1. The quintessential freeloader Indian customer

The quintessential freeloader Indian customer

As marketers, when we don’t relate to the ‘value’ definition of a segment of society other than ours, we start believing that such people don’t want to pay.

Published: May 23, 2017 3:23 AM
The Indian customer is as much of a value seeker as any of her overseas counterparts.

The Indian consumer doesn’t want to pay for anything; quality doesn’t matter to her; she wants everything free; all she cares about are discounts… Really? I often wonder who this Indian customer is, that we all talk about. Most marketers believe in this statement, but claim that they in their personal lives are not like this. So once again, who is this customer — a real person or just a convenient way for explaining low sales numbers?

Nothing revolts me more as a marketing person than this misplaced notion of the Indian customer wanting everything for free, and this emanates from another bad practice amongst most marketers — not meeting real customers outside focus groups done in sterilised environments.

Guys, FGDs (focus group discussions) done with research agencies are great, but they don’t really sensitise you to your customers — their wants, their fears, their needs. For that you have to meet them in their comfort zone, say, their drawing rooms and have tea with them. That’s the time they start considering you an equal and really open up. It’s the 70 year-old granny sitting in her bed who at times ends up giving you more useful inputs on your product than the top consultants.

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During my earlier stint, I met around 25 customers every month at their homes. This ranged from slums of Bhubaneswar to kothis of Ludhiana to illegal houses of Delhi to the outskirts of Coimbatore. And for me, that was more valuable learning than my six years of engineering and management education. It taught me valuable lessons: Is the Indian customer only looking for low price? No. Is she looking for good value? An emphatic yes. Is she buying products purely for indulgence? No. But is she seeking some emotional benefits along with the rational ones? Absolutely.

And by the way, I am still searching for the stereotype penny-pinching freeloader customer who doesn’t want to spend any money for things she values.

Seeking value

The Indian customer is as much of a value seeker as any of her overseas counterparts. The only difference is that India is an extremely heterogeneous society, culturally and financially, and this means that the definition of value varies dramatically across different social segments.

As marketers, when we don’t relate to the ‘value’ definition of a segment of society other than ours, we start believing that these people don’t want to pay. Nothing can be farther away from the truth. The Indian customer will surely pay, provided she sees value the way she defines value.

Another issue is that most sales and marketing guys in India have had their education based on Western management literature. A big difference between the outlook of mostly Christian Western authors and Muslim/Hindu Indian customers is the philosophy of indulgence.

Most Indians, however wealthy they may be, are brought up with the belief that abstinence is good. In fact, it’s the way to salvation according to Hindu and Islamic religious philosophy, which by implication means that indulgence is bad. And this got compounded by the socialistic regime of the first 50 years of independent India.

However rich we may be or however much disposable income we may have, there is still something that makes us feel guilty every time we spend money for the heck of it. But we still want to do it.

So how do we handle this guilt? By giving ourselves a rational logic for justifying an indulgent purchase. And for marketing guys, understanding this rational logic and imparting it to the customer, is the key to building the ‘value’ proposition of any product.

Now my best friend whose opinion I ‘value’ a lot, strongly believes that the above theory applies only to consumers over 30 years. Indians born after 1991 don’t bear this curse of ‘indulgence is bad’ — they spend without any guilt or care or a need for rational justification. To some extent I agree with this, because the impact of religious philosophy is weakening in the current capitalistic India.

But still, as long as Indian parents keep telling their children “Beta save for a rainy day” or “Beta try keeping yourself debt-free”, the new generation will also subconsciously keep on looking for rational/emotional justification in order to make a purely indulgent purchase.

The music category is no exception to this. Most stakeholders feel that the Indian customer is now used to getting music free, and hence will not pay for anything related to music. I respectfully differ.

At the end of the day, it’s the same customer who pays two times more for DTH services than she has to pay for cable in spite of getting the same channels. Or pays three times the ticket price at a multiplex than at a single screen hall for the same movie. These categories have got their ‘value’ story right. It’s time we get the story right for music also.

It’s still early days. And I can’t guarantee how the future will unravel. Maybe my hypothesis will be proven right, or maybe not. But one thing will definitely remain constant: the customer is always right.

The author, Vikram Mehra is MD, Saregama India

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