As we head towards International Women’s Day later this week, I would like to pray tribute to a woman who has deeply influenced my thinking about Indian consumers. Rama Bijapurkar was my professor at business school four decades ago. There, she provoked us to think afresh about consumer insights. Many years later, when I was a manager in Titan, she was a Director of the company. She repeatedly challenged many of our assumptions about how and why women buy jewellery. Those were uncomfortable meetings, but they made us search for the truth and helped us make the right decisions. Thank you, Rama.

Liliput Land

Rama Bijapurkar’s latest book Liliput Land takes forward her passion for understanding Indian consumption. The book takes its title from the classic Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, where Liliput, a land of small-sized people, overpowers the giant Gulliver, who is many times bigger than any of them. Rama says this is a perfect metaphor for India, and I agree. India’s consumption story is an aggregate tale of hundreds of millions of small consumers, spending small amounts individually, served by millions of small suppliers. Together, they have felled many large corporates who do not understand them well enough. That is reason enough to read this excellent book.

In Liliput Land, Rama covers many themes, including making sense of the structure of Indian markets, demand and supply, decoding consumer behaviour and understanding the huge mass market opportunity. One particular section which I have read and re-read pertains to the emerging aspirations of Indian consumers, a key driver of consumption trends.

Aspirational India

As Rama explains, there has been a tectonic shift amongst Indian consumers cutting across all segments, from acceptance (“I will manage within what I have”) to aspiration (“I want this and how do I go about getting it”).

For instance, many young people wanting to buy a car today aspire to buy a significantly higher priced SUV rather than settle for an entry level car. To do so, they are willing to wait for some time, explore loans from banks, request bridge funding from parents or even buy a pre-owned SUV at a lower price. However, they are unwilling to sacrifice their aspirations.

Alongside this aspiration comes a new-found comfort with borrowing for consumption. These consumers are confident that they would be able to manage their indebtedness well. This combination of aspiration and confidence are a key reason why sales of high-end smart phones are rising rapidly in India, and why EMI based sales are now the norm at durables stores.

Climbing the next rung

Rama points out that aspiration in India is also about climbing the next rung of the ladder of a good life – a better house, better education for children or even a better hairdresser to go to. Whichever demographic segment you belong to, the next rung is inevitably there.

For instance, a lower income household may aspire to send its child to a government school. A middle income household may aspire to get its child away from a government school into a private school. An upper-middle income household may aspire to get away from a normal private school to an elite private school. An affluent household may wish to admit their children into an international school, because this is a starting point to college education abroad.

The next rung exists in virtually every consumer and product segment. Marketers in India therefore have the fabulous opportunity of how to responsibly guide millions of consumers upwards towards their aspirations.

Basic needs, balancing act

Yet another fascinating insight from this book is that most of India views aspirational consumption primarily from a utilitarian lens, rather than from a romantic one. Therefore, as incomes increase, consumers ask themselves questions such as – what products can improve the quality of my life? What can make me more productive? Once in a while, though, these questions may give way to indulgences, both large and small, ranging from overseas travel to an ice-cream on the beach.

However, for most Indians, even these basic aspirations run ahead of their disposable incomes. Therefore, they engage in an ongoing balancing act across categories, based on what their most compelling needs are at that point in time. This determines whether the next upgrade is a new refrigerator, a high-speed broadband wifi, or ready-to-eat food.

Finally, in pursuing their aspirations, fewer Indians today are obsessed with global brands or fancy labels. “Made in India” is as good as made anywhere else in the world and in some categories even better — consider, for instance, how well Indian single malts are doing. Features, quality and emotive appeal drive aspiration, not foreign origin or hype alone.

(Harish Bhat is an avid marketer, author and poet. He was formerly the Brand Custodian at Tata Sons. These are his personal views.)