Marketing in India

India straddles many worlds, and so must you if you wish to make your mark here. Each state or region in India comes with its own culture, language and local market practices interwoven with some common threads. Similarly, while there are international trends picking up steam in India, you do need to be flexible enough to adapt your ways of working to the Indian market.

When you’re considering marketing in India, you need to consider important trends in Indian consumer culture, the eCommerce scene and how you can adopt a nuanced localization approach.

Digital is seen as intrusive

While inbound marketing practices are slowly catching up, advertisements and other traditional marketing channels cannot be ruled out. But, hey — no cold calling! That’s not going to work in any market, not even India’s, despite the fact that a lot of cold calling gets outsourced to the country.

According to digital news portal, while television continues to account for a majority share of advertising spend, digital advertising grew by 45% in 2015 with expected growth of 47% in 2016. While this may look good from a marketer’s perspective, and you may be planning to increase your budget for online spend, the customer’s experience with ads on Indian cyberspace has been far from delightful.

A Kantar TNS survey found that nearly half (47%) of India’s connected consumers feel “constantly followed” by online advertising. Apart from the fact that the ads are highly intrusive and ruin the customer experience, content publishers also seem to be thick-skinned to such complaints. One of the country’s leading newspapers, The Times of India, asked people to switch off their ad blockers, or else simply be denied its content (Figure 1).

Expect to be on your social media toes

With the growing number of smartphone and internet users in India, customers are increasingly turning to Facebook, Twitter or online consumer forums to vent their anger against brands. About 25% of India’s online consumers are aware of brands’ social media presence and are posting their grievances online before lodging their complaints in consumer court. And online consumers are not a very patient bunch in general: about 42% expect a response from the company within an hour.

While it may seem overwhelming, global companies with a strong culture of customer support should be able to handle it.

Learn from small and medium businesses

According to a report in The Economic Times, in 2013 there were close to 49 million small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in India. It is important to note that microenterprises (less than ten employees) dominate with 94.9% of the SME sector, small enterprises (ten to 100 employees) account for 4.9%, and only 0.2% are medium (over 100 employees). SMEs are the backbone of the job market and the economy, employing 40% of the country’s workforce (almost 80 million people) and contributing 17% to India’s gross domestic product.  Almost 45% of all manufacturing activity is carried out in this sector.

SMEs have achieved all this with hardly any subsidies or tax exemptions from the government, which are usually reserved for the corporates. They also do not have deep pockets to back massive marketing efforts. What then is their secret sauce? In many cases, it’s simply being very knowledgeable about the requirements of their customers and meeting them either through innovating products and services or adapting processes.

The Dabbawalas of Mumbai are an interesting, yet atypical, example. It’s not typical because the kind of excellence that this organization of mostly semiliterate men has achieved and maintained is not easy to find anywhere in the world, let alone in India. They fulfill a uniquely Mumbai need: men need to leave their homes early, so the lunch their wives cook can’t possibly be ready by then. Enter Dabbawalas, who collect the tiffin lunch boxes from housewives and deliver them to their husbands in offices across Mumbai. Food delivery services have much to learn from the Dabbawalas’ Six Sigma achievement, which means they only make an error in 300-400 of their roughly 80 million deliveries in a year.

Be prepared to compete with Chinese companies

Indian markets are fast becoming dominated by Chinese companies in various verticals, especially in mobile phones and apps. Used to a highly competitive atmosphere back home, these companies have been innovative in how they work in the Indian market. Junde Yu, managing director of App Annie for the Asia-Pacific region, told Tech in Asia in March 2016 that the latest tactic Chinese app companies are trying is to partner with other Chinese companies that have active users in China to distribute in India. These distribution channel partnerships definitely reduce user acquisition costs, grabbing up tens or hundreds of millions of active users in many emerging markets such as India.

eCommerce parallels

eCommerce companies, whether Indian or not, have had to try many new tricks to remain in the game. A couple of years ago, Myntra, an apparel retailer that’s a part of Flipkart, went completely mobile. It shuttered its website and forced people to download the app. Never mind that the approach didn’t work; it still was a bold and unprecedented move in the world of online retail.

Amazon itself hasn’t shied away from learning from and collaborating with the local market. To serve its customers in distant villages, it partnered with mom-and-pop shops — India has more than 14 million of them, usually smaller than 600 square feet. People come to these shops, use the shop owner’s internet connection to look up items on Amazon, and then place the order through the owner’s Amazon account. The goods are then shipped to the shop and the buyer picks them up.

It’s not just the buyer that Amazon has had to keep in mind, but also the seller. In the United States, sellers send their goods to Amazon’s fulfillment centers and pay a fee for the corporation to store, pick, pack and ship their wares. Amazon brought these fulfillment centers to India as well, but there was a twist — actually two: Easy Ship and Seller Flex. With the former, Amazon couriers pick up packaged goods from a seller’s place of business and deliver them to consumers. With the latter, vendors designate a section of their own warehouses for products to be sold on, and Amazon coordinates the delivery logistics. Such flexibility was necessary to make it convenient for the sellers and win their trust.

Localization contradictions and dilemmas exist

When it comes to localizing for India, the trend usually has been that international companies, especially European ones, actually localize more often and more thoroughly than Indian companies do. This is because they are used to serving multilingual markets in Europe and are sensitive to the linguistic rights of their consumers.

Indian companies, on the other hand, have mostly been slow in catching on, or at least haven’t been localizing whole-heartedly. Why do I say this? Multilingual advertising took off more than two decades ago with the advent of cable television. However, companies haven’t really kept up with localizing for the web, even though the mobile phone provides widespread connectivity.

Suburban and rural India are fast latching on to the internet and unsurprisingly, their first steps in cyberspace are toward Facebook, WhatsApp and other social networks, which are very well localized and hence easily accessible. When I was at an event for web publishers and advertisers a couple of years ago in Bengaluru, a portal head reported that most of their traffic was originating from social and not search.

Companies must also recognize the rising sense of identity among digital Indians. More and more, they are not satisfied being served in English, or for that matter, only in Hindi. Though it has the highest number of speakers to its credit, in reality it’s a regional language like all other Indian languages. Adopting a Hindi-only approach may backfire, especially in the cash-rich southern states of India where Hindi has no or very limited currency.

So, does that mean that you need to start translating in all 22 officially recognized languages? If you are a business-to-business company, the answer is usually no, though do remember that SAP has localized its entire product line into Hindi. But if you have a business-to-consumer product in the nonluxury category, you will have to localize sooner or later.

Of course, you may need to prioritize and select languages to stay in budget. Start with six to seven languages, preferably Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. This gives you coverage over most of south, central, western, and eastern India.

Product localization may also be required

Many a multinational company has learned the hard way that it cannot impose its global business model and practices on the Indian consumer. Nor can it always hope to win without making changes to the product. Take the case of McDonald’s, for example. It had to come up with a whole new range of vegetarian items to cater to Indians, but that’s not a big deal as McDonald’s is known for its localized menus in different parts of the world. Still, it had to learn that in India, it has to actually maintain two separate kitchens in each outlet, so that the cooks don’t handle vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes together, or cook them with the same utensils.

It’s not just India: each country needs a well-thought-out entry and operation strategy. It’s just that with markets such as China and India, it gets more complex because of the vastness and diversity of the market. There is no magic wand to be waved for success, but companies willing to take the time and learn will at least not have to undo mistakes in a hurry later on.  how you can adopt a nuanced localization approach.