Rural Brand Building and Communications striking an emotional chord

Companies working in the rural space use a variety of innovative methods to reach and communicate with rural audiences in the villages. Brands should be careful while designing their communication strategy - as it may build or break their brand, highlights Prof CK Sabharwal, MD, Crop Health Products
Rural Brand Building and Communications striking an emotional chord

Communicating with rural folks is not difficult, especially if you use local dialect and be one of them. But there are pitfalls, as we learn from brand building exercises, from last five decades. Communication will build trust and confidence among the target audience; it will also raise doubts and speculation if the communication strategy is not planned and executed properly. Thus, thrusting urban messages down rural throats is bad idea!

The practice of using offensive visuals, religious overtones or unconnected celebrities, as part of the advertising campaign will fail to bring results. Over-claiming what your product can do or perform adds to disappointment. Salesmen criticise competitor’s products to their own detriment. Selling pesticides in packages that look like chocolate boxes is both foolish and dangerous.

Brands’ rural strategy
Companies working in the rural space use a variety of innovative methods to reach and communicate with rural audiences in the villages. Van publicity is a favorite choice. Long back Richardson Hindustan, now Proctor Gamble, used vans to publicise their products. Taaza Chai vans in Punjab follow a daily visit routine for village level publicity. In one such event, the van put up a cinema screen and Madhuri Dixit danced to ‘ek do teen…’ song of Tezaab movie, that attracted lots of village folks. Salesmen laid out a table with paper cups and distributed hot ‘Taaza chai’ to the village elders and folks. Alongside, a free eye check up camp was put up. Candies for children completed the story. Banners and posters decorated the ‘chaupal ‘ in the village, stating how healthy it was to drink ‘Taaza chai” instead of ‘loose chai’.

In Shahbad Markanda, situated alongside GT Road, in Haryana; Rhone Poulenc, an MNC from France, recruited boys and girls, Agriculture Graduates, from Haryana and Punjab Agricultural Universities to promote “TOLKAN”, a wheat herbicide for control of weeds. The students formed groups of ‘kirtan mandlis’ and sang ‘bhajans’ in the village. A free medical camp was organised for elders. Display of products was done. The Company imported fancy ‘Yo-Yo’s’ from France and offered them free to children, if their father, farmer, bought 1kg of the product at subsidised prices, as a trial purchase. The farmers were happy to oblige. Vans showed product snapshots in Hindi and Punjabi. Company field staff explained the use and advantages of the product to the farmers. The local dealers also assisted in the event.

Dealer training programmes are commonly used for brand building amongst B2B channel partners, as also to communicate company policies, pricing and business terms. New product launches are discussed, competitive activities are analysed and pre-season orders are taken. Senior company officials get an opportunity to meet with a large diverse gathering of distributors and dealers from different States. By interacting directly, they get a sense of how the company and its products are performing on the ground, the perceptions of the customers, complaints and issues. It is common to send North India dealers to Tirupati temple, for a religious tour, combined with a training programme in Bangalore. Hill stations, Goa, Jaipur and Agra are often used destinations for conducting training. Field days, demonstrations and promotional schemes connect with B2C audiences.

New product launches happen with lots of fanfare. In Rajasthan, decorated camels and elephants join the events, carrying product cut outs. Music, folk dances and lots of food accompany the activities – the way to man’s wallet is through his stomach! Product displays, free rides and workshops are conducted by local Government authorities; demonstrations and free draws keep the audiences involved. Agricultural fairs at Pant Nagar University, in Uttranchal; at PAU in Ludhiana; at HAU in Hissar; at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu and in other parts of India – are the selected places to carry our pre-launch activities, to generate initial product awareness, understanding and positioning. The audience is full of agriculturists, eager to absorb new technologies, ask questions during demonstrations and answer queries of market researchers during their primary data exercises. Tractor companies, sprayer manufacturers, pesticide, fertiliser and seed companies, farm machinery dealers, etc. use this opportunity to full advantage. Of course, FMCG companies, food and beverages brands, apparel and shoes outlets present a colorful collage of retail stores to the visitors. Government authorities release publications on ‘Package of Farm Practices’, mix with the farmers to learn about crop situations.

At this time in Punjab, September 2015, there is a major attack of whitefly on cotton crop, over 50 percent of the crop is damaged, yields are down, products are unable to control the menace, there is anger amongst the farmers, authorities are raiding outlets to check on spurious products, there is mayhem among cotton growers in the State. Communications have broken down, brands are getting a bad name, and company spokesmen and sales persons are hiding their explanations, that the pest needed to be controlled in ‘early stages’ falling on deaf ears. Whatever message you encode will be decoded the opposite way, at this time of chaos and crisis. Deficient rains, high temperatures, lack of moisture, may be the factors to blame for this occurrence, but the damage is catastrophic for the growers. And Scapegoats are on the hit list! Perhaps the solution lies in the Punjab government clearly communicating the facts, coming out with a white paper to rest speculation. But the blame game is on. And heads will roll! Brand managers have to step in to minimise the damage.

Digital platforms
So while communication strategies fall into all kinds of potholes and jams, the digital communication platforms have stepped in to engage with the youth, offering advertisements about host of brands, messaging mobile and internet users, using data analytics to strike a chord. Wall paintings and hoardings, stare at the passing buses and vehicles on the roads showcasing brands of mobiles, pesticides, motor bikes, and building materials. Cinema slides accompany the shows in movie theatres. Cable TV network is sponsored by large number of local ads. The traditional media vehicles now look up to the impact and spread of digital adoption by rural people. In the village, puppet shows, road shows and demonstrations remain the preferred medium of communication. Regional newspapers and magazines vie for ad space, carrying a forlorn look, a dying medium? But Dainik Bhaskar publications in MP and Manorma Publications in Tamil Nadu exhibit a different confidence.

Regional TV networks show regional and national brands advertisements at discounted prices. Companies like to use ‘shop paintings’, shop displays, posters and banners, bundies and danglers, pamphlets and leaflets, etc. for sales promotion POP campaigns. The ‘rickshaw walla’ with amplifier and loudspeaker blaring local messages can still be seen, a sweaty body cycling his way through dusty rural tracks. He knows he is a dying breed, with motorbikes, auto and electric rickshaws flooding the space. For brand managers this maze of communication poses huge cost and benefits challenges; and the local Ad agencies and firms merrily add to the confusion. Digital advertising is still occupying, maybe 5 percent, of budgets, but is bound to grow as communication managers learn how to manage and engage with the potential customers, get feedback and interact on social media. Companies have put up digital marketing verticals in their organisations. The media plan and mix strategies for rural India have to balance the traditional with the new. There are lessons to be learnt in this emerging foray to create a media balance. Start-ups are experimenting with a host of business models. Early days yet!

Growing ad spends for rural
Companies ad spends for rural India is only growing. HUL, Dabur, Marico, Britannia, ITC, Tata, Mahindra, Shriram, pesticide and fertilizer companies, tractor manufacturers and host of others are planning higher promotion budgets for rural markets. But, what about measurement of advertising performance? Are sales going up? Is the market share increasing? Are more dealers sending enquiries? Is the market expanding? Are brands creating more awareness? Is repeat purchase visible at the retail shelf? Are brands meeting changing consumer expectations? Is there a brand shift happening? Are segments changing or shifting horizontally by accepting line extensions? Research people have their task laid out. But the answers are still blowing in the wind!

The future of marketing communications and brand building in rural India holds out a promise of adventure, risk and excitement for marketers and agencies alike. Fundamentals of strategic brand management are the base to fall back upon when facing doubts. Keller, Aaker and Belch would undoubtedly support this intention. In this rising era of digital smartness, brands will succeed and fail, and the unconcerned consumer will walk away dispassionately, proclaiming his right to make informed choices, shifting from one brand to the other and hang brand loyalty – Lifebuoy notwithstanding! Advertising creativity to attract rural mindsets, using animation, music, graphics and drama – will always test the best of the best in the media world. And you can bet there will be noise, a whole lot of noise!

By Prof CK Sabharwal, MD, Crop Health Products

The Changing Face of Rural India