade. We gained confidence in our identity as Indians with the strengthening of the economy and Indian businesses, and have been making a mark at the global stage. However, in this period, India also witnessed a rise in income inequality, and as per an Oxfam report, the top 10 per cent of India holds a staggering 77 per cent of the country's wealth.

Ruchira Jain
Ruchira Jain

This rise in pride at one end of the population spectrum was, hence, accompanied by a growing sense of alienation and resentment at the bottom-of the-pyramid. The feelings of this vast majority of Indians have been well encapsulated in mainstream culture via the movie 'Gully Boy' with its famous song 'Apna time aayega'.

But BJP and Patanjali recognised and capitalised over this dynamic much earlier in 2014, and that was the first time Prime Minister Modi floated the narrative of nationalism being equal to anti-global with his 'Make in India' slogan. This politics of protectionism is at the heart of the swift rise of right wing politics the world over.

But nationalism aside, the brand value of 'Made in India' also comes from a rising trend of nostalgia among the urban elite for the bygone era. Those simpler days when there was no real traffic, when we didn’t need a lockdown to admire clear blue skies and birds chirping, when you only had 'Krishi Darshan' in the name of content, but you truly enjoyed it.

Further, this brand value also comes from our desire to reclaim our traditions (like yoga and Ayurveda), especially as they have found huge appeal in the western world.

So yes, Brand 'Made in India' retains its appeal in our desire to celebrate our tradition, and rediscover the lost simplicity of life. Even as the nationalist fervour had died down, the country saw lower economic growth and has struggled to recover fully from the impact of demonetisation and GST.

So, are consumers really 'Vocal for Local' today?

Every consumer survey today is telling us that people in India are, first and foremost, worried about the economy, their income and jobs, and second, frustrated at the life restrictions they now face. So yes, almost all Indians would like to support the Indian economy, but the proverb that comes to my mind to describe the consumer feeling is 'Dhobte ko tinke ka sahaara'…literally meaning that when your ship is sinking, you make all efforts to save yourself. With the economic ramifications of the extended lockdown now confronting, not just the distressed migrants, but the larger populace, our exuberance as Indians is at an all-time low.

By asking us to be 'aatm nirbhar', Prime Minister Modi has very gently nudged us... As one looks around... there is a specific 'Boycott China' narrative playing out versus an anti-global, pro-local narrative. TikTok is the most well known face of it, but I am sure we are all seeing many examples of this around us. Recently, one of my Facebook friends proudly shared that they have ditched a OnePlus phone for a Samsung. The video of Sonam Wangchuk (of '3 Idiots' fame) advocating that we disown all Chinese apps has gone viral.

What is 'local' anyway?

Misquoting Sir Walter Scott, “Oh, what an interconnected web we have woven, when we have first chosen to go global!”

The truth of the matter is that we are a global society – more connected and interdependent than ever before. COVID-19 has, in fact, shown us this quite vividly. Sanjiv Mehta, CMD of Hindustan Unilever, is quoted to have said that HUL is as Indian as any other company. All the celebrated Indian unicorns have global investors.

When PepsiCo India battled the Jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu in 2017, in our work with the consumers, we found that most people don’t know whether a brand is global, or local. Most consumers would be shocked if you told them that brands, like Bata and Lux, have a global lineage.

The exceptions are brands where their identity is deeply intertwined with the idea of the 'west', or the legacy of India. As a consumer, there are brands that I trust and consider for purchase, and brands that I don’t trust, or care enough about.

Does 'Vocal for Local' build brand equity, or help drive growth?

As a consumer, when I shell out money to purchase a product, or service, I am looking to solve a specific problem, or satisfy my desire. The ideological support for 'local' is hard to carry through in my day-to-day life and purchases.

It's, indeed, foolhardy to expect a brand to ride on this wave to gain, either brand equity, or have any real impact on sales. The political support for 'local' is more likely to benefit companies at a socio-political, regulatory ecosystem level, and may even help you build reach...

If, however, your brand is anchored on the legacy of India, it may be worthwhile to highlight the specific values you stand for. Instead of lamely riding a wave, it may be worth proudly proclaiming that you have been always loved by India, 'vocal for India, or not'.

What does it take to win in India, especially post COVID-19?

There are no shortcuts to consumer trust. Superior quality, or user experience, delivered consistently and reliably, coupled with a compelling brand ethos is the only way credible way to build brand trust. After a massive growth explosion between 2014 and 2017, Patanjali has, at best, held revenue in the last few years. There are certain product categories, where it continues to do well, and which have contribute to the majority of its revenues.

As we look at the most successful brands in India, there are lessons to be learned equally for global and local brands:

Being truly 'Glocal' – 'Think Global, Act Local' becomes even more important as we look to build back post COVID-19. Is our product differentiated, with world-class quality? Would our processes and production capabilities match global best-in-class? Are there opportunities for us in the global marketplace, especially in an even more online world? Marketers would need to customise products and communication to local cultural sensibilities. Many Indian brands, like Tata and Amul, have stood the test of time in the face of global competition, and many start-ups (Ola and Zomato) have been able to create a global footprint within a few years

Balancing aspiration, affordability and providing access – Brands, like Tata Nano, learned this the hard way. Aspirations fuel the desire, even as affordability and access provide sustainable growth once you have a loved brand. Ferrero Rocher is a great example of doing it right. Post COVID-19, as we expect to see a cautious consumer with a tighter budget, let us not make assumptions on pricing and cut back on our marketing spends.

Making progress inclusive – Across industries, if one analyses the companies which have been able to deliver consistent growth and highest value to their shareholders, we find it is companies which have been able to provide great products and services at 'unbeatable value' to their customers. So, making progress inclusive is not a fancy brand purpose that one uses only in internal presentations, or what you do as your CSR activity.

Companies make progress truly inclusive by cutting down inefficiencies in the process of production, and by giving maximum value to the consumer. These companies also own their impact on their entire ecosystem, and the society at large and, hence, build lasting brand trust and love. This will be the most important pillar to growth in the post COVID-19 world.

(The author is founder – Elevate Insights, a boutique consulting and insights firm. She was previously VP – consumer insights at Swiggy, and has also spent a decade at PepsiCo.)