Thursday, November 06, 2008

Ever thought about the rural consumer?

A couple of weeks ago, I crisscrossed parts of rural South India. While passing by on the roadside various shops – big and small, old and new, ordinary and quaint – I realised that the huge demographic variations of rural India are a challenge for any marketer. Experts in rural marketing and marketing heads of companies, who have succeeded in wooing the rural consumer, I’m sure will agree. At a rural marketing summit held in Kolkata a few months ago, Peeyush Gupta, chief-marketing & sales (flat products), Tata Steel Limited, said that we need to realise that the rural consumer is not naïve or illiterate but knows exactly what he wants and that copy-paste marketing will never work given the huge demographic variations of rural India. The rural consumer is not price sensitive, but budget sensitive, he added. Well, how many of us pause a moment to think of people in our villages and the lives they lead? How many of us know of self-help groups, mostly made up of women, that have been able to gain access to micro-finance as well as chlorine tablets and water purifiers? Dipayan Dey, social worker, speaking at the summit, said that the sentimental quotient of rural India has to be given importance and strategies need to be different as well. It needs to be a model based on partnership, reciprocity, equity and sustainability. Presently, rural India is a Rs 200,000-crore market. By 2017, rural demand is estimated to be three times bigger. And consumer goods are going to initiate the change.

So, why aren’t youngsters looking at rural India for jobs and career opportunities? Why do youngsters in India’s villages leave a special romance behind to move to towns and cities for jobs? R. Parthasarathy, who runs Kripa Outdoor Publicity from Valsarawakkam, a rural marketing enterprise with probably the best reach across the four southern states and Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa and West Bengal, tells me that
rural marketing growth is phenomenal and the time is apt for youngsters to be a part of it. Opportunities are plenty, he says, and points out that the past few years have witnessed remarkable corporate participation and investment in terms of training and development. There are many management institutes offering elective courses in rural marketing. The Rural Marketing Association of India, for instance, a three-year-old association, is creating a lot of opportunities for youngsters through its industry-focused seminars, offering courses in rural marketing, conducting contests for summer project in rural marketing for students of top management institutes, rural market case studies etc.

Kripa Outdoor provides skill-based training rural youth and employs most of its field staff from rural areas only. And Parthasarathy has found such youngsters capable of taking up challenges. He started his career in advertising, with F D Stewart, one of the leading ad agencies in India in those days. When the company folded up, he decided to establish his own enterprise. He foresaw the huge potential in the rural market while being associated with rural van operations. Narrating some memorable moments about his experiences in India’s rural market, he talked about the days before television ventured into India’s villages, when he and his team used to carry 16mm projectors with a big portable screen in the van and show popular feature films in regional languages, especially old films of MGR, Shivaji and NTR, interspersed with commercial advertisements, usually between 7 pm and 10pm. Rural customers are different from their urban counterparts. It is very important to communicate the right message in a language that the rural customer understands, he says.

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