Jan 6, 2009

Mktg - Long & Short of Rural Mktg

Sandip Bansal

When asked for their impressions on the science of rural marketing, some of India’s best practitioners on both sides of the fence—client as well as agency—were very forthcoming. ‘What about segmentation?’ they asked. ‘How has the consumer’s relationship with the media changed?’, ‘How do you aggregate consumers?’ All questions familiar not just to rural practitioners but which may well be asked of creative and media shops as well.

More often than not, too many of us end up glamourising rural. Any discussion devolves into a citing of anecdotal instances and one-off observations. Tales of washing machines being put to radically different uses are the stuff of urban legend. Taken together, these instances give an impression that rural marketing is extremely different and perhaps even an aberration from the mainstream discipline. It ignores the commonalities, which are critical and of relevance to a marketer.

For instance, the first thing most people talk about while mentioning rural markets is their immense diversity. We conveniently forget that the same kind of diversity exists in urban communities as well—differences in places of origin, income, profession, the localities that people live in or even where their children study. The key question here is why are differences highlighted only in the case of communities living in rural India?

These and other such highly publicised “differences” have done rural marketing a disservice. Marketing to these communities is in every way an equal science to its urban counterpart. It involves a multi-pronged approach, sometimes even supported by mainstream media and is not just about roadshows or events. But still, agencies operating in the field are often lumped into the “experimental” category.

Which leads to a larger question—a serious problem that most rural agencies find themselves grappling with. Marketers constantly seek newer and better planning tools to calculate frequency and evaluate efficacy in urban markets. They are willing to invest in longterm relationships with their creative and media partners to make sure this happens.

Why is such a partnership non-existent for the larger contributor to the Indian economy and consumer market? Why is it still an ad hoc relationship in most cases?

The blame rests more with agencies and practitioners than with marketers. Many practitioners have been scaring clients for a while now, riding on a strictly anecdotal understanding of the rural lifestyle. The fact of the matter is that rural communities are evolving as fast as those in urban areas; even leapfrogging over some stages.

Anyone who is not in touch with the trends of today can no longer be considered a practitioner. Today SCR (socio cultural region) and many other old aggregators are gradually and steadily losing relevance as India gets increasingly industrialised. Infrastructure reduces distances, telephony increases connectivity like never before. Growing families and reduced land holdings motivate migration.

Consequently, rural marketing should evolve from one-off activities to full- fledged campaigns to be relevant to today’s consumer. The campaigns also ought to be consumer-centric, not media-centric. The holistic (360) elements must be incorporated objectively and not just in a superficial manner.

The only difference is to recognise rural challenges as we recognise urban challenges for urban communities, in consonance with business and consumer challenges. Both require innovative sustainable, scalable and measurable solutions.

Another thing that puzzles me—and in this case, even marketers are culpable—is that we all are very touchy, meticulous and through when it comes to a TVC, radio spot or a print ads.

The senior management at the marketer, agency or production house all get involved. But when it comes to rural, where every interaction with the consumer does need the same quality of exposure and engagement, all the three stake holders do not go beyond merely narrating the objectives of the campaign. There are often no scripts, no PPM, no rehearsals/training and not even short listing of the actors and communicators. I wonder why promoters hired for these campaigns are expected to be marketing and inter personal communication (IPC) experts.

This is despite knowing that the investment to reach and engage is perhaps the highest in rural. And also recognising that rural communities are not so forthcoming, being risk averse and contended most of the time. Yet, most campaigns targeted toward rural communities fail for the lack of this basic rigour and seriousness, reducing them to simply the physical elements of exposure—freebies, pamphlets etc. Most social missions spend millions in training people on IPC and have a massive thrust on training and capacity building, but when it comes to consumer products can someone tell me where these fundamental principles of behaviour vanish? And in spite of such a lackadaisical approach, we expect the activities to yield on awareness, familiarity, affinity, intent and loyalty.

An aspect that differentiates rural India from the rest of the country is its vastness. It calls for a differentiated approach with a greater reliance on social structures and systems and a lower dependence on conventional mechanisms, which are often accompanied by infrastructure constraints. This is what one must recognise while considering rural markets. The need of the hour is innovative methods of reaching and engaging through an objectively devised media plan rather than an approach that relies merely on events.

It is often observed that most of the initiatives—many of which are celebrated as well—do not reach even a fraction of the rural consumers base; thereby losing relevance. It’s the reason marketers tend to evade questions on what percentage of the total rural potential/TG they have touched. Or at best, choose to substantiate performance by references to the footprint/spread in terms of number of districts, states etc. It is high time that marketers and rural specialists start addressing this directly, asking harsh questions of themselves, which will push them to innovate. And adopt approaches that give them scalable and cost-effective solutions for conquering rural markets. No longer can rural specialists pass on the return on investment (ROI) question to the marketers to fend alone.

Agencies need to wake up and realise that their role is no longer that of a communication specialist. They have to emerge and guide clients as rural marketing specialists.

After all it has been over two decades since “video on wheels” initiated rural marketing in an organised way and yet, to many, rural marketing continues to be vans, wall painting, haats etc alone that needs to change.

Gone are the days when mere gut feel and wisdom gleaned from a cursory field trip five years ago was enough to plan rural. Gone too are the days when rural marketing was some esoteric art, the preserve of only clients with an experimental streak and deep pockets. Today it’s a combination of sense to identify art and the science of communication planning. Those who stick to the old ways are in for a bumpy ride.

—The author isgeneral manager, Starcom Worldwide, and country head, Xpanse Asia

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