Kailash Kasat, a distributor of fast moving consumer goods, is a worried man. Sales from his distributorship in Beed in central Maharashtra have stagnated. Four years ago, this distributor sold 105 tonnes of washing powder and 45 tonnes of soap bars (combined sales of 150 tonnes). With the drought in the Marathwada region spanning Beed, Latur and Osmanabad districts, sales are now down to 120-130 tonnes a month.

“Consumers have become more choosy now,” he says in a simple analysis of the situation. In the home care category (soaps, detergents and cleaning agents) sales have declined by 10-15 per cent. “With operating costs and labour costs going up year on year, margins are under pressure as realisation is flat, says Kasat.

As the country reels under one of the most severe droughts in recent times affecting nearly 33 crore people or about one-fourth of the population, there are several consumer categories that face the direct impact of the heat. While categories such as beer makers and soft drink companies are taking the brunt, with several calls to cut water consumption in their production units in the State, there are other categories that could play a vital role in building consumer confidence, engage in CSR and get close to the consumer – without coming across like a tyrant who seems to say, “if you do not have water, drink cola”.

Ground zero But marketers are fighting shy of hitting ground zero. The only ads our correspondent spotted in drought-hit Beed were hoardings from borewell makers or ads from spiritual gurus moving the religious discourse towards saving water. There was almost pin-drop silence from brands which would have otherwise taken up any cause and used it to amplify their marketing message.

“The only drought that marketing is familiar with is a drought of ideas,” says a Mumbai-based marketer. However, on a serious note he concedes that the fraternity is probably silent because there is a high chance that even a well-meaning activity could work against the brand. Others such as Mandar Patwardhan, chief operating officer, Surewaves, a media company that offers advertising solutions across cable and regional television networks and works closely with cable operators in the Marathwada region, agree. “The gravity of the situation is exceptionally alarming. Everything that a brand does has to be holistic or else it could end up being symbolic,” he says.

In Marathwada, advertising on cable networks has dropped by a whopping 75 per cent, according to Sachin Anarthe who runs a cable network Hathway MCN in the region. “Advertising is at an all-time low. Categories such as jewellery and suitings were major contributors and have pulled out,” he says. “Events were a big way to reach consumers. The event managers have now gone to sleep,” says another event agency owner from the region.

However, that does not mean marketers have nothing to say or offer a country where drought-like conditions could be the new normal.

The bright spots “The effects of global warming are region- and income-neutral,” says Sandeep Shukla, head, marketing and communication, Jaquar and Company, a major manufacturer of bathroom fittings.

He adds that though there has been no fall in sales of taps and bath accessories due to the drought, companies such as theirs have been making products that help consumers conserve water. The Jaquar Air Shower is one such – it mixes air with water thus ensuring that customers save anywhere between 30 and 70 per cent of water compared to running water from a regular tap. The other products include sensor-based taps and flushing valves which also play a large role in conserving water.

Marzin Shroff, ýCEO – direct sales and senior vice president – marketing, Eureka Forbes, says, “Looking at the drought situation in Maharashtra and considering we may have many more Laturs to come, in our own small way, we are creating products keeping in mind the environmental and social challenges.”

The company has introduced a product such as Aquaguard Geneus, which automatically senses water quality and chooses the optimum purification technology to drastically reduce wastage. “We are encouraging consumers to get their water tested by us before opting for a purifier,” says Shroff. The company is also educating consumers about depleting water levels and contaminated drinking water and even encouraging people to share water with the deprived section of the society.

Back in his large godown Kasat cannot help but wonder about this fact. Even as his soap sales are tumbling, shampoo sales are a bright spot with an increase in volume from 2,500 kilolitre (kl) to 3,500 kl a month. During the global economic depression, analysts pointed out that lipstick sales shot up because consumers wanted to feel good in trying times. Is the same logic at play in the drought-hit regions of India?

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