Jaideep Shergill
Jun 29, 2015

Change: There’s an app for that

India’s consumers are becoming digitally empowered. Here’s how brands can keep up.

Change: There’s an app for that

India’s consumers are becoming digitally empowered. Here’s how brands can keep up.

In India, the past year belonged to politics and transformed communications within the arena. I mention it because the lessons politicians learned about communicating also hold for brands: talk to your audience; involve it in what you do; social platforms – all of which are enabled by technology – are where audiences look for information, seek opinions and validation, and make decisions.

Some brands seem to understand this and through 2014, clear trends emerged among those getting it right; virtually all of them rested on foundations of technology.

In December 2014, according to an Internet and Mobile Association of India and IMRB International report, India claimed 173 million mobile internet users. By June 2015, on the back of low-cost smartphones and increasing penetration, industry analysts expect this number to reach 213 million. Of that, 53 million will be users from rural areas.

This has changed not only how India communicates, but also how it engages with brands. There is a significant opportunity for businesses that get this. Not surprisingly, marketing strategy is increasingly based on content and the creation of experiences on digital platforms rather than the mere pumping out of messages.

Seen through this prism, 2014 was the inflection point at which new-age customer needs, audience empowerment, brand outreach and modern business design intersected.

Utility-driven services

How do you order food? Chances are, at lunchtime you surf to a website like Food Panda – or simply click on the app on your phone – and select what you’re in the mood for, and return to your work. If you need to get somewhere in a hurry, you’ll book an Ola cab or turn to Uber. No more frustrating refusals from cabbies or hunting frantically for one at peak hour. Convenience is the key – customers want what they want and they want it now. Importantly, they want it easily. That’s non-negotiable. Businesses that understood and satisfied this need attracted not just customers, but their fierce loyalty.

Bye-bye to the old buy

In the agency I helmed till recently, there seemed to be a Snapdeal, Flipkart, Jabong or Myntra making a delivery to staff at any given time. While the low prices are certainly a draw, it’s the innovations that each e-tailer come up with that was uniquely suited to India that helped build their brands.

The first of these is cash on delivery (COD). Indians, generally speaking, are queasy about electronic payments; COD has made them happy virtual shoppers. The second is that apparel and accessory e-tailers have learned to allow shoppers to trial goods on delivery, and then make an instant return of what doesn’t work. For Indians, shopping is an event and a trial enables that despite the purchase being made online. It’s become common for connected Millennials with discretionary income to buy all their clothes, shoes and accessories online.

Something to remember: According to a recent Goldman Sachs report, the e-commerce market will account for 2.5% of India’s economy by 2030, reaching $300 billion (Rs19,200 crore) from $20 billion (Rs1,280 crore) at present.

Offline goes online

Let’s take the example of Housing.com. Real estate transactions in India – a totally offline activity – are convoluted, time-consuming and sometimes risky. Finding the right house is like looking for a needle in a haystack. And when you do find one, it often comes with problems attached – unclear titles, demands for cash payments, etc. While classifieds helped potential buyers spot availability based on parameters such as price and location, it didn’t solve the problems listed above. Housing.com’s ‘certified realty’ model not only matches you with the right property, it also closes the loop on legality and finance through acquisitions or tie-ups that specialise in such work. This, to me, is a terrific application of technology that India will see more of in other sectors. The automobile sector has woken up to it already and others will follow.

Financial services

The banking, financial services and insurance sector (BFSI) went digital with a vengeance. While this evolution began a few years ago, 2014 saw concerted attempts by banks – even public sector ones – to eliminate the need for you to ever visit them. Every service you could think of was embedded in mobile apps. Even products such as insurance and mutual funds can now be matched or customised to your profile and specific needs. Digital backbones are helping Indian banks to expand from basic banking services to become end-to-end financial solutions providers – becoming one-stop shops through the entire customer life cycle.

There’s an app for… everything

The mobile phone became the first screen for many. Consequently, brands are learning that they can stay relevant turning apps into key brand touchpoints.

The Star TV network, for instance, launched Hot Star, through which you can watch shows, sports, sample programming and engage with the network.

Myntra, a leading e-tailer, went a step further: It ditched its website, switching to app-only mode. While this happened in 2015, it’s been in the works since last year. Flipkart, one of India’s largest ecommerce players, is likely to follow suit.

This isn’t surprising given that it’s the mobile internet that is powering India’s digital surge. The Goldman Sachs report mentioned earlier stated that India will have the world’s second-largest digital population by 2030 on the back of online mobile penetration.

Expect more businesses in app-only format. I’ve mentioned the finance sector as a prime example already; among others to go app-only soon I expect media firms to lead the way. This is the direction brands have to go to stay relevant in a ranking like Asia’s Top 1000 brands.

As a brand consultant in India, I found 2014 fascinating. It was a landmark year for business evolution, necessitated at least in part by a slowing economy. But as the economy recovers, the trends I have identified should only intensify.

Jaideep Shergill is a founding partner at Pitchfork Partners

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