SACRED TENANTS
OF RURAL MARKETING

Published on WARC

Rural consumers account for more than 70% of India, the second most populous and the fastest growing country in the world. It can be inferred that any global mass brand needs to succeed among rural Indian consumers. (Okay, that was a tad bit exaggerated given the number of Chinese consumers).

But how does a brand go about connecting with this rural Indian audience? What are the rules of marketing to engage with this consumer?

There is a guidebook on this. It starts by creating a no-frills basic product, manufacturing it at a low unit price, and distributing it in every nook of the country. Once done, make some simple communication and get a popular celebrity to endorse it. Voila! One laughs their way to rural marketing success.

In the development story of India, while urban India has grown, rural India is changing dramatically too. These ‘rural’ consumers are at the cusp of disruptive social and cultural change. There has been a dramatic rise in education, empowerment and relative affluence of these consumers. In turn, this is making them more demanding, more fickle and more ‘rurban’ (rural-urban) in their outlook.

There are many conventions of rural marketing that have lived well past their expiry date. It is time to retire them and connect more richly with the emerging rural Indian consumer.

Letting go of biases and assumptions

The single foundational mistake lies in our preconceived biases about rural India. We continue to paint all rural consumers with a rather thick brush. We believe that their aspirations are somehow inferior to that of urban consumers. We are biased in our view that their exposure to world knowledge is limited and that their information sources are poorer. Nothing could be farther than the truth.

While the literacy rate in urban India is 86%, rural India is fast catching up at 71%. More importantly, there is no significant difference in their physical access to schooling.

With literacy as the basis, there is an inclination to simplify (read 'dumb down') products and communications to rural consumers. This convention of making smaller, cheaper, bland simplistic products is ripe for disruption. Tomorrow needs us to invest in understanding the complex aspirations of the rural Indian consumer.

To understand these complex and evolving aspirations, one needs to let go of yet another stereotype. We continue to see the male provider as the decision-maker of the household. This may be true of many regressive households and communities across both rural and urban India. But they are under pressure by an educated and empowered woman.

As the girl child becomes more educated and aware, there is a shift in decision making towards ‘decision-sharing’. As opposed to male decision dominance in the house, rural women are becoming an equal counterpart in family decision making.

This is further fuelled by corporates like Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and ITC. Such corporates have come forward to empower rural women financially. HUL Project Shakti has trained thousands of village women to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. This has resulted in over a hundred thousand micro-entrepreneurs across 18 Indian states.

Initiatives like these have had a lasting impact on the confidence of a rural woman. Hence, it is high time for rural marketing to go beyond male stereotypes and include women as potential decision-makers.

Affluence is not limited by geography

Beyond aspiration and decision making, the other sacred tenet is one of affluence.

 

There is a notion that rural India is poor and urban India is rich. No doubt, this is also fed by media narratives of impoverished naked children running on dusty streets. But facts state otherwise.

 

The Household Survey on India’s Consumer Economy tells us that urban households account for 30% of its population and 43% of its spending. In the same context, more importantly, rural India accounts for a dominant 57% of India’s national spending. This implies that there are significant pockets of affluence in rural areas too.

Luxury marketers like car brand Mercedes-Benz have understood this well. They cater to the Indian rural markets as a key market driver in the future.

The affluence pyramid does not have a geographic bias. Neither does it have an urban bias. Marketers must stop pretending that there is one. The marketers default today to SEC AB (or NCCS AB, if you choose to go with the new classification) in their segmentation. Instead, they should understand the total value in context of the brand premium for the rural affluent consumer. Understanding this notion of total value will disrupt today's rural marketing practice.

New rural reality demands new media strategies

As the rural consumer changes, there are also disruptive changes in accessing them via distribution. A dramatically simple fact – Amazon now delivers to 100% of all serviceable pin codes in India with customers in each one of them. It is also working with rural third-party affiliates to support their online businesses. This internet-driven disruption in access upends decades of reliance on the rural shopkeeper. He is no longer the gatekeeper of the community's aspirations.

Access and aspiration of rural Indian consumers is soaring to keep pace with their urban counterparts. In such a world, the so-called rural-urban divide seems artificial and primitive. One symptom of this archaic thinking? Wall paintings continue to be the most used form of advertising in rural India.

Fact. Mobileinternet and television penetration have increased dramatically with near 100% rural electrification. Brand and communication strategies need to evolve to keep pace with rural markets.

We do not need to stop advertising through traditional mediums. But it is important to realize that new-age media connect directly with rural consumers. In such a scenario, traditional media like wall paintings, puppetry, folk theatre, etc. will become support media. They cannot continue be the centrepiece of rural communications.

Rural markets are developing at twice the rate of urban Indian markets. A combination of literacy, aspiration, and affluence is changing the very nature of the rural consumer. This is further magnified by technology-driven access. It's time to put our preconceived notions about these markets under the scanner.

In summary, we need to let go of the traditional tenets of rural marketing. It is time to unlearn our traditional approaches. Only to start learning what a truly modern rural Indian market is all about.