The Consumer – A Moving Target

In the recent elections, the Indian electorate gave their mandate – totally unexpected, to say the least.

In a build up to the to the polls, everybody including soothsayers, psephologists, market researchers, political analysts and party workers had a view based on whatever method each uses to understand the voters mood and sentiment. The two leading parties, the BJP – the ruling party, and the Congress that made up the Opposition, used every trick in a marketers book to woo the voter. The India Shining campaign of the BJP that was upbeat and inspiring, held the promise of a better future for every Indian. The opposition pooh-poohed it claiming that rural India with over 70% of India’s population was completely oblivious of the ‘shine’. Just as professional marketers the world over are beginning to harness the celebrity power to sell their brands, the political parties were scrambling over each other to sign up young and aging movie stars, actors from popular soaps, singers, beauty queens and mega celebrities. What eye candy for the Indian electorate and in ample measure!

The BJP is believed to have young, ambitious, highly educated and intelligent politicians. In contrast, the Congress was seen to be suffering from an image of a ‘family run company’ where ambition must be curtailed as only the family members can run for the corner room.
Election time is boom time for television and publications what with a number of opinion polls succeeded by exit polls beamed from every TV channel and featured in every publication worth its name. Maybe there was a hint of trouble as successive exit polls predicted declining seats for the BJP but none predicted the complete rout that ultimately took place.

There are several marketing lessons in the drama that was played out in this political arena.

This is not the first time that marketers did not read their consumers right. To be fair to the forecasters, opinion polls are based on expected behaviour or intent and exit polls are about claimed behaviour. These two pose the maximum challenge to research. Anybody familiar with market research knows that purchase intention is one of the most difficult to assess and for interpretation depends on past or normative behaviour. This helps set norms for the success or failure of a brand or a product. But the consumer is a moving target and a voter even more so.

It is understood by more and more people that opinion poll results are a function of several factors, most importantly, the time when they are done. As electioneering progresses and the electorate is given ‘facts and figures’ about each party and different candidates, it is not surprising to find opinions swing. Further, any event close to the time of polling could strongly influence the outcome of the stated opinion of voters. The stampede in Lucknow in which several women and children died during a sari distribution ceremony by the BJP party workers is an example of such an event. Exit polls suffer from problems of self -selected samples that are not representative of those voting. And most importantly, voters may not, unless they are devout party workers, want to divulge who they have voted for. That leaves the researchers with incorrect data.

Despite their best intentions, researchers and marketers can get the market wrong. The case of New Coke will forever warn every marketing manager when making product changes. In the mid 80s the Coca Cola company, concerned with declining sales, did extensive research among consumers and found that they preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi. So Classic Coke was withdrawn and New Coke was launched. It proved to be the biggest failure in the history of marketing. A brand is much more than a product. Classic Coke was more than a brand, it had become an American icon and consumers could not do without it. The company had to reintroduce Classic Coke.

The India Shining Campaign highlighted India’s achievements in the services ( read IT) sector, telecommunications and automotive sector to name a few. The growth in these industries benefits mostly the urban middle classes and that too a small proportion. Extrapolating this to inner cities, small towns and particularly the rural areas where lack of infrastructure – roads, electricity, and water is preventing the whole country from sharing the fruits of growth, is an error of judgement. 70% of ‘deprived citizens’ cannot be motivated by GDP growth (largely from the services sector), rising forex reserves and several Indian entrants in the Fortune billionaires club.

Indian consumer, like any other consumer in the world, is value concious. Brand choices are hardly likely to be made based on nationalistic sentiment. The introduction of Japanese, Korean and other cars in the Indian market sounded the death knell for Premier Padminis from Fiat and Ambassadors from Hindustan Motors. Similarly, good value offerings from LG, Samsung are pushing Indian companies to upgrade technology and lower prices. In the early 90s when the economy was liberalised, it was feared that Indian industry would not be able to face seduction of the much ‘starved’ Indian consumer by foreign brands. The consumer proved the pundits wrong. They went for performance, latest in technology and looks, but most importantly for relevance. Kellogs hoping to ride the wave of liberalisation faced heavy losses as the brand goes against centuries of old breakfast habits. For most middle-class Indians, breakfast is the first full meal of the day, milk is never had cold and certainly not in the morning. When Camay was launched by P&G in the early 90s, it was the most coveted foreign brand. But Lux( perceived to be an Indian brand)from Hindustan Lever won the day because of its price value equation. Similarly Kit Kat (a foreign brand on the very-much-wanted list) from Nestle had to bow down to the ‘local’ Cadbury Dairy Milk. In the 80s when Hindustan Lever reigned supreme with their detergent powder Surf, a small -scale entrepreneur in Gujrat launched Nirma at half the cost and stole the thunder. It took a change in strategy for the giant MNC to produce low cost Wheel to stop Nirma in its tracks.

However, some things are carved in stone. Interestingly, almost all the mega and mini celebrities, regardless of the party they contested from won the seat. So when in doubt put your trust in beauty, entertainment and popular culture. How is this for diversity -Shah Rukh Khan sells shampoo, watches, cars, TV sets and soft drinks among other things. Amitabh Bacchan speaks for banks, decorative paints, pens, chocolates, suitings and nutritional supplements. Ashwairya Rai is an ambassador for cosmetics, soft drinks, jewellery and watches. Sachin and Sehwag sell mobile phones and a long list of other brands. Consumers are the same everywhere – remember Cindy Crawford for watches and, Andie McDowell for L’Oreal. And finally, even the Americans voted for Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarznegger!

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