Thursday, 28 January 2016

A billion plus irrational consumers!

Every big corporate honcho out there in the world is going to tell you she'll bet big on India and its colossal potential. Global names cutting across all sectors have been venturing into the country of late, sensing that India is going to be a big sprocket in their growth engine in the future. Some of the most established apparel brands and makers of the most exclusive vehicles have all tried their hand at getting their own piece of the cake. Some have stumbled upon an untapped treasure, some have fallen fatuously, and some are still waiting to hit pay dirt. But irrespective of which posse of companies you've turned out to be a part of, one thing; one realization has hit everyone pretty hard - It's one helluva job to predict how the Indian consumer will behave! 

Daewoo entered the Indian market in 1995 and bet big on the then burgeoning coterie of young car drivers. They made a perilous bet of pouring in a billion dollars into the yet to explode car market. They brought out their Matix and Ceilo models to compete with utmost thrust in the hatchback and sedan segments respectively. While the hatchback segment didn't really have any other player except for the Maruti ZEN(Zero Engine Noise) and an excuse of a hatchback(Maruti 800), the sedan segment just had the Maruti Esteem(then 1000) and a kindred of other players who were all pretty small. Daewoo would have thought they will rule the roost in India. With their offerings priced at just about the right levels, they were all poised to rock the markets. But they were in for a shocker.

Come 1997. Daewoo found out how captious the Indian consumer can get. Post an initial triumph in setting a formidable distribution network and disparate pockets of consumers going for both Matiz and Ceilo, something went woefully wrong. Daewoo as a company was already struggling because of mismanagement of operations and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. But their failure to tap in the growing consumer base in the most promising market of the east - India, was like a nail in the coffin. Daewoo group globally collapsed in 1999. But their run in India, despite a heavy infusion, couldn't bear any fruit and had its fate sealed in 1997 itself. For some reason, despite the initial gumption and despite the swashbuckler Daewoo models, and despite consistent advertising, Daewoo could never establish a rapport with the Indian buyer. It never got a Word of Mouth campaign buttressing its sales, it never had a top of the mind recall, and it definitely failed in getting any loyalty. It was supposed to have set an antecedent for no other foreign player to ever try their fate in India, because Opel and Ford, the other recent entrants, too faced the heat. But in 1998, something else transpired. 

Hyundai came into the Indian markets and started playing a brave bold game by pitching their Santro hatchback against everyone else. They roped in SRK as their brand ambassador and they took over the reins from Daewoo. Hyundai was an overnight success. Sales skyrocketed in not time at all. The typical Indian consumer fell in love with the Santro and a lot of families even contemplated buying two. The Santro suddenly came across as precisely what the Indian consumer was waiting for. And somewhere, in some corner of the planet, the Daewoo design team would have cringed and prowled on the fact that Matiz not only looked more cherubic and apt, but also delivered some solid performance. But Daewoo was gone, and Hyundai became the pioneer. So much so that even the behemoth Maruti finally woke up and brought out the Wagon R in 1999 to compete with Santro and then Swift in 2005 to compete with the Santro Xing. All in all, everything and every move that failed for Daewoo, worked brilliantly for Hyundai. Such is the story of many a brand in India. 

Why certain brands work, and why many others fail? It seems too tough for anyone to ever be able to answer that. The Indian consumer ranges from being aspirational at one end and goes for a Starbucks venti or Zara apparel because they're big names, to being aggressively parsimonious at the other end and seeking absolute value for money. And between these two ends of the spectrum is where the mystery lies. While certain consumers may lie somewhere in between the two ends, a lot of them can be made to simply flip the switch. 

Meet Rahul. He needs to get a new smartphone. His financial position is pretty strangulated and he lives on the edge all the time. Rahul is made to walk through the luxuriantly spaced counters with all kinds of gaudy handsets. Rahul zeroes in one a very basic handset and feels something propitious about his about to be smartphone. He feels happy because its also friendly on his pockets. And then just when Rahul was about to seal his deal, a resplendent saleswoman walks to him, and in a rather exultant and enrapturing tone, expatiates features and details of the latest iPhone. Rahul knows the iPhone is 5 notches above the bracket of smartphones he's looking for. More than the paucity of money, Rahul doesn't need a contraption of a smartphone which sizzles like a tamale. He needs a very basic phone. But something about this lovely looking lady mesmerizes him. And before he could notice, he has been ensnared in her pitch, and Rahul finally decides to buy the iPhone at an emi twice of what he would have paid to get his first smartphone home straightaway. Rahul is happy and elated, but when he walks out of the store, he has no idea why he screwed himself so badly!

Partially upbeat because he now has an iPhone that graduates his stature in the society and secures him a membership in the burgeoisue, and partially addled at his recent decision, Rahul walks to his departmental store to get his groceries. Now, the only thing on his mind is savings. He dumps his favorite brand of tomato ketchup for it costed 10 Rs. more. And all this while, he believes the cheaper one will provide him a better value for money. While the same value for money rationale went for an absolute toss just a few moments ago when he was making his biggest purchase decision of the year. So ultimately, Apple shall never know how they got this new customer, and his aggrieved tomato ketchup company will never know what they got wrong. That's what this mysterious Indian consumer can act like. 

India is a country with quite many contradictions when it comes to how a consumer is likely to behave. Slums whose owners chose temporary sheets over a permanent roof, have dish antennas adorning their tops. Many rural households which choose their women to defecate in the open, end up having 3 cellphone connections. And on culture induced flippancy, daughters who were denuded of primary education, are endowed with many grams of gold when they're married off. The Indian consumer forms the perfect case study for any analyst to make an attempt to decipher the mystery of. 

Nevertheless, there are certain things which both big and small players can do to ensure they're there to stay. The big players have to make sure they acquaint the Indian consumer with the fact that they are big names abroad and hence its good to be associated with them. A lot of initial iPhone users bought it just because Apple has a lot of patrons rhapsodizing it all over the world. Hence Apple needed no introduction. On the other hand, if an HTC, which is globally pretty small, is somehow able to convince the Indian customer that its a pretty cool brand to own, and that the name HTC is synonymous with ultimate luxury and class, then you never know! Maybe the Indian consumer may ditch the global belief of Apple being at the pinnacle of panache, and will form his own belief on HTC being at the zenith. 

On the other hand, for the smaller players, accessibility is the only key. The customer may not stay loyal for very long and doesn't give a damn about your brand name because you're too small an attainment to be flaunted. Hence you're not a necessity. You're simply just another item the consumer shall buy and if you're not there, you have an easily available substitution. Neither are you garish and glittery, nor are you a symbol of class. Hence you're not really having any benefits apart from the fact that you're merely consumed. 

While the mind of any consumer is a blackbox which is tantalizingly complicated to hack into, the Indian consumer's mind is too recondite to set a strategy for. You just have to be there in front of the consumer all the time, which will make some consumers try you, and then irrespective of how good or bad you were, some consumers would have sang your paeans of praise just because they had you, and this shall proselytize more consumers into trying you. That's just about it! At the end, I'd just like to say that while irrationality may not be the most appropriate word, if it managed to read you till this far, you do know I was somewhat right because you bought my idea, didn't you?

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The power of alternatives.

Most of us crave for something or the other. Some of us seek a dream company to work for, some a prudent partner to go with, and some just loiter around in search for their next pursuit. One of our prime characteristics is that we never settle and we never binge till we either achieve what we set out to, or we change our track altogether to avoid the despondency. We're seldom content and we keep looking out for that perfect next stop on the path we choose to follow. But, as we do that, one ingredient can remarkably change the whole equation, and can make us feel much more sanguine than we ever could have. And that my friends, is a plain, simple alternative! 

Did you know that Thomas Alva Edison spend many years looking for the perfect materiel for the incandescent bulb filament. He tried over 1600 different materials and scrambled on over 400000 pages. It was only after having tried everything from grasses to coconut skin to a colleague's hair strand, that he finally stumbled upon a bamboo fiber that was carbonized, and which changed the world forever. But while 1879 marked this rather momentous event on the landscape of all human progress, pretty soon carbonized bamboo was forgotten and Tungsten filaments took over and ruled roost for over a decade. Panoply of companies who never believed an incandescent lamp to be a possibility, now lurched into the fray because there was one sure shot alternative - the bamboo fiber which they could produce lamps with, but they could simultaneously, and ardently explore other materials. An alternative changed the face of the world overnight, and as many companies got into lighting, lighting marked the revolution of electrical transmission and we all know what happened afterwards. 

We all need that alternative in our lives, to feel safe, to feel assured, that we are not simply tarrying on to that one delicate thread, which if it breaks, will make us fall of the cliff. While an alternative maybe just about as frail as what we have, the very sight of the alternative is pleasing. Singular is petrifying, and the alternative provides more succor than the utility of that single patron who may have served us for years. Our innards have two kidneys. Yes we can perfectly survive on one. But one who maybe living with one, may die quicker because of the fear of that failing, than the kidney failing itself. Having said that, the example of the heart and liver, which don't have a couplet, obviate the need for me to tell you that we don't always have an alternative. But if you trust me enough on that, we ourselves don't let there be an alternative more often than not! We never look very far. 

Imagine the typical school graduate. She lives her life to the fullest till she is in standard 10. And when she has to opt for what she'd pursue in her life from standard 11 onward, she suddenly finds life much more tormenting. Her options have suddenly curtailed, and the course of her entire life depended on what decisions she took on the day of selecting her stream, or when her parents and relatives garroted their decision down her throat. But the glee of the open horizon; of the feeling of having the freedom to do almost anything, suddenly gets replaced by the poignancy of her now constricted life. She finds life tough, grows pretty mordacious and tells everyone she has to study a lot and work pretty hard. But in reality, her hours don't produce the same output, she is not carrying the same optimism towards her future and she is under stress for the first time in her life. Why? Because she doesn''t have an alternative to latch on to. She's left with just one and only one option - to reek under the hegemony of that domain she choose to graduate in! 

While the above example enunciates how our systems force to decimate alternatives, we do it ourselves most of the time. We at times become so engrossed by one passion, so involved with one person, and so entangled in one endeavor, that feel seriously debilitated. We fear losing on all such fronts where we just have one option. We have only person whom we see as a dream partner, only one job that will make us feel happy, only one profession we can really seek. But all this restriction of choice we enforce consciously, is very very malefic. We're always afraid of going awry on any of the fronts and we can never be that juggernaut we once were. 

We do all of the above because we're too meek or too lazy to look any further. Just as marketing forces us to believe that there is only the iPhone which is a smartphone and all other devices are a piece of trash(They may in reality be better!), we have an inner self - our conservative side that keeps hectoring us whenever we try and drop our myopia. In fact we've now been trained to not take a rather radical stand, and everything we choose to do, we do by paying more consideration to the consequences of not conforming to the norm of choice, than considering the plethora of possibilities that galore. 

We may have 10 gyms in our locality, but we have the obligation of going to the one some of your friends said was good. And even if its expensive, even if its full of stench, even if its inferior to the ones nearby in terms of equipment, we won't look no further because someone entered it randomly, liked it and spread the word. We may have 10 career options to choose from, but we still choose the ones in which we know someone who had succeeded because there is one sure shot example of success, while at the same time we renounce all our other chances and the aplomb of having an alternative, all just for the sake of this guarantee of someone having succeeded. In fact we debilitate ourselves so much, every day, and every time, that we have started living under the illusion that one wrong step and failure looms all over our life. When in reality, that failure may actually force us to leave our self created caverns and bring us out into that corner of the world where spectacles are ubiquitous.

 Someone once said fear is the most powerful whip to make a human run. While our corporations and governments alike have been using that maxim rather effectively for about a century now, we ourselves are to be blamed. We ourselves give in to the deception that only one thing maybe good for us, when maybe that maybe everything else except for that could've been good. We manufacture fear, and then we allow it to consume us. Maybe because we're too tamed, or maybe because we've been trained by everyone to do just that. All to just live in harmony with the systems whose veracity is now testified. When ironically, the most successful people were the ones whose actions led the systems to change or to cease to exist. And yet we stay full of fear, full of anxiety, resorting to our paltry number of options, and acceding to all authority in the realm of our choice. We do all of this, and try and derive a sense of happiness thinking that one day we may succeed in that one endeavor we set out for. When in reality, all we need is to look a little further for that one alternative which will explode into a cascade of miracles. Yes, such is the power of an alternative!

Friday, 1 January 2016

What's so new about a new year?

The last night, as most of Chandigarh was revving up in its usual panache for one remarkable celebration, I was pretty much alone. So I went to this nearby Elante mall to ensure I'd have a late night supper, and so that I could at least fetch a moment between people when the clock would strike 12. The crowds in the pubs were brimming with fervor, and the air all over the place was ecstatic. But when I tried to observe things around me carefully, the celebration and the zest, were all linked to a concept, and one which is not cosmic or a man made behemoth, but simply one frail concept that glorifies the insignia of this world's most followed religion. So, I asked myself. What's so new about a new year?

Being a Hindu, I know that our calendar has its own beginnings and we have many calendars. Being an avid information hunter I also know the most ancient Mayan calendar has already outlived its cycle because it was not eternal. North Korea on the other hand mandates adherence to a calendar whose fulcrum is the date when their first supreme leader of their only party was born. So yes, the new year marks something all the time. But what does the most followed concept of January to December mark then, which deems the new year to be so new?

Look deeper and you'd find that the currently followed Gregorian calendar was formally established in 1582. Catholicism was at its prime with the Vatican gandering at becoming the beacon of redemption and pride. But necessarily, all other empires and communities did follow some calendar till then, so this was just the advent to unify all calendars to one central prime calendar, that obviously was more structured and easy to conform to, but which subtly mandated allegiance to yet artifact coming out of the most supreme religion of the world, guarded by its own supreme pontiff. Hence the new year was simply another move, another association, another belonging of a religion that now considered its responsibility to propagate itself because they believed it to be the very best.

With time, as most of the ruling tyrannies were obsequious to Christianity, they all started following the calendar and it soon replaced all existing concepts. And as Britain's usury on all its territories reached its prime, it began turning the wheels of its locomotives, signalling the staunch imperialism that was to thrive. Now the calendar finally held a very strong meaning because as the industrial revolution thrived and empires lurched towards modernity, dates, weeks, months and years held humongous significance. There were deadlines, dates of establishment, dates for contracts, dates for lease years, years accompanying acts that were passed, dates for registrations, dates for expiry, and all kinds of timelines were set.

The colonial establishments now had certain targets that they had to achieve within years. For the first time, you could establish long time duration with such startling command. Then soon budgetary allocations followed annual, semi annual and quarterly periods, and corporations took everything further. And before one could catch a wink, the Gregorian calendar became a bastion of achievement and progress and simply unquestionable. It's impact on our future was so terrific that Kennedy used it as a tool to lay down the date by which NASA had to accomplish the task of sending man to the moon!

There isn't a single day that passes by when we don't talk about the date. And it's quite a surprise that we adopted the calendar only 423 years ago while our history is more than 10000 years old. While it's pretty far fetched to conclude the calendar was the reason we suddenly shifted gears. Maybe we just crossed the threshold of our understanding and our knowledge exploded. But with all credit to the calendar, what's so new about a new year?

A new year in all essence simply justifies a transition to a period in which happy things may happen like some projects getting completed, incumbent governments getting replaced, etc. But a new year, also marks an end to a lot of things. Lot of contracts get expired, lots of leases get terminated, old projects get replaced, people get replaced, substitutions are sought. So what does a new year really signify then?

While the Hindu new year and various other new years bore relationship to crop cycles on which whole of mankind depends, the Gregorian new year is simply a tacit mandate to unknowingly celebrate the dawn of Christian apostles. We all say we'd have new year resolutions and we'd make this change or that. But in reality, you only further bow down in front of a concept propounded 400 odd years ago, and a concept which had to be inevitably accepted, and which continues be pivotal in all we do. 

The new year does what the concept could do best - put a timeline for everything. For certain aspects, the new year brings unprecedented certainty. But for hope, the new year ties it to its usual time frame. You keep telling yourself you'd get a new house in the next year, you're likely to get that increment in the next year after all. That you'd get a girl this year and she'd change your life. That this is the year when you secure an admit to your coveted institute. And the list goes on! So on the onset of the new year, you celebrate or put up a pretense to celebrate because you've got so many hopes from the year. But you don't even know that you tied your hopes to the year yourself, and that it was no manifest destiny! And then on the other hand there are people who celebrate because everyone else is celebrating so maybe it'll be pretty cool to celebrate.

Men and women who remain stoics for the larger part of the year suddenly become party animals and shun their animosity towards their foes on this one day, linking all their upcoming happiness to it. But no one even once thinks about how good it would've been if we could party everyday, and if that enmity was long forgotten and for eternity, than for one single day. We festoon ourselves with the best of attire on the new year, when we otherwise have the chance of looking like a star everyday. We shout among people and tirade the DJ, when we can go on the top of a mountain and rant against everyone we really hated every now and then. We celebrate like free bulls, not knowing what would come next, but only for a night. When in reality if we could really start living like that for every day of the rest of the 364 days, there would be no force, no might strong enough to stop you from reaching where you want to. And yet on the 31st of every December, we decide to move our of our caverns only for once, and move back in again as soon as the new year eve gets over. When in reality, you can celebrate every other day as if it were the new year's eve. Long live the Gregorian calendar, and long live Christianity!