The rural consumer: S/he's different!

R. V. RAJAN | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on July 13, 2011

Rural roadshow!

And marketers will have to acknowledge this fact to unlock the potential in these markets.

There was a tele-film for Titan's Sonata brand of wristwatches shown in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, for quite a few years. It showed a young man in the village telling time by the arrival of the town bus, to go about his daily activities. Until one fine day when the bus gets delayed, and he drops his son late to school for his exam. The message was simple: ‘It's a bus, not a watch'. Enter Sonata.

The modern challenge for wristwatches might be the mobile phone, but in some parts of rural India, films such as this might still be relevant. As we discovered in our many studies of the rural consumer over the years, a villager uses a wristwatch only when he leaves his village to attend social events. Also, he considers wearing a wristwatch with a gold-plated strap more prestigious than ones with leather or silver straps. These are among several characteristic perceptions, attitudes, comprehensions, priorities and decision-making processes we continue to uncover while trying to understand the evolving rural Indian consumer. The study of this consumer needs to be continuous for it to be relevant for marketing.

While several things have changed with societal changes such as proliferation of satellite television and penetration of the mobile, many attributes are still unique to the rural consumer. And there are peculiarities that characterise different rural markets too.

In several villages of North India, for instance, we found that consumers prefer to brush their teeth with their fingers, even while using toothpaste - they consider the finger a better tool than the brush. Even today, popular brands of soaps and toothpaste are not used daily by many rural consumers, but only on ‘special occasions'. Another marketing challenge - and its attendant opportunity.

Yes, penetration of branded products in rural India is growing. But there exists huge untapped potential. The size of the rural markets comprising agri-products, FMCG, consumer durables and services was pegged at Rs 1.75 lakh crore per annum by a 2008 CII report. It could only have gone up, and there are varying estimates of by how much.

While a product's benefits may be the same for all consumers in the mind of the marketer, it may need to be communicated differently to rural consumers, and to different sub-sets of rural consumers, as marketers are now acknowledging. It is imperative to understand the nuances of each rural market and its constituents, to meaningfully address the untapped potential in each.

It is an arduous task to speak each consumer's language when you have 16 major languages and 1,650 dialects in the country. And, in a culturally and traditionally diverse and rich nation such as ours, understanding the values of different segments of consumers becomes indispensable - even more so in the heterogeneous six lakh-plus villages that largely remain rooted in their culture, traditions and values. Marketers can ill-afford to paint all of rural India with one brush.

Multiple Layers of Rural India

Even as a health-conscious urban India migrates to ‘healthy' beverages, in large parts of rural India, offering guests a branded aerated drink such as Coke or Pepsi is considered more prestigious than ‘just' offering coffee or tea.

Comprehension levels of rural folk are different from that of the urban audience. The urban audience is quick on the uptake and is able to grasp the basic message conveyed through commercials, however gimmicky. But rural folks connect better with commercials which are more direct and easy to understand. Another Anugrah Madison study showed that while the comprehension levels of an urban audience for a set of messages from FMCG and consumer durable brands was 100 per cent, in the case of a rural audience it was 50 per cent or less. Rural consumers were unable to relate to the situations and characters. They also did not easily accept the tall claims made in the commercials.

Influenced by television, women and children in rural India are pushing the head of the household to go in for lifestyle products. Televisions and mobiles have become an integral part of their homes.

In a recent study among the growing middle class in rural India, where parents are increasingly admitting their children in private schools teaching in English, it was found that computers are growing in importance in the list of priorities. Parents felt kids would do well in their studies if they had access to their own PCs at home.

The moral of the story is that just as India is not one India, rural India is also not one rural India. If there is a segment in rural India that watch manufacturers can target, there is definitely one for the latest laptop.

Rural Decision-Making

But, the rural consumer buying the laptop is likely to be more discerning than his urban counterpart. In urban India, a brand decision regarding high-end durables or services is taken by an individual. In rural India, the decision-making for any high-end product is a collective process after careful consideration of several parameters. A decision about a brand is taken after consulting a chain of influencers such as friends, neighbours, relatives, village youth and local leaders.

While doing research for a TV brand, we found that an entire village patronised a particular brand. The brand changed with each village, depending on which brand was first purchased by the richest man in that village. Others in the hierarchy tended to follow. This reinforces the importance of the prime mover advantage for brands in rural India.

It is also interesting to observe that rural folk never go alone to buy expensive durables such as TVs, two-wheelers or home appliances. And when they shop for such products, they don't do so near their village, where there may be one shop selling a limited number of brands. They go to the nearest town or city because they believe that in cities they will get more choice, better deals and better service.

Today, it is also important to recognise the existence of developed and developing rural India - differentiated by the economic prosperity of certain States such as Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana, and now Gujarat where the fast improving infrastructure is helping to reduce the urban-rural divide.

Small towns are gaining in importance as centres for modern shopping experiences for folks from nearby villages. Large-format retail stores are stocking everything that a farmer needs from agri-inputs to personal care products to consumer durables, and are slowly but surely gaining in popularity.

As the urban-rural divide narrows, thanks to a multitude of factors, marketers might be tempted to go back to the one-size-fits-all approach. The fact remains that the commonalities are a minority, because the urban consumer is also fast evolving, pushing the bar higher and higher. If anything, there are more segments of consumers within the gamut of rural India, whose pulse needs to be studied continuously.

The consumer in rural India represents demand - both stated and latent - that marketers can address with their offerings. How they communicate to these consumers that their product or service is the right solution for them is the challenge. The first step is a qualitative study to understand them, be it through observation, focused groups, participatory appraisals or personal interviews. Without a qualitative understanding of consumers, any rural communication package is likely to speak in a language alien to them. Marketers need to listen to the consumer in rural India first, and listen as much as they do to their urban counterparts, if not more.

(R. V. Rajan is Chairman, Anugrah Madison Advertising Pvt. Ltd, and Past President, Rural Marketing Association of India (RMAI).

Published on July 13, 2011
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