Indians are pragmatic value seekers

The Economic Times - September 4, 2016

Are Indians nowadays saying "proud to be Indian, buy Indian"? And have they made a U-turn on their earlier craze for "phoren" and "imported"?

No one can accuse Indians of being that simple and unequivocal!

Of course, Indians are far prouder today of being Indian than they have been in the past 50 years. The world is now much more respectful of India. All Indians, especially the consuming class (the richer half), have experienced improved living conditions and progress on many fronts. Consumer India has ample evidence of "Made in India" products changing from a limited range, cheap and shoddy, to a wide array, as good as what you can buy outside and often cheaper.

But does this mean that saying "not from an MNC" or adding a dollop of Indianness to the marketing mix is today's magic mantra of ensuring consumer preference? Of course not.

We are now proud to be Indian but we are pragmatic value seekers who don't care who gives us the things we want, and what we want is any hybrid cocktail that works best for us.

Examine the evidence. Amazon sells cow dung and devout, fastidious Indians seem to have no problems buying their pooja ingredients from a videshi brand. Air India loses, hands down, to Indigo and its skirt-clad crew, despite being India's national carrier. Kurtis of all lengths are the rage, worn on "jean pants" and "leggings" accessorised with bindis, as are Ray-Bans and Nikes teamed with pyjama kurtas. Consumer India laps up a whole host of imported goods from pavement markets and from big international brand stores...


Happily coexisting are dosas, paranthas, Indianised pizzas and Chinese, vegetable oats, cola sandesh, burgundy hair colour, kohl and fairness creams. It's computer-aided astrology and American education but please marry a desi and don't acquire western values. We love software India and hate corrupt India, love digital India but hate dirty- bathrooms India.

We like it that our PM does a Navratri fast at a White House dinner, addresses the US Senate in English and speaks Hindi abroad when he wants to.

What about Patanjali then? Several Indian brands have stridently challenged MNCs, including Nirma in the 1980s, though admittedly the overt MNC bashing is new. But Patanjali's consumer proposition is far more compelling and "this as well as that" — ancient ayurveda now available in modern formats, made in modern factories using high-quality natural ingredients.

The world over alternate medicine and "natural" are winners, as people worry about pollution and too many chemicals in their body. "MNCs exploit you" is the "reason to believe" that Patanjali gives to support its claim of better or equal performance but cheaper than MNC competition.

As for a piece of INS Vikrant in a Bajaj bike getting positive consumer attention, it's a smart idea for a limited edition and perfect to grab novelty seekers and brand flaunters and, yes, a piece of a US or Japanese warship wouldn't have worked so well — though a piece of the spacecraft which went to the Moon would have done even better.

William Penn, the foreign Indian pen shop, has limited editions of a very expensive foreign brand of pens with Balaji and Ganesha on them and, yes, they are getting snapped up. Maggi from an MNC with masala flavour and atta noodles have replaced dal chawal as the comfort food for Indian children for the past 25 years and iPhones with shloka ringtones jostle with Micromax with hard rock tunes.

Companies have always built corporate brands around "what we do for the country" in the hope of favourable government attention, so there's nothing new.

Jingoism of "be proud to be Indian, buy Indian" doesn't work. But hard demonstrations of "because we are Indian like you, we understand you better and serve you better" does work — especially when arrogant MNCs say we are here to redeem you with global world-class offers, whether you like it or not, it is good for you. More MNCs like Lufthansa and Amazon — and it will be a tough fight. It's called customer intimacy and is a marketing theory as old as the hills.