Byravee Iyer
Apr 24, 2015

Rural tech: Reaching out to Asia’s unconnected millions

A rising tide of mobile-phone coverage sweeping Asia-Pacific is turning marketers’ attentions to untapped rural consumers.

Mobile radio: ‘Kan Khajura Tesan’ reached out to consumers in India’s
Mobile radio: ‘Kan Khajura Tesan’ reached out to consumers in India’s "media dark" areas

In a power-starved Agra village, Preeti Gupta’s kirana (neighbourhood grocer) uses a solar-powered “eKOCool” refrigerator to serve chilled drinks to customers. The unit has been developed by Coca-Cola for retailers in rural India, where an estimated 60 per cent of the population lacks electricity. The unit can also charge a mobile phone or light up a home. 

Rural markets currently account for a third of the beverage maker’s total volume in India, but Coke hopes moves like this will propel that contribution to up to 45 per cent.

“Technology has the potential to be a big change agent for rural communities,” says Regan Leggett, Nielsen director of client service in Southeast Asia, North Asia and Pacific. “The Coke example offered a solution to a unique rural challenge and had a significant positive impact on sales.”

While companies have long recognised the potential of rural markets, it is stagnation in urban demand that’s forcing brands to engage these consumers. 

The UN estimates that about 52 per cent of the population in the ASEAN markets reside in rural areas, and as these consumers become more connected and enabled financially, they will drive new consumption. According to recent Nielsen estimates, consumption in rural Indian areas is growing at 1.5 times the rate of urban areas, and today’s US$12 billion consumer goods market is expected to hit US$100 billion by 2025. 

Other FMCG companies and telcos are now tinkering with technology to promote products to these consumers. Hindustan Unilever (HUL) used missed-call marketing to increase engagement with consumers in interior Bihar and Jharkhand.

The company set up its own radio channel, ‘Kan Khajura Tesan’ that allowed consumers to call a number and, in return, receive 20 minutes of free, on-demand content ranging from Bollywood songs to popular Hindi entertainment shows. 

For HUL, a large proportion of its target group live in media dark areas and cannot be reached via TV, radio, print or digital. 

“We needed a new medium to reach out and we found one common medium that existed in all pockets of Bihar — the mobile phone,” say Deepa Geethakrishnan and Anaheeta Goenka, joint presidents of Lowe Lintas, the agency behind the award-winning campaign. 

According to Priya Nair, executive director, homecare, HUL, the campaign allowed the company to build a platform that created a two-way connection between brands and consumers. 

“We are only at the beginning of our journey with building mobile as a marketing medium,” she says.

Such opportunity isn’t limited to India alone. In terms of population numbers, the really big rural markets are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. A new study by IAB and We Are Social reveals that there are more people buying mobile phones in emerging markets than there are in developed nations. Mobile-phone penetration in APAC will surpass 50 per cent in just a few months with some of the region’s poorest nations showing the strongest growth in mobile-phone usage over the past year. 

However, APAC’s mobile landscape continues to be dominated by feature phones, accounting for roughly 60 per cent of mobile connections.

In Myanmar, one of the world’s least-connected countries, telco operator Ooredoo is employing some unconventional tactics to help build up its network. To raise digital awareness among women, the Qatar-based company launched ‘Beyond access Myanmar’, transforming public libraries across the nation into community hubs that provide access to information and technology. 

“Our work in Myanmar includes a broad spectrum of initiatives designed to connect the unconnected as we work to serve affordable and easy mobile access across the country,” says Ross Cormack, CEO, Ooredoo Myanmar.

Ooredoo has promised connectivity to 97 per cent of the population in five years. Currently, just 25 per cent of Myanmar’s population own a mobile phone, however that is a considerable increase from the 10 per cent reported in August 2014. 

Leggett says that when marketing to small city and rural consumers, it is important to be aware of the limitations of existing technology and the challenges these communities face. Given the different needs and demands of consumers living in smaller cities compared to those in major cities, a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t suffice.


CASE STUDY The pack the connects

In China, Wrigley’s Doublemint saw its market share decline from 30 per cent to 19 per cent between 2010 and 2014. The brand particularly struggled to engage consumers in tier-3 and tier-4 cities, where consumers have limited internet access.

In an effort to tap into these consumers, the company worked with WeChat and Starcom China, to use visual-recognition software on Doublemint packs that could be scanned to unlock 30MB of data.
Consumers were also given exclusive Doublemint emojis—the first use of branded emoticons on WeChat—encouraging them to start a conversation with their friends.

Wrigley’s also created in-store and digital media to promote the campaign.

Starcom claims its message reached more than 200 million Chinese consumers, while over 300,000 made their way to stores to pick up a pack of Doublemint and make use of the complimentary data.

The move also resulted in a 10 per cent increase in product shipment in the first month of the campaign.


Our view: The huge numbers of potential consumers are enticing, but outside of India, marketers in the region haven’t worked out how to take advantage of the booming mobile market.

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