INDIA RELOADS – But Can It Find Its Target?

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Abhijeet Ray reviewing Dheeraj Sinha’s book ‘India Reloaded – Inside India’s Resurgent Consumer Market’

When the Head of Planning for South and South East Asia of a leading global Ad Agency – Grey (part of the largest global Marcom group WPP) writes a book, you would expect him to get the Marketing and Communications around it right. You would expect early copies of manuscripts to have reached a string of hi-profile marketers and ad men of various ilk and adulatory blurbs anoint the back cover and early pages of the book.

You would expect the writers’ bosses at Grey, well-wishing clients and Professors from International schools of business to give the book a massive thumbs up. And last but not the least, you would expect a high-adrenalin relentless social media program to burn the existence of the book into the consciousness of the unsuspecting friends and extended friend-dom.

Indeed, Dheeraj Sinha and his publishers practice what they preach. ‘India Reloaded – Inside India’s Resurgent Consumer Market’ released earlier in 2015 follows many of the tenets that have been prescribed for successful marketing to ‘India’s resurgent consumer market’.

To borrow an analogy, in Chapter 5 ‘Success Overdrive – Has the Success Narrative been Overcooked?’, Dheeraj draws from contemporary Indian history to put forth the argument that Indians are ‘Living with Unforgiving Expectations’. To quote from the book, Indians,

“…seem to have woven an inflexible web of expectations of our government, our people, and ourselves…there is no room for failures and mistakes…at one level, people are all too eager to crucify anyone who fails…at the other, it’s almost uncool to accept that you may indeed have failed”.

Having speed-read the book and then going back to read it in greater detail, the very first thing that struck me, was that India Reloaded was written with a fear of failure, and as a failure mitigation strategy, all the “T”s were sought to be crossed and “I”s dotted, much like a good Agency Planner’s quest, to make a water-tight case for strategy before the Creative work is presented. Why am I not surprised? After all Dheeraj is a three-time winner of the coveted Atticus – WPP’s award for best-published thinking! The book looks at hundreds, perhaps thousands of facets to the Indian consumer – a daunting effort at doing the proverbial – leaving no eccentric Indian consumer behavior unturned.

That said, the book has seemingly an inbuilt mechanism of restoring equilibrium, that serves to unconsciously inform you that perhaps everything that you read in the book is not necessarily gospel. And like ever-changing India, the marketing mantras will continue to evolve – the analogy for which not so ironically comes at the very end of Chapter 5 itself, where the author talks about ‘Reinterpreting Success – Implications for Brands and Business’. To quote,

“We need to question the formulaic pursuit of success as a platform…it’s time we draw some learning from our culture, which is inherently designed for equilibrium, for balancing success with failure and achievement with denouncement…this has larger implications for our society, for we need to build a generation steeped in hope not despair”

That India has over centuries, confounded and confused, bewildered and bewitched, seduced and saddened everyone who studied it, visited it and wanted to do business with it – is already well known, and several thinkers before Dheeraj Sinha have sought to explain the conundrum that India is. What this author has done successfully, is provide an update on the complex Idea of India, and how it seeks relevant and contemporary solutions to successful marketing to its teeming billions.

Speaking of billions, the author’s myth busting efforts include, early in the book a lesson in market segmentation. In Chapter 1, ‘The Trap of Mass-Market Thinking – Why Chasing a Billion is a Wrong Strategy’, Dheeraj reminds us that the much touted 300 million Indian middle class was not quite all ‘middle’, as it did not fit the definition used by Western economists. He goes on to bust the myth of assuming that so called masses were invariably ‘value-seekers’ (the spectacular debacle of the World’s cheapest car Nano what failed to take off), and explaining the recent development of the phenomenon of ‘Upgrade-market thinking’ leaving behind the ‘Mass-market thinking’.

The book ends on an optimistic note, and to quote,

“The dynamic between democracy and economics is beginning to change; the consumer inside the Indian is increasingly influencing the voter inside him. India’s big answer will be the coming together of its democracy and its economy, the journey has already begun”.

It was much too optimistic for my liking, given the history of starts and stops of foreign investment in India and the legacy of failed professionalism on the World stage, not-withstanding the success of the ‘tech-support’ industry. Hence I reached out to the author and he was kind enough to oblige me with more insights around the book.

Dheeraj at launch

A quick word of introduction for Dheeraj Sinha: He earlier authored the highly acclaimed book ‘Consumer India – Inside the Indian Mind and Wallet’, published globally by John Wiley & Sons. He has also authored a chapter in the second edition of ‘Shopper Marketing’ published by Kogan Page, USA and another chapter in ‘The Luxury Market in India: Maharajas to Masses’ published by Palgrave Macmillan. His paper ‘The Changing Mindset of a Billion Minds’ has reference in Frommer’s Guide to India.

SSZee Media: Let’s start at the end. You end your unrelenting and decidedly unbridled optimism for the economic resurgence of India, which is perhaps the overarching theme of your newest book ‘India Re-loaded’ with the promise of “It’s for Real and it Can Only Go Upwards”.

However, possibly – as the book was going to print, the ugly face of politicization of religion was rearing its head in India. Around the same time, our friend – thinker and commentator Santosh Desai was heard opining in an interview (in response to the question on impact of religious bigotry on the march of economic success) the following:

“India sits on a faultline…Will primitive passions overwhelm the economic resurgence narrative?”

What do you have to say on this subject?

Dheeraj Sinha: Politics in India has never been free from caste and religion influences. Indeed, I have argued in my book, India Reloaded, that we gave too much credit to development as a platform for Modi’s victory in the 2014 elections. BJP’s campaign for the 2014 elections was a clever combination of multiple themes, including caste and religious equations. Unfortunately, democracy in India has never made friends with its economics. Partly because the advantages of a caste and religion based favour from a politician that you know, far outweighs the trickle-down effects of economic policies.

Add to this, the fact that India that votes in elections, is different from the India that roots for its economics. No wonder the rhetoric around caste and religion was at it’s peak during the election season. In fact polarizations around such issues have been common in India. The implementation of the Mandal commission recommendations 1990 came about around the same time as the Economic Liberalization in 1991 .

The bigger point is that the India growth story has taken shape despite this political discourse. Cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad have turned themselves into the hotbeds of IT revolution, giving birth to companies such as Infosys and Wipro. All of this has come about in the last two decades or so, despite the dominant political discourses of the time. In fact, NR Narayanmurthy had arm twist the Karnataka government to upgrade the Bangalore airport and its infrastructure, in the light of foreign clients visiting Bangalore for Infosys.

This is an example of how individual enterprise cajoles public policy in India, not the other way round. India’s growth is powered by the sheer dint of ability and enterprise of its millions, not by its public policy. In the last decade or so, the India enterprise has grown despite its government. The positivity and the saner voice has outweighed negativity and bigotry. This gives me confidence that India’s growth story is far more sustainable and real, than say the state projected story of China.

Courtesy of Dheeraj Sinha Official Website

SSZee Media: In your book, you have pronounced that the phenomenon of Jugaad is the “enemy of good, thorough service that aims at delighting the end-consumer”. This is an interesting and contrarian view. This very practice was celebrated by both academics and management practitioners as it promoted inventiveness and creativity in the face of lack of resources and infrastructure. Your take in fact decries this very practice and logically you want people to discourage it? How practical is your advice, given how entrenched it is?

Dheeraj Sinha: Just because practice is entrenched, cannot be a reason to eulogize it. Jugaad is at best a coping mechanism – finding a way when none exists. While it can certainly be a way out when you are trapped with out a solution or enough resources, it can’t be a founding principle for a nation that wants to become a developed country. A coping mechanism will at best remain that; it won’t propel you to excellence.

Jugaad has meant that in manufacturing, we either imported critical machinery or copied them; we never invested in R&D. In service, Jugaad means that we have little regard for standard operating procedures. The potholes on our roads which keep coming back and the incident of ward boys stitching people’s wounds in the Bulandshahr hospital are a few examples of Jugaad in our everyday lives.

Jugaad may have been our answer to desperate situations – your vehicle breaks down on the road because of some electrical failure and some mechanic puts it back in motion by bypassing the fuse. But long-term growth is not about getting out of tricky situations through another trick. Unfortunately the lines between “jugaad” and “sab chalta hai” (everything is fair as far as the job gets done in the interim) are blurry. And that’s the reason Jugaad needs to be discouraged.

Courtesy of Dheeraj Sinha Official Website

SSZee Media: In the chapter ‘Sexy Everything’, you talk about the ‘Success of the Fully Loaded’ and ‘A Celebration of Moving up’. It appears that if a marketer is not feeding the consumerism and hedonistic lifestyle, they will be rendered “unsexy” and will eventually fail. Is there not a parallel here, between the excesses of consumerism that the western countries once faced, which faced a backlash in terms of living beyond ones means and many a bankruptcy?

Dheeraj Sinha: Today’s India is a spectacle nation; everything in this India needs to be loud. There is no room for subtleties here. This is the point that the chapter ‘Sexy Everything’ tries to make. This desire for a sensory overload is seen across product design, music, Bollywood and fashion. More than feeding consumerism, this defines the nature of consumption in todays India.

The point in the chapter ‘Sexy Everything’ is that India is at a stage where subtlety is being given a miss. To be successful in this India, brand must come across with swagger. They must project success and scale. Designs of products such as cars must be overt and expressive. Music must be written to thump and beats. Fashion must take into account the wider colour pallet available, some of which Indians would never have dreamt of wearing.

For instance, use of controversy as a tool for marketing, belongs to this trend. Authors and filmmakers in todays’ India actively plant controversies to make sure that their products hit the charts. The interesting thing is that it’s not seen in negative light anymore.

This is practically India’s first brush with consumerism and it’s far too early to pull the reigns on this free ride. The backlash of consumerism may be a topic of concern in the west, not in this shiny new India, certainly not in this decade.

SSZee Media: Let me end with something you ask at the very beginning – in the introduction – “How long can we flog the ‘ambition’ and ‘success’ card in India before it backfires?

Do you feel you have addressed this in the book?

Dheeraj Sinha: I discuss the idea of success and how we may have overcooked it in Chapter 5, titled, “Success Overdrive”. It appears that we have set unforgiving expectations of our generations and ourselves. The IIT JEE coaching classes in Kota have almost turned into education sweatshops. Proportionate with the celebration of the successful IITians globally, is the increasing rate of suicides at such institutions. Media and advertising have helped push this narrative. Ads with taglines – Next Level Now, and narratives that push – CEO at the age 32, are constantly egging Indians to better themselves, without any room for celebrating what has already been achieved.

The focus on IT as a career and the mushrooming of skill development courses may be good news for employment indices, but the lack of life education is preparing a generation that doesn’t know how to handle failure.

Indeed, you are not allowed to fail in this India. Look at how we treat our cricket stars when they fail to deliver on the field. The continuous media trial of the government and its policies is a case in point – whether it’s the evaluation of the current Modi government or that of the erstwhile UPA government, the television experts are known to pronounce the judgment much before anyone else. Compare this to the cultural tradition of India, which is about balance. Our scriptures have said – what goes up eventually comes down. But we have very little patience to learn from our mistakes in todays India. Success has become a linear pursuit and an overcooked ideal.

Dheeraj with books

SSZee Media: On a personal note – some rapid fire questions to get a glimpse of the ‘real’ Dheeraj Sinha:-

Favourite filmmaker: Hollywood – Woody Allen.                                                                                 Bollywood – Can’t name one because they all have let us down once in a while. Here are the names I admire for their experiments – Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur), Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan), Shoojit Sircar (Vicky Donor), Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan).

Favourite Indian Ad Campaign: Ek Titli, Anek Titliyan (National Integration Campaign on Doordarshan)

Favourite International Ad Campaign: ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Favourite Brand Strategy you wished you had created: The Great Schlep for Obama

Favourite Book: Ways of Seeing – John Berger

Marketer that you admire most (not your client): Coca Cola

Visit or Palgrave MacMillan to order a copy of India Reloaded: Inside India’s Resurgent Consumer Market.

Interview was conducted by Abhijeet Dutta Ray for SSZee Media Canada.

????????????????????????????????????Abhijeet Ray, Partner Creative Joy Consultancy and VP Client and Media Services Barrett and Welsh, Canada. He has a career in marketing communications that spanned a dozen companies across 5 countries. He attended the Advanced Management program at Oxford, and takes a keen interest in both movies and branded content.

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