Shreyas Kulkarni
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The consumer focus has shifted from "global to local to me": Shalini Sinha, Creativeland Asia

The chief of its consumer intelligence unit and director of strategy chats about consumer's prioritising themselves, what clients focus on in pitches, and more.

While the COVID pandemic remains our bane, it has proven to be a boon for consumer research. The discipline received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to examine tectonic shifts in consumer behaviour and psyche in a short span of time. It is something that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Shalini Sinha has been in the thick of these shifts over the last year-and-a-half. She is someone you can call a career Kantar person. She spent two decades at the leading data, insights and consulting behemoth. She worked in three offices (Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru) across India and was its India executive director for over half-a-decade.

And like an insight that pops out from a lengthy report, Sinha reveals a similar streak her in career when she moved on from her role of a qualitative researcher to the quantitative research side. “That's a big shift unheard of in the industry. I was like, if I really understand the consumers, let me understand them through numbers as well,” she remarks.

Her move to Creativeland Asia (CLA), an independent creative agency, as the CEO of its consumer intelligence unit and director strategy, was a “natural progression”. “If you really understand the human side of things, this (CLA) is the place to bring it to life.”

To bring human emotions and understanding to life through strategy, and build on it, is what “Raj had in his mind when he called me up,” says Sinha. Sajan Raj Kurup is the chairman and founder of CLA.

Sinha joined CLA in February 2021. In 2020, creative agencies were doling out consumer insight reports on a near-daily basis. One would expect such reports from consumer insight companies and consultancies, not agencies.

It is “not unheard of” because some of the leading agencies and networks, like WPP, have been doing it for a while… “The pandemic has brought about a shift in everything we do and how we look at things. There is a need to add a new lens to whatever we do and whatever we talk about,” mentions Sinha.

The pandemic has changed the consumer psyche. In the first half of 2020, the consumers displayed anxiety-led behaviour, such as hoarding of essential items and extreme emphasis on hygiene practices. The same consumers turned to revenge consumerism - travelling, shopping on indulgences, in the second half.

Sinha points out that the focus of the consumers, after the second COVID wave, “shifted to a bit of me.”

She explains that the consumers knew how grounded they’d been since the lockdown was imposed, but now, they have a “better understanding of how to work their way around the pandemic.” So, a lot of indulgence shopping and pampering has returned. “With the third wave, people are assessing how to lead a normal life.”

Speaking about brands, Sinha tells us that they were quite sceptical about what was happening, and also about how “consumer buying patterns will shift.”

However, by the time the second lockdown happened, brands knew that people were aware that the pandemic was still around. But it “did not stop them from doing things… There's a shift in the brand language from being ultra-cautious to saying, we're there, let's start moving on this journey again.”

At CLA, Sinha works quite a bit with FMCG and OTT clients. Speaking about the latter, she talks about how secondary screens (smartphones and laptops) have now become the primary screen in Indian households. What has led to the rise of these secondary screens is the fact that there is a bit of content people can't possibly watch with their families.

She also talks about the change in consumer language. People used to say, in the last 5-7 years, “I want to experience the world… there should be no constraints, I want to live my life freely without any boundaries.”

Once you put on the lens of the pandemic, the chatter moves from “global to local to me”. Earlier, people believed they were citizens of a global village and that we are one big family. But now, the lens has moved to "the close-knit communities around me that also deserve my attention." From there it has turned to "what am I doing in this, where am I in this whole system, and how am I giving back to the society close to me?”

Brands too have been keeping their ears close to the ground says Sinha and when asked if they’ve begun to say “Hey, it’s time to spend now” keeping revenge consumerism in mind, “brands are still not saying that” remarks Sinha and adds, “They're saying you also deserve a bit of attention.”

We wondered if client pitches have changed over the last 18 months or so? What is the client focusing on today? Says Sinha, “What I am sensing from these pitches is that brands now want to take a step back and assess the situation from different angles.”

On brands facing trolling online, is it also a part of the clients’ focus? Sinha agrees and reveals that now, she layers her “primary research or fixed consumer understanding with social media analytics and a semiotic decoding to crack strategy for brands.” With semiotics, you can “understand the signs and symbols that are deeply embedded in a consumer's mind.”

Are brands talking about semiotics? Yes, they are, not on the lines of changing logos, but more on, “how can I be more meaningful to the consumer?”

As the conversation moves to trends, Sinha is quick to point to the fact that CLA had mapped India's beauty progression journey over the decades for a client.

"From a no-makeup thing in the 1960s to the last decade, which was all about any look… It's now more about how one is in harmony with nature. My individual style in beauty could be very different from yours, and that is normal."

On the food and FMCG space, Sinha says that it is where a consumer’s consciousness has grown the most. The whole thing about, "I am what I consume" is in. She takes the example of Patanjali, how it is talking about the ingredients in its products, how it will help its consumers, etc. It is a huge shift in narrative.

Towards the end of our conversation, Sinha makes a striking point about the rise of individualism over collectivism. It is not about being “self-centred, but it's just that an individual is now emerging as a unit...”

From keeping their expenditures in check to revenge consumerism to quitting jobs if it starts affecting their mental health (unheard of around 10 years ago), the Indian consumer is unrecognisable now. It’s good that we have folks like Sinha to decode such an evolving consumer psyche for us.