The consumer is a paradox

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 16, 2018

Calm pose: Between the work-life balance lies a marketing opportunity

In a world of paradoxes, marketers should look for sweet spots

Here is an interesting story. Surekha is a young, ambitious 27-year old logistics manager in a large multinational company. She loves being part of the online social sphere, and leads a fully digital life. Her active presence on Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and Snapchat are integral to her daily routines, and adds to the fullness of her life. She is digitally connected, every day and every hour, with her friends and colleagues, with college batchmates and cousins. These connections bring Surekha great joy and a constant sense of being in step with her entire world.

Simultaneously, though, Surekha is also confronted with the big bugbear of her generation: relentless digital overload. She yearns for moments of solitude, far away from the digital chatter that has become a defining feature of her life. She would like to immerse herself in real conversations and real relationships, uninterrupted by digital cacophony. She would like to pursue a private hobby, such as photography or reading or dancing, that is rooted in her own physical world. She would like to reflect, meditate and be defined by her real self, rather than by her virtual online persona.

Social time vs me time

This story illustrates why today’s consumer is a paradox. Surekha wants both constant online social connect and the pleasures of ‘me time’. Truly speaking, she is unwilling to sacrifice one of these at the altar of the other, because she would rather have both. So marketers can either cater to Surekha’s digital needs and voyages by creating an even smarter mobile phone or social website for her; or, on the other hand, they can provide her offerings that play to her yearning for the “real” pleasures of the physical world, by interesting her in a nice holiday trek, or creating a hotel bar that blocks all mobile signals to encourage real conversation.

And then, of course, some smart marketers can seek a sweet spot that is at the confluence of this paradox. For instance, Starbucks has done this by providing easy wi-fi connectivity in its cafes, but also creating a wonderful relaxed ambience in the very same cafes, where you can sit alone with your cup of coffee, and dream your most creative thoughts, all by yourself. Mobile clubbing (or silent discos) is another good example. Here, an individual can be part of a large, buzzing, connected dance floor, yet can immerse herself in music of her own personal choice, provided to each individual via a radio transmitter and personal wireless headphone receiver. So you are together and connected, yet also in your own space.

There are many such paradoxes that modern consumers have to contend with, in the new age. These paradoxes create problems that consumers would like to solve, and marketers therefore have the opportunity to offer them very good solutions. Here are some other consumer paradoxes which are worthwhile thinking about.

Formal vs informal

Many executives wear formal apparel to office – either because they love formal dress which in their view adds to their personality and gravitas, or because it is office stipulated. Wearing a crisp, well-tailored Raymond suit, or a beautiful Hermès tie or scarf, adds much formal beauty, and also makes the wearer feel really good about herself or himself.

The very same executives often also love the casual informality of their jeans, colourful T-shirts and a well-worn pair of sneakers. This explains why many offices have a Friday dress-down code, which is well appreciated by so many of us. Informal dress makes us feel at ease with ourselves, and it often makes us feel liberated as well. There is even a stream of thinking which claims that wearing informal dress encourages executives to think creatively. No wonder Allen Solly and ColorPlus have become such popular brands.

And then there is the sweet spot that sits at the junction of this paradox, apparel that is formal but also informal, that straddles both spaces at the same time. A good example of a brand that occupies this sweet spot is Hush Puppies, the famous brand of formal men’s shoes, with the sole of a sports shoe, and a design that is comfortable for brisk walking and running. Hush Puppies offers an easy, elegant look that can be worn quite comfortably with a formal suit, but also equally comfortably with a pair of jeans. I have been wearing black Hush Puppies for the past several years, and I find them formal, informal, business-like and sporty.

International vs Indian pride

A large segment of Indian consumers thinks it is aspirational to own and use international brands. These global brands bring along with them the positive and often seductive imagery of their countries of origin. The growing popularity of international fashion brands such as Zara and Michael Kors, even in smaller towns, is a very good illustration of this consumer need. Similarly, brands such as Tommy Hilfiger (American fashion), Rolex (Swiss watches) and Coca-Cola (Global drink) sit pretty in this space.

Many Indian consumers in the same segment also love brands that unabashedly fly the flag of Indian tradition and pride. No wonder Patanjali has made strong inroads into upper middle class Indian homes by building on its “anti-MNC” image and its commitment to Ayurvedic and herbal traditions. Similarly, brands such as Amul, Sonata watches and Haldirams are very Indian in their character and appeal.

Once again, at the sweet spot of this wonderful paradox are rapidly growing brands with unique appeal, such as Paper Boat and Fabindia. Both these brands are rooted in authentic Indian tradition, but at the same time they also have very international sensibilities. Paper Boat, for instance, offers very traditional Indian drinks, such as Aam Panna and Jal Jeera but its packaging, design and overall appeal is very international. Watch this space carefully. I think we will see many more brands attempting to occupy this unique sweet spot in the years ahead.

Cerebral vs racy

Another paradox arises from consumers’ needs for intellectual stimulation as well as racy entertainment. The success of intellectually engaging Bollywood movies such as Piku, or the growing appeal of literary festivals demonstrate the Indian consumers’ hunger for cerebral fulfilment. On the other hand, the success of the Dabangg-line of blockbuster movies, or indeed the brilliant expletive-heavy songs of Honey Singh, demonstrate the equal hunger for racy, mindless entertainment. I make no value judgements here, because both these are genuine consumer needs that marketers can profitably fulfil. Many brands are appealing to the sweet spot of this paradox smartly and beautifully. One illustration is the very successful television series Game of Thrones, which simultaneously caters to both the cerebral and the racy needs. By providing a strong storyline infused with elements of violence, occasional irrationality and some spiced-up sequences, the overall package is both intellectually stimulating, as well as a bundle of quick and mindless thrills.

Many other paradoxes

There are several other consumer paradoxes that marketers can also think about. Sharp consumer segmentation vs fuzzy, merging identities. Hedonistic splurging vs conscientiousness and a desire for brands with purpose. Need for predictability vs desire for surprise and serendipity. Health vs indulgence, and many more.

The opportunity and challenge for marketers is to understand these paradoxes deeply enough, and tease out what sits at their “sweet spot” junctions. These are what will greatly appeal to consumers, even as they attempt to reconcile the paradoxes in their lives, which are only likely to grow larger and stronger. And therefore, at these junctions will be born many interesting brands that will win the future.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata Group. He acknowledges inspiration from Bhaskar Bhat, and valuable inputs from Jukta Basu Mallik, in the writing of this article.

Published on December 15, 2016

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