Elspeth Cheung
Oct 16, 2014

How Asian brands should approach India

India is a land of opportunity for Asian brands, if they can build emotional connections with consumers, writes Elspeth Cheung, global BrandZ valuation director at Millward Brown.

Elspeth Cheung
Elspeth Cheung

Consumers in India love brands, and brands of all kinds are flourishing in its open economy, including those from outside the country: BrandZ research shows that 17 of India’s 50 most valuable brands are global. The environment is about to become even more hospitable as the government re-energises the economy and promotes inclusive opportunity.

With 1.25 billion inhabitants, a growing number of whom are able to purchase products and services, India clearly offers scale. But to fully realise the opportunity marketers also need to achieve depth, by developing affinity and strong relationships. Until now, building salience – top-of-mind awareness – has been enough, for instance by using celebrities in ads. But consumers are looking for a promise that is more meaningful (meeting their functional needs and cultivating an emotional connection) and differentiating (unique in a positive way).

While they are becoming sophisticated brand marketers, most Indian companies are not yet achieving both scale and depth. This leaves the door open for brands from elsewhere in Asia that can successfully find and communicate meaningful differentiation in their marketing.

‘Indianize’ both products and marketing

Don’t expect to be able to simply repackage your existing products. The international brands that are most successful in India have taken the time to understand needs, tastes, attitudes and sentiments and adapt to them. Balancing old and new is essential, for instance, as consumers live with one foot in ancient traditions and one in the modern world.

When Nestlé introduced Maggi instant noodles in 1982, it gave them a masala taste, and today Indians think of Maggi—the country’s 18 most valuable brand—as Indian. Even McDonald’s did not fully succeed until it introduced Indian flavours and vegetarian options.

Celebrations in India are often accompanied by meetha, a traditional sweet. By re-positioning its chocolate as meetha, and signing off communications with the greeting Kuch meetha ho jaaye!—a call to have something sweet—Cadbury has won a share of the lucrative meetha market.

Think and act regionally

India is complex and diverse. There are 22 languages, and traditions change village-by-village. Understanding the regional and cultural variations unlocks possibilities for more focused offerings and communications, targeted at specific segments.

Getting the subtleties right is important. While people in the north believe claims made by ads, in the south they demand reasons to believe. Even celebrities enjoy different levels of popularity. The message may be national, but the communication must be local, with possibly one exception: movies and cricket seem to unite everyone. Use vernacular language, and integrate local cultural inferences.

Crack the value code

Value is more important than status in India. Marketers need to decode consumer behaviour to understand what ‘good value’ means, then communicate how a product’s functionality, delivery or emotional appeal is superior to the competition. Maggi promotes its products’ taste, convenience and nutrition by showcasing the emotional satisfaction customers associate with the brand in its advertising, with taglines such as ‘Fast to Cook, Good to Eat’.

Driven by the rising aspirations and income of the middle classes, brands are introducing more premium products and services—including Colgate with its Slim Soft Charcoal toothbrushes. But the larger opportunity lies in sharing the Indian dream—to prosper individually and as a family—with the broadest possible market. This means achieving inclusiveness by making the brand accessible. Soap brand Lux (No. 36 in the BrandZ Top 50 Most Valuable Indian Brands ranking) has created value by matching affordability with desire, positioning its products as an affordable indulgence for women. Its ad campaigns emphasise beauty and glamour, featuring actresses including former Miss World Aishwarya Rai.

Differentiate the offering

Consumers in India link brand with identity, considering their choices as expressions of who they are as individuals. The entire brand experience needs to reflect a meaningful USP that differentiates it from the competition.

Hindustan Unilever has moved from stressing the rational, value-for-money benefits of its Surf Excel detergent powder in its ads to the more emotional appeal of ‘Dirt is Good’, an innovative and differentiating message that getting dirty is a natural result of a happy childhood.

Build trust

Trust plays an important role in Indian society, and the family conglomerates have developed powerful master-brands that confer trust and authority across categories. Global brands’ marketing must be true to the customer, authentic, and help close gaps between brand promise and delivery.

In an effort to build and sustain trust, Colgate’s ad campaigns stress the need for consistent oral hygiene and dental care, and it has partnered with the Indian Dental Association since 1976. For the same reason, Lifebuoy educates the public about the importance of hand washing and other hygiene habits through its advertising.

Engage through social and mobile

India has the world’s second highest number of social networking users, and the availability of detailed information on them allows advertisers to target segments effectively.

Clever social marketing has helped Gillette build a following for its affordable, simplified Gillette Guard razor. Its tongue-in-cheek social campaign ‘Women Against Lazy Shaving’ encouraged women to lobby their boyfriends and husbands to give up stubble and adopt a clean-shaven look.

Mobile marketing will be the next big platform. Product and promotion information can be disseminated to mobile devices in real time, alerting customers with personalised offerings that drive sales. In rural areas, where illiteracy and erratic electricity supply hamper traditional platforms, marketers can reach consumers with missed-call ads—ringing and leaving a message—for example.

Optimise media spending

The media landscape in India is complex. The 2001 liberalisation invited more competition, and the numerous variables like geography, language, religion and socio-economic status makes planning a challenge. Consumers no longer consume one medium at a time, either, browsing websites on mobile devices while watching TV for example. Marketers need to optimise their media mix to get the highest ROI—and digital must play a leading role.

In India, if you can create a product or service you can find a market for it. Creating desire and developing connections and relationships with consumers is possible for foreign brands. However, they first need to understand the core values through which people filter their brand choices—for instance balancing a desire to advance with the tug of family and tradition—and communicate in new ways to reach them.


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