The Golden Age Returns
India is undergoing a change that is perhaps unprecedented in its own history as well as that of the world. As far as Indian consumers can remember, they have lived in a climate of socialism, license raj, State owned corporate sector and monthly rations from the badly run public distribution system. That was, by no means, the best preparation ground for moving to a free market in the short span of 15 years. From the perspective of the consumer, two big changes have happened – more disposable income even among college going students what with the BPO and Outsourcing industries offering the best reprieve to escalating costs in developed countries. And the other is the dramatic shift in consumer vocabulary such as – brand choices, global brands, new product categories, cutting edge technology, low-low prices, customer service and brand promiscuity.
We are witnessing the ‘golden age of consumerism’ and ‘freedom of choice’ for the consumer deprived far too long. The rise of the Sensex, high GDP growth and the growing power of India on the world stage have infused a spirit of confidence. The much spoken about ‘down trading’ syndrome the marketers had been bemoaning, has now completely reversed. Styling and aesthetics are becoming as important, if not more, than functions and features. Trading up to 2-door refrigerators, flat screen and ultra slim television sets, refrigerators in as many colours as the number of shades on your walls, and shopping in local bazaars to swank shopping malls are just a few of the signs of our times.
However, any change that is so radical and so rapid can be disruptive and is bound to destabilize the system and create turbulence and dissonance. The tyranny of choice for a market starved of brands and products with socialistic ideology and Calvinism touted as the two most significant virtues can also make it difficult to cope with such change, however much you may have wanted it. According to Sudhir Kakar, a well-known Indian psychoanalyst, Indian family life tends to develop a strong sense of dependence, security and responsibility without a sense of initiative and decision-making in the children. And in such a society people are likely to successfully cope with change only if it is slow. If the change is too fast it could perhaps find people floundering, lost and adrift.
While the change is all pervading, it is perhaps most significant among women in India. Rising literacy rates, growing demand for higher education, more and more women in the work force and nuclear families are some of the changes that have brought women out of the confines of the house and into territories which traditionally had been the preserve of men. While the women are not seen to be complaining at their newly found economic and social emancipation, stepping out of the comfort zone is likely to take its toll. This disruption can drive the need for nostalgia -and so where does one go looking for a quick shot of that. Perhaps to the Indian soaps and the now more infamous K serials such as Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Ghar Ghar Ki Kahaani. They are seen as regressive by a growing number of women opinion leaders and activists. They are criticized for their storylines with joint families (albeit dysfunctional) and women portrayed something between Joan of Arc(the idealist fighting for her beliefs at the cost of her own life) and Sita (self effacing, absolute devotion to one husband) with all the shades in between – such as Princess Diana (wronged by husband but despite her dalliances seen as giving herself to world peace and other humanitarian causes), Hilary Clinton (despite all the wrongs done to her by her husband she continues to stand by him and defend him).
Contrary to growing sentiment against them in some circles, these soaps serve a very useful function. They provided a link with the past where large families lived together, and everybody knew their place and roles were well defined. They provide comfort and fulfill the need for times gone by when decision – making was left to men and women just sat scheming for attention of and power over men. In the quicksand of time they are the missing link to the past.
Brands as connectors of the past and the present
Brands need to play a similar role in providing all that is contemporary and ‘with it’ for the consumer while at the same time preserving the need for continuity. Today brands need to act as curators of your lifestyle which is so different from that of your mothers that most learning has to come from media and contemporary sources rather than being handed down from previous generations. But what brands can do is to make the transition from the old lifestyles to the new smoother without breaking the continuity. If all changes in the landscape we are likely to be lost, there is a need for some familiar signposts and bits and bobs of the old. And brands can learn a thing or two from Tulsi and Parvati that still reign over the airwaves.