Sunday, October 22, 2006

Challenges of Consumerism

Challenges of Consumerism

The competitive advantage of India in the world market

By Harish Bijoor

At the end of a rather long working millennium, one has the luxury of putting up one’s legs on a soft stool, sinking into a soft beanbag and thinking soft thoughts of a soft millennium gone by.

I call it soft, particularly from the Indian perspective of things. The hundred marketing years behind us were distinctly soft years. Soft issues faced and soft options exercised. Soft covenants arrived at softly.

The years ahead look different indeed. Hard years indeed! Troublesome marketing times. Troublesome times for the marketing of the country that is India. Tough years that will call for tough ways.

Let’s then explore what is ahead of us. Visit and re-visit the strengths that exist. Strengths that will re-define the competitive advantage of India in the world market. The India ahead as the new consumer super-power of the world. The new intellectual capital of the world and of course the new seat of buying, selling, marketing and facilitating super-power of the world. The new role of India the buyer, India the seller and India the broker.

Let’s do this scenario painting exercise of the key competitive advantage of India in the markets of the future by visiting briefly the key issues we see as distinct points of strengths.

The British left India as a nation of shopkeepers. Our retail universe that covers a nano-fraction of super-markets, large numbers of small and medium sized shops and cubby holes of retail commerce in remote inaccessible corners of the country, is the biggest you can find in any of the 182 countries that comprise the world and its consuming markets. A population of 12 million retail outlets to service the needs and requirements of the world’s second biggest consuming mass of people!

The one big strength that less than one other nation in the world can stake its claim to, is the size of the population that rests within the boundaries of our country. A huge weakness of gigantic proportions when viewed from the many development-oriented periscopes of the past. Not so when you view it with the future in mind. A future that is energized by these very large masses of people who have been the biggest liability for the nation of a billion plus!

The past viewed people as a liability. Not enough physical work to go round, not enough food to eat and of course not enough education to ventilate around. Every bit of progress that development achieved was sacrificed very, very quickly (possibly even before the economist was able to record and publish the feat), at the altar of population and its rather robust pace of growth.

While every sector of the economy did reasonably well in bits and patches over the last hundred years, so did the sector of population growth. Stretched food resources, stressed out finances, a pathetic situation on the physical infrastructure front and a complete lack of positive momentum represented the development of the last hundred years in India. People were therefore the biggest liability.

Not so anymore. Not in the hundred years ahead of us. One of the biggest assets of marketing-based India is its numbers in the very many homes that dot the countryside of ‘sunny-side-up’ India! Lots of existing people and a robust yen to propagate more of the kind, only means a lot more stomachs to feed and a lot more bladders to fill. Lots more bodies to clothe and a lot more minds to educate.

Think of a product. Think of a service. Think of a want. Think of a need. The biggest and the best of them will linger in the land that is India! The marketing future of India is therefore made. Ready at the take-off stage which will have many a Schumpeter stumped!

But then, people are not the only need of a consumer market. Consumption is certainly not the only key to unlock the riches of a marketing man’s Pandora’s box. Money somehow seems to be the real key. More money in these many hands, more the consumption. But then, is the money around?

While the pessimists answer to the question will say that men without money or men without the means to make the money, are of no use to marketing and its future, the fact remains that there is a value in the market that has a huge potential. A potential that can well nigh break open huge values in the times to come.

Let’s just remember one thing. India has been a poor country for a long, long while now. People below the poverty line have numbered a strong platoon of people. And despite it all, the population has grown, survived and continues to thrive in its sheer numbers. People have found a way to survive. The fittest have survived on high value brands, the less fit than that have thrived on brands of a lesser caliber in the country. Those even lower in the hierarchy have survived on the fringe of the commodity in every category of want and need. Consumption needs have always found answers. Consumption solutions for all!

There is therefore a pyramid of consumption that lies all over the slopes of Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs. But then, everybody, rich or poor, has fallen within the confines of this pyramid. And just as long as they do, there is indeed potential for a robust market for commodities, quasi-brands, brands, super-brands and of course at the ultimate level of the self-actualizing folk, no brands at all!

Every one of these segments has a value though. And in value rests the potential for the marketer. The one big true-blue competitive advantage for India of the present and India of the future, is indeed its large population base articulating every basic need in consumption of products, services and utilities.

Time to change the paradigm of India’s population then! Every marketer of whatever origin, be it from within India or outside, will queue up in the consumer markets of the country, trying to woo the wallet of the willing. As traditional source markets reach a plateau in their consumption, nascent markets like the one in India will hold a great deal of allure to the marketing man in his Western strait-jacket.

The competitive advantage of India will rest in both its own shores and in the foreign lands of its source markets. As the WTO regime opens up markets that do not discriminate and markets that don’t raise the usual high tariff walls that have been the distinct characteristics of the past that has gone by, the Indian product and the Indian brand has a challenge to seize and exploit to its advantage.

The India brand is the center-point of this entire exercise that waits to unfold. The country and its many unique propositions show an excellent potential packed into the future.

This potential needs many Godfathers to unlock though. The name India is in itself filled with a mystique of the past. Tigers on the streets, snake charmers at the ‘chowrasthas’ and the great Indian rope-trick are all images that keep coming back ever so recurrently in the life of the Indian in foreign markets. India is still a mystique. And India is ancient. A civilization as ancient as can be. A glorious history, a rich tapestry of tradition and a whole bunch of assorted mystique attached to the Indian brand that is connected to all things natural and of course all things beautiful, is something that needs to be exploited to the hilt.

No point then to negate the mystique and charm of the brand there is in the minds of peoples outside the shores of India. Might as well use it to advantage. Add all those dashes of hi-technology to all the soft touch of the nation in the minds of the consumer in foreign markets, and you just might have a potent broth that will re-position the brand that is India.

The competitive advantage of an image versus that of a functional reality has seen the winning potential in the image and the brand. As the future evolves into one that is besotted more with imagery than with the functional trait, piggybacking on the India brand, a whole host of honest products and services that cling on to the tail of the mystique that is India, is certainly a possibility of significant competitive advantage.

The one big missing element in the marketing of the India brand has been the commitment to brand thinking within the realm of Indian bureaucracy. The policy maker needs to shift the way he thinks and the way he operates in the realm of the image.

Preserving a whole host of things that are distinctly Indian and distinctly ethnic will be the biggest task for those in the game of maintaining the key differentiators, which will bet eh key USPs of the India brand. Indian foods are already a big thing in the West. A United Kingdom without 'Balti' cooking and Butter Chicken Masala would indeed be a poorer nation of gourmet eaters!

Natural health remedies, natural cooking, the Organic nation, the realm of alternate medicine and health are but only some of the areas that will distinguish India in the future. There are a whole host of areas to explore. No one nation in the world can claim to offer the kind of variety that India can. In its food, its clothes, its festivals, its rituals and of course in its many Gods. India as a safe tourist destination of the future is still but a dream. The potential however lives on.

The many, many competitive advantages of India, glorified in recent years in the realm of InfoTech, front-ended scientific research work that is currently on in the outer-periphery of achievement, India’s strides in the realm of PharmaTech and allied areas are possibilities that have been highlighted well and possibly even inflated beyond levels of credible usage in the past.

Avoiding these realms, one can only look at the basics that India offers to the markets that are emerging now and to the markets that will emerge in the future.

The effort that has to be made in order to establish and capitalize on the basics just outlined as key competitive advantage of the country, require an investment in the realms of positive development of the network economy, its infrastructure base, its communication ability and of course the key factor of brand-led thinking.

India has long since lived as a commodity. It is time then to yank itself out of the commodity mindset and establish its presence in the brand-led world. The world today is one that is moved more by the image than by the reality. India needs to seize its place in the limelight of brands.

As everything in the marketing lives of the Indian gets redefined in the near and medium-term future, there is but no other option than to depend heavily on the key strengths we have taken for granted in the past. Even considered a liability in the recent past.

Awakening the Indian economy and its competitiveness lies in the realm of the high quality product that will roll out of our ancient manufacturing facilities. These products need to talk of a quality that will battle the best that will come in from every direction there is. And that too at low cost. Our ‘desi’ chickens will need to compete with American chicken legs that will walk into the kitchens of our country.

As many an industry faces an impending closure, the best will indeed survive. The fittest will survive and the rest will vanish into the limbo of the have-beens. As all this happens and as social turmoil seizes the 'have-beens' by the jugular, there is ahead of us a moment that will truly bet the defining moment when the entire bureaucracy that run the competitive model of Indian industry and enterprise will wake up all of a sudden, with a jolt. A nightmare that is bound to seize the policy-maker, the implementer and indeed the key participant of the economy, the man in industry, all together by the short hair.

And this defining moment is the one that will turn the paradigm of Indian competitiveness we have followed so very vigorously for all these years, upside down. This will be the moment of re-think. A point of time when the truly important will replace the truly insignificant. A pursuit of which, our model of industrialization thrust upon the nation during the Nehruvian era, glorified in the past.

The WTO regime is the catalyst of this process. And the first of the bombshells will be fired in the dominant sector of agriculture in the Indian economy. And its almost here!

We are, I suspect, very close to that defining moment. Let’s witness and let’s participate in that process of turmoil. We have no choice, in any case!

In Conclusion

The competitive advantage of India in world markets is best assessed by taking a quick peek at the models of competition possible in markets of the present and the future.

If I am to look around the nations of the world and correlate models in current use, there are four distinct patterns that emerge. Four clusters that have whole sets of nations congregating in models those seem to work for each of them differently and with different levels of efficacy. Needless to say, the peculiarities of each nation in question dictate the distinct choice they have made for themselves. Let’s visit the clusters. And let’s call them all kinds of animal names.

1.The Earthworm Model:

The passive model of competitive reaction. The invitation theory that is best practiced by the earthworm. A rich worm really. It knows the basics best. It is in constant touch with the earth that it seeks nourishment from and nourishes back simultaneously. A fundamentally strong being.

Several problems in this model though. It is passive for one. Non-reactionary. A model in the self-fulfilling prophecy mode. The best example of the fatalistic theory in practice. When faced with danger, all it can do is continue its humble journey in the earth. Competition kills this model with ease. There is no reaction. The fatalistic model of competition at its best!

Is India here?

2.The Snail model:

The common competitive model in practice by a whole host of nations. This model is reactively proactive. A clear cocoon orientation. When faced with competition and danger, there is a regression into the shell. The withdrawn marketer at play. The philosopher marketer even! The marketer who revels in the safety-static nexus. Waiting for the competition to just go away, so that normal life may resume again!

Is India here?

3.The Porcupine Model:

This model tells the competitor clearly of the array of weapons that are available for retributive action. There is a clear emphasis on the display of the arsenal. It believes in the overt display. A clear d├ętente model of competition. Avoids a lot of speculative action and is ready for the real battle

Is India here?

4.The Everyone Else Model:

This is the model of the real-time player in competitive markets of the present and certainly the future. This is the real-time marketer. Reactive when necessary. Proactive when necessary. Guerilla in tactics when necessary as well!

This is a constant-change oriented model that believes in watching the scenario carefully and reacting accordingly. Making forays into proactive territory on a speculative basis. Never mind if even only one of those sixteen forays actually click! Life in the fast track of competitive marketing is pretty un-predictable and speculative. Change here is absolutely discontinuous. Making a decision on a point of competitive strategy based on happenings of the past and the present could be disastrous. The future never ever happens the way the past decided.

Change here is so discontinuous that it is aptly illustrated by the example of the baby-arrival process in the house. The first child in this baby-boomers house is born out of a Caesarian section, gone in for by an over-zealous gynecologist. The second baby of the house is therefore predictably to be one out of a similar process. Caesarian section! No! It isn’t. Change is discontinuous. The second baby is a natural birth! The third child is due to happen then. This time round, it’s Caesarian section as well! Oops!

The fourth child of this baby-happy home is due. Change is indeed discontinuous. There is no predictability here. Guess what! This time round, the baby is actually conceived, carried and delivered by the father of the baby! Oops! Again! Change is indeed that discontinuous!

Shouldn’t India be here?

Harish Bijoor is a brand-domain specialist and CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.

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