Till yesterday, we were all part of the priority-based economy where we did not have enough for everybody. We prioritised, we discriminated, we practised selective deprivation to manage. Any conspicuous consumption had a condition attached to it. The earning son in the middle-class family would get a glass of milk and a pinch of butter in his mealsafter all, he was feeding the rest. Milk and butter would be bought for him irrespective of the price.
The good things were always out of our reach. We scaled the stiff wall of price on the ladder of duty. And we needed to be convinced before we took out our hard earned money. Once convinced we would not hesitate to spend our lifes saving. People talked about the pomp and splendour of Laxmi Mittals daughters marriage. Whatever he had spent would not even be anywhere near a fraction of the wealth he had amassed. Nobody talks about the expenses incurred by a middle-class father who blows up his savings in his daughters marriage.
Over the last 10 years the market forces were trying to inject irrationality and impulsiveness in the minds of the otherwise argument-driven consumer class. And to a great extent they have been successful. We have become selfish, temperamental, consumption-driven and to an extent price proof. We have started spending a substantial amount of money not just on products but also on services that we never used to consider necessary. We had lived our life without chips and colas, mobiles and mineral water. We did not even realise when they had become part of our daily lives. We never thought time could be a cost variable of such importance. Any priority of consumption, out of turn access, beck and call gratification would have a price tag attached to it. Yet we had accepted them all and even made it a habit to pay for them.
In a crunch situation, are these new valuations of costing going to change Will we be ready to go back to the PDS days and stand behind the winding queue like our fathers used to 30 years back Would we buy bulk, buy big quantity and save
Why do I need to buy in bulk I neither have the space to store nor have a big family to feed. And my problem is not always the big-ticket items. It is the myriad small things that bleed my wallet and I stand helpless before these expenses. There was a time when the laundry shopping was only a cake of a good soap bar. Today there is a fabric softener liquid, a soft detergent liquid, a stain removing liquid, a colour protection liquid, a whitening agent, an ordinary detergent for the daily wash, a specialised detergent for machine wash. I am trapped by need segmentation and brand preference. While one part of my mind long for an all-in-one brand, the other part tries to exorcise myself from the ghostly clutches of costly brands.
But in this fight, I am not the lone crusader. The good old retailer, who had a puppet-like role in the encounter between the company/brand and the consumer, now has a lead role to play. What the laalas used to practice in his small outlet is now being practised by the big Biyanis of the world. What they used to do was to reverse commodity/brand process. They used to buy a 20 kg pack of a reputed brand and then would sell to the customer and also would pass on the bulk price advantage to them. In other words, they would offer consumers a price gradient rather than a steep climb.
Enter Reliance Fresh, SRS Value Bazaars, Spencer, More or any other grocery retail store and you will be greeted with big stainless steel drums selling the so-called loose products. Of course times have changed. Today you will get loose items packed in the retailers own printed pack. Commodity gets an umbrella parentage. The retail brands are raising their hydra-like heads almost in all categoriesjams, pickles, sauces, noodles, toilet cleaners, detergents, soaps, mosquito repellentswith the mesmeric message of buy one get one free. And cash-strapped consumers are succumbing to their seduction. Whether these bailout brands will ultimately replace the Brahmins of the brand hierarchy is a difficult question to answer. A lot will depend on how the retail kings are going to cultivate these brand seedlings in their retail green house and how these brands withstand the assault of competition when they are finally placed in the open market.
Lets now look how the big brands are bracing themselves for the crisis Most of them held on to the old price by offering less quantity in clever packagingin many cases without the consumer realising the camouflaged price hike. The need of the hour probably is to be honest and forthright rather than being smart and clever. It would probably make more sense to a consumer if the company says, Lets face the recession togetherIll hold on to the old price and as a consumer you take a little less. Perhaps the forthrightness will strike a chord with consumers who still have a layer of ingrained restraint under the veneer of affluence. Otherwise, a recession is like an emergency when the most loyal consumers will draw wisdom from his DNA of restraint and start looking beyond their favourite brands.
Big brands and companies can certainly do better if they put their heads together. They have the range, they have the muscle, they have the network. Check the monthly shopping list of middle-class consumer. A majority of the products they buy are from the fold of three to four renowned companies. Cant these companies together offer a combined discount on the entire basket of products The offer will not only look lucrative, the consumer may agree to try brands that they otherwise wont touch. All it requires is a new partnership among competing brands and companies to generate the maximum consumer benefit. When would you unite if not at the time of emergency If the consumer survives, everyone down the line will thrive.
This is also the time when the brandocracy is passing through one of its deglamourised phases. The titans of finance, automobile et al are gasping for breath. The fairytale brand land of America is haunted by the nightmare of unreal wealth.
Newspapers publish the horror stories of vanishing values and pink slips. As more and more of your neighbours and friends start sharing with you how they have dumped international brands in favour of cheaper and effective desi ones, it gives rise to fresh dilemmas in the minds of consumers. With every such story the resolve will be less strong and such stories will be many in number.
The recent terror attacks have reinforced the emotional attachment for our motherland and its people and probably for our homegrown brands. Didnt we know that most of the so-called foreign brands are being produced in our own country, by our own people The local brands that are giving them a run for their money are in no aspect inferior. Yes this is the timejago Indian brands jago. The world is yours. Brand India has a built-in honesty and forthrightness that will score far more in global markets than the other Asian powers. Even the tone of our advertising is steeped with a sense of honesty and purpose. A new genre of commercial communication across FMCGs talk about unity, responsibility, hygiene, environmental protection and so on alongside hardcore sales spiels. When disaster struck we found voice and resolve in slogans and utterance of our ad gurus. We did not turn to scriptures and gospels.
Now is the time, brands of India, to lay your claim and fly the flag high both here and elsewhere.
The author is vice-president, consumer insight and HFD, McCann Erickson India