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In-depth: Understanding the rural consumer and how to market to them

With more and more brands trying to increase their footprint in rural India, what must a marketer keep in mind when reaching out to a rural consumer?

When a bicycle maker chanced upon a village in Rajasthan that believed in gifting the groom a bicycle on his wedding day, it believed it had struck gold. But soon it realised that there was something peculiar about the custom. The colour black is considered inauspicious and so gifting a bicycle without any black part was proving to be difficult. After all, you can’t do away with wheels or chain of a bike. Villagers were buying bicycles and painting over the black parts in a bid to keep the tradition alive. This is when the bicycle manufacturer decided to introduce an all red and silver bike to the village. Yes, even the wheels were red. The bikes were, obviously, a raging success.

Like this anecdote goes to prove, India is full of little eccentricities. Fully understanding this country would be impossible considering the fact that people, customs and even language changes with every few kilometres.

In that case, how would a marketer go about marketing his/her products? Traditionally, marketers in the country depended upon a socio-economic classification system that divided the populace of the country into SEC A, B, C and D and helped the marketer define his target audience. Over time, flaws were discovered in the system and the need for a new and improved system was felt. This made way for New Consumer Classification System or NCCS. While this new system did cover all of India, unlike SEC which was restricted to just urban areas, the fact remains that for the longest time marketers assumed that the rural population fell somewhere between SEC/NCCS C and D or if we are being really generous then somewhere SEC/NCCS B and D.

The rural consumer was, by default, assumed to be poor, with little or no education and limited purchasing power. But that perception is changing. Brands are starting to realise that the rural consumer is as diverse and different as the urban consumer and that they too have the purchasing power that they are looking for. It isn’t surprising then that brands are looking beyond metros and trying to increase their footprints in rural India.

“Brands should resist viewing rural Indian consumers as a homogeneous group. There are various segments of consumers within India’s hinterlands and each consumer segment is different from the other. The drivers of behaviour and also aspirations of a rural consumer vary from an urban consumer. Rural demand is largely driven by agricultural harvest unlike the salaried class in urban India. Our approach is to win our consumers’ trust by understanding what their needs, gaps, pain points are and then accordingly customising our strategy and offerings to meet their expectations,” said Nandagopal Nair, Vice-President, Corporate Communications, V-Guard Industries Ltd.

There was a time when brands had little to no budget to market to the rural audience and that meant taking something they had created for the urban market and praying that it worked for them in the rural markets as well. But that is not the case anymore.

“Earlier, brands did not have any special budgets or special strategy for the rural markets. But in the last two decades things have really changed. Now brands have realised the importance of the rural markets and have specialised teams to take care of these markets. Not only that even the communication, packaging, placements of the products, as well as the one to one connect with the consumers has increased. The overall budget for BTL has gone up when compared to ATL for these markets,” said S Venkatesh, Marketing Director, RW Promotions.

But how difficult or easy is it to market to rural consumers?

Venkatesh feels that it is more difficult to market to a rural audience than an urban audience simply because of how vast this country is.

“Yes, it is difficult to market to the rural markets – India being such a vast country it is almost a continent and factors like different languages, diverse cultures, diverse eating habits, diverse living conditions, different economies in different states makes it very difficult for the marketer to work,” said Venkatesh.

BK Rao

But BK Rao, Deputy Marketing Manager, Parle Products, thinks that marketing to a rural consumer is in fact much easier.

“While reaching a rural consumer is difficult, I would say that marketing to a rural consumer is easier than marketing to an urban consumer. The reason being, a rural market is relatively uncluttered when compared to an urban market. If you look at the number of brands that a rural consumer is exposed to v/s an urban consumer, there is a huge difference. It is far more difficult to appeal to an urban consumer because they are spoiled for choice,” said Rao.

According to Rao, more than appealing to a rural consumer the challenge lies in reaching a rural consumer. It is true that distribution is a problem in the country and that brands that have been able to work around this problem, device solutions and lay down a strong distribution network have thrived in rural India. But the game is changing with the emergence of e-commerce. The Amazons and Flipkarts of the world, assisted by low data costs and increased internet penetration, are able to bring brands to rural customers that they could not reach before.

“The sharp divide between urban and rural, that used to exist say 20 or 30 years ago, is no longer present. E-commerce players have been able to reach out to the consumers living in non-metros and bring brands to them that used to inaccessible,” said Ramanujam Sridhar, Founder CEO, Brand-comm.

With all these factors, making rural an alluring market for marketers, what should marketers keep in mind when trying to reach rural consumers?

Simplicity:

Simplicity seems to be the universal code when it comes to reaching out to a rural consumer. Communication has to be crisp, simple and should serve a purpose. Giving the example of an ad by Nokia for their 1100 handset, Sridhar said, “The rural consumer then, used to look at mobile phones as a luxury. So, they came up with a campaign which talked about the features of the phone, essentially giving out the message that it is not a vanity product.”

Similarly, the recent ads by e-comm giant Amazon focus on everyday people and the choices they offer to the regular Indian consumer. There is nothing ‘rurally’ about those ads, argues Sridhar but they appeal to a wider audience and the insight that Indians love options.

Consumption pattern:

According to a leading marketer, one of the key difference between rural consumers and urban consumers is their consumption pattern.

“Rural consumers are more likely to consume smaller packs. One-rupee packs of products like shampoos and smaller packs of toothpaste get consumed more in rural areas. One reason for this trend could be the fact that people in rural areas earn money more on a daily or a season-to-season basis rather than a monthly basis. For example, a farmer will make money when his yield is good. Whereas an employee in an urban setting gets a monthly salary,” said he.

Leveraging technology:

Rural India has leapfrogged over the desktop phase and gone on to embrace mobile phones and therefore, it is important for brands to be present where their consumers are.

“Brands are innovating in their approaches in a bid to win rural consumers’ trust. Technology is enabling brands to leverage ‘newer’ platforms like internet and mobile (WhatsApp) to communicate to the consumer in rural India. Just being physically present in these markets no more ensures brand’s success,” said Nair.

Influencers:

A leading finance company of the country, when giving loans on vehicles like tractors or trucks, started enlisting the people who they were selling their loans to as their brand ambassadors. Once, the person had paid off his/her loan, the company would ask them to go to neighbouring villages and take the people over there through the company’s schemes and services. Thus creating a credible brand ambassador for themselves.

Nair also bats for the involving local influencers when reaching out to rural consumers.

“There are myriad ways to reach the rural community/consumer. For example, when introducing a product to rural areas, partnering with local influencers – teachers, doctors, panchayat head, etc. – can be a vital part of an outreach programme,” said Nair.

Packaging:

“It is important to reach out to the rural consumer in his/her language and I am not talking about the text here. It is possible that a rural consumer understands the language of colours. Visual appeal is very important. In fact, people go to stores and ask for products based on colours or the packaging,” said Rao.

It is, therefore, important to understand and consider the rural audience as a separate entity and try to create communication specific to their needs and wants and not peddle something that worked for them in the urban markets.

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