Prabhakar Tiwari — Founder & CEO of The Marg Darshak Talks Rural Consumers, Alarming Trends & More!

Marketing | March 17, 2017 | Interview

Rural Marketing Rural Marketing Association of India RMAI Flame Awards

In today's dynamic marketing ecosystem, the rural hinterlands has become more challenging and critical than ever. A new brand or agency trying to penetrate rural markets often finds themselves overcome by numerous apprehensions and preconceived notions which may or may not reflect the on-ground reality today.

In an exclusive conversation with Prabhakar Tiwari - Founder & CEO at The Marg Darshak, EVENTFAQS debunks some of these rural marketing myths. Prabhakar Tiwari is a rural marketing veteran with over 15 years of experience in the domain. His company The Marg Darshak helps brands with execution, consultation and research insights into rural India. Tiwari is also the Jury Member of the RMAI Flame Awards Asia 2017.

Being a rural marketing veteran, share with us how marketing in rural India has evolved over the last decade.

I experienced rural markets closely from when I was working with the brand Parachute when ITC’s e-Choupals were the toast of rural marketers; to brand CEAT years when HUL’s ‘Kan khajura Tesan’ had both popular and professional opinions in its favor.

One thing is clear that change in rural consumer dynamics has been nothing less than dramatic. Better disposable incomes with nonfarm employments, improvements in road connectivity & communication connectivity with bigger towns and ever soaring aspirations driven by traditional & digital media have brought rural consumers closer to their urban counterparts in aspirations and in some cases paying capacity, too. Moreover, Digital is shaping rural consumers’ worldview, consumption behavior, and aspirations not just as another media type, but as an access channel also.

While Bottom of Pyramid theory from late Prof Prahalad argued that Rural, supposedly poor, offerings must be beyond stripped down versions of urban offerings, the argument has become multi-dimensional now beyond usability and affordability. Access to reliable electricity, education infra, and living conditions has increased confidence in future and willingness to spend to all-time high among the rural consuming class.

In my opinion, marketers should avoid getting caught in delusionary distinctions of urban and rural consumers. Rather I would approach urban and rural divide purely as a business oriented exercise and propose an alternative narrative of the accessible consumer (AC) and inaccessible consumers (IC).

As you would notice, accessibility is a relative term here both in terms of creating demand & fulfilling it, because marketers would then need to answer for not being able to convert urban poor in a consuming class for their offerings. Hence the task for all marketers would be to increase the accessibility of their businesses in all geographies without creating needless confusion of urban and rural divide.

There have been multiple discussions on what a typical Rural Consumer is. What do you think are the few traits that define a rural consumer today?

As a starting statement, Rural Indians are no more inferior to the country's urban clan. Increase in incomes, rising non-farm employment opportunities, higher aspirations and the Government's focus on rural sustainability schemes are major factors that have been driving the rural markets' growth.

In line with the general trend, rural consumers are evolving towards a broader notion of value provided by products and services which involve aspects of price combined with utility, aesthetics and additional features, and not just low prices.

It won’t be a right approach to simply count traits of rural consumers as someone with less education but high common sense, high involvement in relatively general use categories, VFM seeking behavior, need of edutainment, aspirational yet liking for seeking regional flavor etc.

As we are considering the rural consumer traits for its broader business usage, I would like to approach this question of defining traits of the rural consumer from a marketing communication framework AIDA model.

Awareness – It’s no longer about media dark and media light geographies. Mobile phones have changed the game. So today the challenge is not scarcity of options to generate awareness but actually its abundance of such options and challenge in making a right choice.

Moreover, let’s talk about media over-usage cases, outdoors branding was never difficult for marketers, you would see no walls are spared from our telecom giants as you move to the countryside. Hence creating awareness would involve newer approaches like HUL’s Kan Khajura Tesan to give you a competitive advantage.

Interest – it’s all about the value proposition. Like the urban counterpart, rural consumers are suckers for drama and story-telling. The job here is to find unique, relevant and ownable stories and formats. Examples are HUL’s Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, ITC e-choupal value adds, etc.

Desire – Now that could be easy if you have got the first two right. Rural consumers have given to the wild side of things and once influencers adopt and advocate your product, the desire spreads like wildfire coming from the mouths of Mukhiya Ji, Fauzi, Pardesi babu stereotypes.

Action – Deliver where the consumer is and offer her to experience the value she seeks. Now that reminds me of an old but insightful oft-repeated observation. In a haat, rural shoppers are buying very bright colors, chatakdaar clothes, not the subdued pastel subtle colors urban shoppers would generally prefer. The rural shopper insight here is saada (plain) clothes are ordinary while paying money for clothes such shoppers go for something in dhinchak colors for full ‘paisa vasool’.

More importantly, I would urge the marketers to leverage rural consumer’s traits in the context of their categories to convert all Touchpoints to Trustpoints: a sure-shot way of winning over India's aspiring rural consumers.

Most brands still feel that ATL is non-existent today in the rural. Is it true or do brands need to start focusing on ATL in rural too?

Marketers should forget about using such old economy terms like ATL. In today’s age, it is either digital or non-digital media. And digital media here includes mobile etc. media too. The mind-boggling growth of mobile phones, especially in the rural areas, has created a great opportunity for anyone with a relevant commercial message to reach the rural masses.

I would only talk about leveraging imagery aspects, of yesteryear term, of ATL media here for ease of comprehension. It’s easier to build imagery with moving visuals and sound media, which in turn fires up the imagination to increase desirability quotient for any product category and brand. In some ways, imagery communication is the only missing piece in the rural marketing arsenal. This has to be understood in the context of large unorganized economy, which is already serving rural markets, hence basic articulated needs of rural consumers are already being met by efficient markets.

The new-age marketers need to create wants or give impetus to unarticulated/ unmet desires and fulfill them with supposedly premium products as compared to available standards in rural. I won’t bother about the presence or absence of media beyond that. If you need imagery to sell more, leverage the so-called ATL or non-digital media as you see fit. Only advice would be to pre-test your communication with both urban and rural audience. It may so happen that your urban-centric commercials won’t cut-through or create purchase intentions among rural consumers, hence you would need to customize the brand communication for rural hinterland in line with your marketing objectives.

In your opinion, what are a few pointers a brand/agency should keep in mind while they are targeting rural?

Rural Immersion is a must for all budding brand and agency people. Such immersion is an investment in their own careers, not necessarily only limited to their company or client’s business.

Let’s accept it, we all have mental biases from our urban upbringing, the best of intellectual prowess can’t take away those cobwebs coming in the way of cogent thinking and choosing most appropriate approach to crack rural conundrums. The biases are also result of largely westernized thinking & non-agrarian lifestyle of urban dwellers, as compared to deeply eastern and largely agrarian lifestyle of rural folks.

In terms of simple a rule of thumb pointers, I would offer following basic framework approach:

Be extra sensitive to rural environment and sensitivity, as your urban lenses are bound to act as blinkers limiting your view of the grassroots situation.

Focus on getting a proper brief from the client or senior people with experience in the rural marketing challenge, before you start your own problem-solution approach.

Make a personal rural toolkit over time and keep revisiting it to add new insights.

Given the rural market construct, both message and packaging are equally important.

Trust the rigorous process and outcomes will follow.

What is the recipe of a successful brand campaign in rural? Should it be a campaign of media convergence or is just experiential still the way to go?

A typical Haat or Mela in rural is a visual treat to the eyes with plenty of products and experiential offerings. These haats / melas are the original timeless markets, where humans are trading not just product and services but sharing stories of adventure and latest gossip with equal glee. Hence any good marketing campaign should first fit in such ambiance and then stand out to rise above the noise.

In past, rural marketers have leveraged Puppetry, Folk Theaters and Direct Contact programs in Panchayats, Other village groups etc. If you look carefully at those proven methods, here in lies these offer the key learnings about storytelling, short formats and focus on a demonstration over mere information to crack rural market conundrums.

Successful brand campaigns need to leverage media convergence for its worth without falling in love with the tool to forget the task at hand. The task is to deliver the meaningful relevant emotional message, which is part of a good compelling short story and focus on benefit demonstration as much as possible.

How important do you feel are platforms like RMAI Flame Awards to honor the best work in rural marketing?

Consolidating Industry-wide learnings are key to evolve theory and practice of rural marketing. A recognition in a big platform like RMAI Flame Awards give a great opportunity to individual talent and agency to get the necessary self-confidence and even much-needed business leads with an opportunity to solve bigger and complex problems. Eventually, a ‘virtuous circle’ effect takes over and helps the entire industry, per se, to scale higher never-before professional heights.

Note- The Last Date for Submission of Entries for RMAI Flame Awards 2017 is March 20, 2017. Click here for more details.

Prabhakar Tiwari is a rural marketing veteran with over 15 years of experience in the domain. His company The Marg Darshak helps brands with execution, consultation and research insights for rural.

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