Nowadays, many if not most marketing departments operate with air-conditioned insights, with deeply limited access to real customers. This is troubling in so many ways as the future of organisations can be seriously endangered.
In case it is not amply clear, this term has been coined to depict the ‘secondary’ culture that exists even in the largest companies. As in a critical dependence on secondary data points, information and most frighteningly, anecdotes to forge an understanding of customers in turn design experiences or communication directed at them. Which also necessarily means that decision makers are losing crucial touch with their buyers as the need or desire to touch their actual lives is increasingly considered redundant.
One of the key villains for this degradation is the proliferation of data, big or small and indeed, an obsession for it. Modern tools, including technology-based AI, offer numeric perspectives on citizens more sharply than ever before but this must be considered to be either the beginning of the journey or validation of real-time physical enquiry and hypothesis. Unfortunately, the glamorisation of data has led to a debilitating culture of over-dependence and that cannot be a good thing.
Connected to the above, once again paper evidence, is the cross referencing to international markets, however relevant they may be. Patterns in Indonesia or Brazil occupies significant parts of boardroom thinking and while some of this exploration may be useful, it cannot be the base platform. But then, in these globally venture capital bolstered or networked times, many such diversions take place, deflecting us from the rooted realities.
Quite like data, e-commerce can often be a twin-edged dagger in this scenario, for all its obvious glories. As we know by now, intermediaries like Amazon, Google and Flipkart are ever keen to shower well-manicured customer data points with us and encourage teams to consider these Las Vegas PowerPoint presentations to be the final verdict. Once again, a dangerous pattern, as these points of consideration leading to consumption are points of action, which can, at best, be surrogates for thinking and never a substitute for understanding true behaviour.
In fact, the above leads to yet another potentially volatile territory, which is the obsession for the category and not the customer. Which simply means that folks selling mobile phones will be paranoid about competing phones but not collaborative experiences - like consumption of OTT, physical mobility, tote bags, social icons and so much more. This narrowcasting of context leads to deeply limited understanding of the people who matter most, as opposed to a holistic take quite like a physician insisting on a battery of complementary tests for an accurate specific diagnosis.
Air-conditioned marketing, above all, is a cultural phenomenon which has successfully invaded the finest of corporations and I say this with sufficient first-hand context. Having commenced my professional career with HTA, the first client was ITC and this led to a life-altering mindset towards physical contact with customers and trade, practised across the spectrum with military zeal. This pattern was replicated in many such ‘classic’ companies and even by successful entrepreneurs but in the last decade or so, the hands-off mindset is all pervasive and me-too the more persistent view.
Before getting into a possible solution, let me tick mark a couple of other bad guys in this narrative. One, most certainly, is the obsession for public forums, online or direct, both as participants as well as watchers. Marketers are thus enamoured, often prematurely, with being thought leaders when they can barely deliver results and often the wisdom of equally undernourished intellects becomes their default referencing, especially if a few articles have already been published. All this precious time should be spent on Virar Locals sipping coconut water and not in Grand Hyatt Santacruz nurturing pretty glasses of wine.
One of the most obvious consequences of this air-conditioned marketing culture is the continuance of an age-old Indian problem - the limited ability to innovate as product or service. Even today, the genuine innovations come from hands-on first-generation businessmen and there can be no better example than the PeeSafe Toilet Seats, a fine convergence of necessity and jugaad. But the larger marketing organisations, with the mild exception of Dabur, are still operating in predictable demand mode and part of the blame must reside with the disconnect with reality. Believe me, I have worked with many and the entire development mechanism is either smart replication or scaling up existing successes, with minor variation or sharper SKUs.
The solution really is plainly simple but it will entail a diktat from the board rooms, endorsed by the finely booted VCs. A Bharat Yatra must be made compulsory for all strata of management, with fixed days every month spent with real customers in real markets with autonomous external facilitators. If it is rural India then there are experts available who can do this job well and they will add unimaginable value to outcomes. These trips need to be in realistic modes of transport, like railways and buses and not easy-peasy Vistara - earning precious Goa Holiday points. Regular meetings and life can continue on hybrid mode as that thankfully is a perquisite of both covid and technology.
Further, Corporate India must take a pledge towards customer-centricity with the first proof being scalable innovation, not from a manufacturer but the user’s perspective. Open-source thinking and excavation must be mandated and a greater degree of cross functionality must be mandated. This includes local experts as collaborative panels as well as creative individuals co-opted in the thought process, to break the shackles of purely logical thinking. Of course, the decision makers and the accountants must take over at some point and that will naturally be the terrain of governance.
The marketing departments even in the best of companies are in a free-fall slide and this is invisible for the most part in the delirium of social media projections and data romancing. Businesses are delivering results when they are in replication or continuity mode but the distance with the consuming public needs to be bridged urgently, else there will be a mammoth loss of value to entire industries. Even the finest talent is becoming lazy due to the factors articulated and the learning curve initiated by the pioneering organisations like HUL, Pepsi, ITC and the Indian stalwarts is severely threatened.
Just in case you were wondering, the crisis on this score is even worse with advertising agencies, an obsession for Bollywood in tandem with a damaging abdication of primary work endangering genuine audience connections. But then, that story must be reserved for another day and the client must have the last word today, as always.