The Real Ice Phenomenon

The Economic Times - 23 January, 2001

The "ICE age Indian consumer" is now a mandatory topic at most marketing conferences and meetings. There is a disturbing mental model that seems to be embedded in the popular view - that of a person who is Internet savvy, cell phone and broadband happy and hangs out at interesting sites both real and virtual. Often the word ICE and Netizen are used interchangeably. The dominant logic seems to be that this is a small yet significant number; so what if it is just the tip of the Consumer India iceberg, its growth rates are astounding and this will soon gather critical mass and define the mainstream consumer. Sounds scarily like the Great Indian Middle Class story, revisited!

But what is more disturbing is that in the preoccupation with the tip of the ICEberg, we seem to be missing the main event of the ICE age and focusing on the side show. The ICE age is silently and slowly, yet definitively, shaping a new India - affecting not just a few million people but almost 500 million or more, most of whom do not live in the top 23 towns or belong to the upper SEC.

I call this wave sweeping the country the I C2 = E2 wave. Infotech awareness (I) and Communication and Connectivity (C2) thanks to television and the telephone are giving rise to an 'Exposure to the world' explosion, and a rising demand for Education (E2) of the practical, preferably of the computer kind. Private consumption expenditure data points to an increase in the share of communication and education expenditure. A taxi driver told me that his daughter who lives in the village paid Rs. 4000 for a computer course which he said was "something called Windows after which she would have to do something called Words, and while I don't know what all this is, once she does both, she would have a job". The National Association for Computer Training is looking at a Rs. 3000 crore market size in the next few years.

Infotech awareness, be it of Infotech power (here's what a computer can do in solving problems / improving living), or Infotech driven employment opportunities, has sunk in and trickled down to the lowest social classes and to much of the rural population - be it through the demonstration effect of model projects of the NGO kind or the 30 Internet kiosks set up at the Kumbh mela, or watching the rich use it and prosper or the mushrooming of call centres and medical transcription services and other computer related services offering employment - since they are located in geographical clusters they get noticed and talked about.

Television and the telephone are clearly the most ubiquitous drivers of change and their enormous reach and impact makes the e-revolution feel like a minor ripple in a large pond. ORG-MARG data shows that 75% of urban India watches television, the majority of them watch satellite and cable channels. In developed states, one out of two rural people watch TV and in developing states, the number is still one out of three. Even using the most conservative arithmetic, we are talking about over 500 million people whose lives are being impacted by television. Further, the per capita consumption is 100 minutes on weekdays and 150 minutes on weekends - that is around 10% of waking hours and the viewership is skewed towards women and children and greater in the lower social classes. While my purist e-friends insist that television is not an interactive medium, all research points to the fact that it is indeed interacting deeply with the brain of Indian viewers, impacting their world view, shaping their identity, enabling expression, affirming rights and providing hope. The most interesting aspect of television is that it can access your mind even if you are uneducated. A fascinating research study "Satellite in South Asia" by the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, has this to say: "far from passive viewing of television, people have tended to take up messages of self improvement, self confidence, egalitarianism, participation". "It has shattered the myth of the "good Indian woman, replacing it with a bolder version and led to the unbottling of women's feelings [even though many are too conservative to approve of the changed image]". "It has produced a perceptible modernisation in the usage of language among middle and lower middle income [and] created a popular culture of western style consumerism with that of Bollywood [and] reinforces regional culture". The reason why television is the fountainhead of aspiration is lucidly explained by well known anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (University of Chicago) : "Imagination is not about individual escape. It is a collective social activity. Informational resources are needed for people to even imagine a possible life, weave a story and a script around themselves and place products in emerging sequences. Imagine may not always lead to action, but it is a prelude to action".

The connectivity leap is quite significant too. Over half of the six odd lakh villages have telephone connectivity, and rest hopefully will by 2002. The issue isn't about telephone density. It is about the ability of connectivity to transform ones capability to get things done and broaden ones scope of activity. Hema Vishwanathan of IMRB quotes villagers in group discussions as saying that with telephones, they can now leverage their contacts in cities and get help and resources to get their work done.

The cultural labels and mythology in people's minds of IT and IT relevant education are dramatic. Paneerselvan of Outlook magazine refers to it as "silicon moksha". If you know computers, you can create the escape velocity to break free and get to Silicon Valley, or at least to the nearby big city. Vishwanathan sums it up as "the ceiling breaker" and says that the cultural labels of technology all relate to the power it has for ideas and grit to win over 'aukat' or wealth, and to provide access to information that can lead to more money.

So what sort of resultant changes is Consumer India seeing? Increased social mobility, decreasing 'power distance', hunger for information, and an even greater move from demanding social justice to grabbing economic opportunity. The succesful new avatar of Amitabh Bachhan says it all. The old "messiah of the masses" is passé. The new "messiah with the Midas touch" is in!

The good news is that Consumer India has started taxi-ing for take off, propelled by the "I want" thanks to television, and the "I can" as a result of access to technology and relevant education. The bad news is that the criticality of the low cost business model, and the need to create price performance equations appropriate for Indian incomes will stay for a long time to come. Two questions for India Inc. Will India Inc use ICE extensively to achieve this? Is it willing to invest in enriching its consumer base through widespread education and information services now that the technology tools to achieve quick, widespread reach are available?