Partha Sinha
Oct 26, 2017

India’s third wave is here. Will marketers catch it?

Digitisation is making small-town and small-income India emerge as an accessible consumer force, which calls for a massive shift in marketing mindset, says McCann India’s vice chairman and managing director.

Partha Sinha
Partha Sinha

Change is very difficult to describe when you are a part of it. Thus goes the cliché. But not in India today. Catch hold of an average Indian on the street and one thing will get a resounding agreement: Things are changing. There could be debates if the change is for the better or for the worse. But the change itself is undeniable.

After independence in 1947, the most significant thing that happened to the Indian market was liberalisation in 1991. From a misplaced idea of socialism, the country embraced capitalism with open arms. Growth was the singular obsession, meritocracy became the fuel for middle-class hopes and the world got flat.

In the past three years we’ve witnessed three significant socio-economic markers:

  • Jandhan: The government-led scheme to make bank accounts accessible for everyone.
  • Aadhar: The unique identity program for all Indian residents through a verifiable 12-digit number.
  • Mobile data revolution: The global, industry-led explosion in the use of mobile data.

Acronym-hungry consultants started calling it JAM. But on a serious note, JAM has created a fundamental change in the society; it has made the majority of the people identifiable and addressable.

Until now, India’s population advantage and domestic consumption confidence were limited to the consuming middle class of 250 million. Now, Aadhar itself is at 1.15 billion. So all of a sudden, the massive population existing under the radar for a long period (and around whom the capitalist economists shed crocodile tears of ‘inclusive growth’) have actually been included in the domestic consumption game.

Post-independence, the state paranoia around control over business witnessed the rise of ‘entitled’ businesses. The consumer was in a perennial state of gratefulness and the business houses expected them to be so. Liberalisation in 1991 brought in the new-found confidence of the professional class. But the benefit was still pretty much limited to the urban elite. The recurring theme around that change was global competitiveness, the rise of world-class Indian enterprises and, of course, sellable Indian intelligence in the global IT market.

The current period can be called the post-digitisation era. The biggest beneficiary of this change is small-town and small-income India. Much like the way legacy businesses criticised liberalisation in the 1990s, the biggest criticisms of the new era now come from the urban elite who were the children of liberalisation. The cyclical nature of this social backlash makes one believe that this change is significant and permanent.

The narrative of consumerism and business is undergoing a sea change in the post-digitised economy. Liberalisation saw the rise of newer successful brands, but the jury is out on who will be successful in the post-digitisation era. This structural change is bringing in a whole lot of first-time consumers. They need to understand and appreciate the products to be able to adopt them. This calls for a complete shift in the marketing mindset.

Till now, the biggest challenge for consumer marketing people was bringing in a change in ‘attitude’. The focus now is completely shifting to a change in ‘behaviour’. This doesn’t call for just an emotional appeal, but an intervention in their lives. It’s a skill that most marketers forgot to hone in the past 15 years.

Digital addressability is also witnessing the diminished power of the middleman. This is another reality marketing has to get used to. So far, access in itself was a big competitive advantage and middleman management was being hailed as a scientific skill. With direct access, transparency, accountability and value will take massive steps forward.

This is an exciting time, and many India reports have picked it up. But the mistake most people are making is giving it a political label. This change is fundamental and socio-cultural. Governance can give implementation wings to this force. But as a social force its time has come. Much like the way liberelisation’s time had come in 1991.

Partha Sinha is McCann India’s vice chairman and managing director.

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