The rising rural incomes, infrastructure development coupled with technological disruptions have brought big transformation in rural markets. Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. speaks to Mohd Mustaquim on emerging trends and future landscape of rural marketing. A must read for marketers and brand managers...
You have delivered over 15,000 hours of public speaking on marketing strategies. What inspired you to enter into brand consulting, particularly for India’s rural markets?
I have just completed my 15,044th Keynote hour talk today (September 4, 2019). It has taken me all of 29 years and 89 days to do this. Doing public talks began at industry bodies like the CII, FICCI, Amcham, Nasscom and the rest, and then moved on to corporate organisations, where I do a fair bit of strategy talks pertaining to their businesses. It then morphed to academic campuses on subjects academic as well.
I typically do one hour keynotes and this helps me keep in touch with diverse audiences from all across the world, and indeed across industries. My brand consulting firm and practice, which I set up 19 years ago, helps my speaking circuit as well.
I worked the first 16 years of my life across what is today Hindustan Unilever and what is today Tata Consumer Products. These are my foundation years in the realm of brands, sales and marketing. I worked hard in the early days, only to work a little less-hard in these later years. I learnt a lot en-route, and decided to specialise in the subject of brands. There are just too many marketing specialists, and therefore, very early on, I decided to choose what was a niche then within sales and marketing: branding! And it seems to have helped!
How have rural markets changed in the past two decades and what is the next big thing you see in rural India?
Rural markets have morphed dramatically. There is change all around in terms of the economic, the social, the religious, the cultural, the scoiological, the psychographic, and in literally every manner of speaking. Rural markets are today robust consumption points. The rural person is savvy and totally linked to reality. The rural person to that extent is that much more intuitive in his and her choices than the urban.
In many ways, rural markets are our anchor. They hold us back and stick us to our roots. Urban markets of the west may not be the best examples to follow in the world of marketing and branding. Looking back into rural formats is a great thing to do to insulate the future as it emerges.
What are the myths & realities that marketers need to understand while developing strategy to penetrate rural markets?
Most urban marketers look down at rural markets. There is a lack of understanding. There is a feeling that rural formats are antediluvian and are outdated. Not true at all. In fact, rural is the future. We will shortly have a whole lot of urban folk running to rural markets and milieus to seek shelter from everything that is wrong in urban.
The reality of the rural market is the fact that it can teach the urban marketer a lot. The urban marketer must get truly humble as he/she studies what is rural. Rural practice, rural mindset and rural psyche, not to speak of the rural tone, tenor and decibel, will dictate a lot of effective marketing strategy in the future. Folks, its back to the Vedas. The Vedas of good rural practice!
How rural markets are diverse from one region to another and why marketers need to keep this in mind while making marketing strategies?
Take sambar powder. There are 236 types of sambar powders in South India alone. This means that you cannot travel too many kilometers before discovering a different sambar-mix! That is how diverse we are in India. Urban marketers need to keep this in mind while attempting to touch rural markets with offerings. Rural markets are aclonal. Touching them with clonal marketing formats that work everywhere else, is not the thing to do!
How local prides do matter for rural marketing?
There is a new local pride movement that is emerging fast and quick in rural India. In Punjab, you have the Punjabi Gabru, and in Haryana you have the Haryanvi Gabru movement. What is local is flaunted with pride. In Madurai and deep Tamil Nadu, the dhothi and angavstram are back with gusto as daily and fashion wear. As urban folk run to buy fancily priced copper bottles and glasses to store and drink their water, rural India is sniggering. It has been doing this all the while!
Past two decades have been the decades of technological disruptions such as high speed mobile internet, satellite imaging, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and many more. How these disruptions can bring in efficiency in rural marketing?
I do believe there are many ISMs that touch our lives. In the past we have had capitalism, fascism, communism and 23 other isms. Today, we have Digitalism. I think it is the new religion. Digital formats are sweeping our lives. Social media, mobile technologies, the cloud, analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) are sweeping our physical abilities aside. A new competence is required today. This is digital competence. The point is simple, digital technology and devices that are connected to it in the future, will do things with greater efficiency and at optimal cost that will rival human abilities and costs. Therefore, in the future, it's the system silly! Move over human being, and move in digital tech!
Thanks to the penetration of ICT, today’s consumers in rural India are more aware than the past which has raised their expectations. To cater to the rising expectations, how should marketers bring in changes in their brand strategy?
Marketers cannot anymore offer less-quality offerings to rural and better-quality offerings to urban. There is a need to interlink the needs, wants, desires and aspirations of rural and urban consumers closely and offer the best to both segments. Rural and urban distinction is today a geography distinction. Not much more. Rural is a mindset, as is urban. And the twain between the two do not meet. Not yet.
What strategies does an organisation need to adopt and implement to have long-standing sustainability in rural markets?
Every strategy that you employ in rural markets need to ask the basic question of sustainability. Having asked that, ask the next question of "close-to-nature"and "close-to-natural" process. Having fulfilled that, look at products that aid rural folk than exploit. Rural is a market that is waiting for fulfillment, not exploitation. Fulfillment-oriented strategies vary dramatically from exploitation-oriented strategies. We need to learn the difference and imbibe it into the DNA of new rural marketing practice.
How has the retail scenario changed in rural India? What distribution barriers do rural marketers face and how can they be tackled?
Retail in rural remains multi-layered. Even as it does, rural folk are looking for efficiency. At the same time, as urban players look at creating efficient rural distribution and retail mechanisms, we need to be careful not to disturb the ecosystem of the middleman. Remember, India is a nation of middlemen! And even middlemen have families that need to be cared for. Removing the middlemen altogether is not a sustainable rural marketing practice for real India. And real India is rural India.
CAG has conducted audit on first two years of GST implementation which is in public domain now. Your opinion on this?
Goods and Service Tax (GST) has evened things out n India. There is a lot to be done in GST rates across categories, but apart from that, GST is a big leveller. In terms of rates, the biscuit industry at the bottom of the market in rural is struggling. The Parle G is the platinum standard biscuit in this market segment.
You have had a great journey in rural markets and communication and have been pioneer in branding, what Leadership Mantras would you like to share with the budding entrepreneurs?
For the budding entrepreneur, just one piece of advice. Focus on brands and offerings that cater to the "Needs and Wants" of people. You will not go wrong. When you focus entirely on the "Desires and Aspiration" segment, you invariably go off-track. "Needs and Wants" are solid and real. "Desires and Aspirations" are fluffy and unreal.
What future trends do you see in emerging rural India?
As a very big macro-trend, I do believe all of India will eventually go rural. After all that is the real way to be! Touche!