INDIA today is an exciting land in an exciting age: the first winds of change blew not when the economy opened up as we think in the early 1990s, but when India was exposed to colour television. It is ironic that it took a sporting event (the Asiad) to unleash for Indians a new way of looking beyond their windows into the world at large. Media intrusion had begun in right earnest.
Colour television in itself was a statement of status: it distinguished the wealthy from the not-so-wealthy. Colour television was the new consumer discriminator in a country which had just two brands of cars and a near single-brand monopoly in the two-wheeler segment. Indian consumers were bored and dulled into buying brands. They had to pay more and wait longer for brands they today reject with ease.
Monopolistic regimes were at their peak in the early 1980s: words like conspicuous consumption were relevant only in a few pockets. In the 1980s, there were only 8,700 credit-card holders: the same number in perhaps one or two affluent colonies in South Delhi today. The media scene in terms of choice was not so very different either. Consumers were just beginning to relish quality journalism in India Today and admire the panache of investigative journalism that News-track had unleashed. But given the times that we lived in, most cities had just a couple of newspapers in English and a single vernacular newspaper.
Television, though in colour, was state-controlled: the influences of Hum Log and Buniyaad were more in the arena of commenting on the Indian family than in creating bridges between the West and us as we see it today. Television then, as it does today, had a huge component of film-based entertainment which was what captured the Indian imagination. Chitrahaar and the weekly Hindi film on television became opportunities for family bonding and reunion. Many Indian families happily altered their meal timings to adjust to programming schedules and perhaps, in the subconscious, they were also ushering in a wave of consumerism that would one day sweep us all.
Convenience products had just emerged and Maggi’s 2-minute noodles were perhaps a sign of things to come. Remember that was also the time when our politicians were much younger and better looking: television made a John Kennedy out of young Rajiv Gandhi, and his boyish good looks and youth full innocence were reflected so ably through television. The Indian consumer had begun to derive first blood from advertising that talked to him and with him. Thanks to the increasing influence of television, he saw an increase in advertising in the form of television commercials or in the form of promotions which captured the flavour of the moment. It was television which helped create a slot for Hinglish: the language of today’s India, be it in the music we hear or the brand communications we receive.
Television and a surfeit of magazines became the passport for the Indian to explore the world, as it were. With markets prising open consumerism, it was now the turn of brands to leverage this media intrusion and this they did with gay abandon. Aided by the fact that India, being the cricket-loving nation it is, had cricket matches that became the ultimate media aphrodisiac. Both the channels as well as the marketers used this newfound medium to great advantage and suddenly there were endorsements for products, matches being sponsored and the return of the cola to India. It was Pepsi which changed the face of media-led consumerism in 1986. Given the kind of market expanse it was seeking and the depth of its brand reach, Pepsi used television as the ideal conversion vehicle: from brand salience to brand purchase, it travelled the full distance.
But while media can certainly be lauded for the role that it played in harnessing consumerism in India, we must pause and examine the evolution of the Indian consumer. The Indian consumer was shaking off the shackles of monopolistic regimes: these regimes were crumbling not just because of media but also owing to a real need for India to develop and make itself a global player. Politics had a role to play in this evolution as much as media did: for every additional television programme which added value to the Indian consumer movement we also have Manmohan Singh to thank. He began the era of reforms on the instructions of the International Monetary Fund but quickly realised that in this lay India’s future of becoming a relevant world-economy.
It was against this backdrop of a new school of thought that we saw, for the first time, choice becoming a relevant issue in the Indian marketplace – a word that had earlier been made redundant with trite licensing norms. It is true of any market that it can only be relevant and throbbing if the players in it are relevant and successful as well.
In India, consumerism had always been looked down upon. This was a social imperative and not just an economic one. The Indian was encouraged to save rather than spend, given the history of India and the fact that many many Indians were on the brink of poverty and penury either because of businesses failing or relocation (refugees) the habit of saving had certainly cramped consumerism. What was required was the unlocking of this potential. It was critical to rid the Indian consumer of this feeling of guilt whenever he or she spent any money which is why communication in the earlier days always focused on family health (almost like insurance advertising) and never promoted the joys of buying per se.
India had to transcend from that mindset but the journey was painful and tormenting because while on the one hand markets did open up, so did poverty, thereby increasing the chasm between the haves and have-nots. It was a paradox that most marketers would have been scared of. Add to this the fact that there was no one India. Both in terms of purchase-behaviour or linguistic unity you had a lethal concoction that communication had to swallow whenever it attempted to reach consumers. And, this paradox no communication vehicle could cover.
This is why we saw the birth of language channels: at this time, the entry the of Star TV Network also brought India on a global media platform like never before. I have often believed there were two Indias as far as consumerism is concerned: the India before and the India after Star TV. It is not as if Star TV was doing anything dramatic but for the first time the Indian was exposed to global programming in the truest sense. What Star TV also brought to the table was a bouquet of channels which included the enfant terrible of all channels: MTV.
Many people were up in arms over the MTVisation of India and blamed corroding values on MTV. While some thought they were just using the channels as a flogging horse, my own belief is there was some truth. Media has a strange way of influencing human behaviour. Media is the art of creating habits and it is this art form that can be most devastating in shaping consumer behaviour and consumer opinion. This is what MTV did at that time in India. Music was no longer restricted to Lata Mangeshkar or R.D. Burman. The Springsteens of the world was what India was looking at and for.
It was this borderless world that media created for the Indian consumer. Almost simultaneously, to some divine design as it were, more and more companies were entering India. The classification of homes switched from television owning homes to cable and satellite homes and today’s figure of 70 million C&S homes is only an indication of the kind of media fragmentation we are about to experience.
I will not suggest that it was media which changed the Indian consumer or which made him the consumer that he is today because just like everything else there was a rejection of media as well. Not all TV channels were successful; not all TV programmes had great TRPs. Slowly the bugbear of the South being forced to watch Hindi programming was eliminated in the form of regional channels such as Sun, Udaya and Gemini. Not to mention the fact that our very own state television went the regional way as well, with almost state-wise specifications.
It was an India that was rapidly embracing change. But in this entire hullabaloo, the Indian consumer was conveniently forgotten. Marketers forced their global understanding on him and that once again caused the consumer to reject them. Coca Cola’s early failure in the Indian market is a testimony to how horribly they got their consumer insights wrong. But Coca Cola was not alone. India’s largest car manufacturer was caught napping too when the Korean chaebols unleashed competitive advertising for their cars.
Surprisingly it was Korea’s Daewoo that first advertised cars in India despite Maruti being around for more than a decade. What was this a reflection of? In my mind it represented marketer apathy for consumers: relationship marketing was never top-of-mind at any Indian company and suddenly these MNCs began wooing the Indian consumer. The same consumer who had learnt to live with neglect and a poor post-purchase scenario was being emboldened to say his piece. At the same time India was also witnessing a spate of activism.
Mandal was over but causes like Narmada had become equally critical within the thinking set. So it was not surprising that activism crept into the consumer movement as well. Once again media played (as it does today) a critical role in recognising the value of a consumer. But that can also be attributed to the rejection that Indian media was witnessing. Prima donnas had been replaced by publications which offered value propositions. So it was not surprising to see the Times of India metamorphose itself into a newspaper which embodied everything that editors would shun. From promoting beauty contests to prop sales of group publication Femina, to promoting spirituality, the Times of India exhibited the role of consumerism in media as well.
How is the Indian consumer faring amidst all these socio-economic changes? If statistics are to be believed, then he is doing pretty well. Markets in almost every category have expanded: to attribute all that only to more television channels or a greater number of newspapers would be silly but at the same time it is pertinent to note that the first mental block in consumerism is cultural (and not economic) in nature. The cultural part is more difficult since the latter can be built around a credit economy which is what essentially the United States is. Today we have a credit card population which runs into millions; almost every category, be it detergents or toothpastes, cars or two-wheelers, magazines or newspapers, is multi-branded. The concept of retailing is no longer a pipe-dream.
The invention of desire is complete and the consumer is responding with alacrity and avarice. One could never have imagined the explosion in the branded apparel market but the fact that India today has a branded apparel market worth a staggering Rs 7500 crores is an indicator of increasing consumer spending even across categories which were earlier price-driven. So is the truism that convenience products, right from branded spices to pre-mix idlis, have gained prominence on kitchen shelves.
The moot question that begs an answer is whether consumerism per se is bad. My belief is that it is not, for the simple reason that it is one insulator against bad quality and high prices. The Indian consumer today is the recipient of world-class products in many categories without paying an attendant premium resulting from either monopolies or poor scales of efficiency, both in manufacturing and the delivery of products. When Mother Dairy opened its first milk booth way back in the 1970s, many thought it was an idea far ahead of its time. Today when we have an entire complement of milk products from cheese to skimmed milk, the consumer keeps saying yeh dil mange more.
The Indian consumer has also recognised that the media will not only provide him with an insight into what’s available in the markets, it will also help him determine what to buy. This is why it is not unusual for an Indian brand of consumer durables to be amongst the most-respected, and here one is talking about BPL. It has faced intense competition from the best in the world and has still maintained its own. BPL is a fine example of a brand which, though built by clever use of the media (remember the Amitabh Bachchan television commercials), has done a lot in the physical product domain as well, right from retailing to product design.
Consumerism has spread far and deep. It is an intrinsic part of India’s evolution today as it should be of any emerging market which attempts to embrace global standards, both for its consumers and for its products. The face of consumerism has travelled from the days when rural India woke up to video-on-wheel vans selling detergents to the enduring saga of The Bold and the Beautiful and to the more recent divinity that a nation has bestowed on a quiz show – Kaun Banega Crorepati.
It is not ironical that India’s most popular programme on television today survives thanks to sponsors which range from a toothpaste to a hair oil brand to a brand of two-wheelers. The circle of reason has embraced consumerism. For this and this alone, we must thank the explosion that India has witnessed in media.
The India of today, like any developed and sensitive economy, must recognise the intrinsic worth of consumerism and the role it plays in not just freeing markets but in the ultimate empowerment of the consumer.
And if for nothing else but this empowerment, it is time to declare India a country of consumers who finally have acquired the right to choose and therefore the right to reject!