How 2020 was a year of challenges and opportunities for emerging Bharat

March 31, 2021 10:12 AM

2020 pushed the needle of consumption in rural India and brands are loving it

While Covid19 brought along some never-before-seen challenges, it also placed the rural segment at the cusp of a huge paradigm shift in terms of growth, business, and consumptionWhile Covid19 brought along some never-before-seen challenges, it also placed the rural segment at the cusp of a huge paradigm shift in terms of growth, business, and consumption

By Sanjay Kaul

I could never imagine that a country as big as India could ever be shut down for weeks!!!

But it happened. And, it happened for all of us.

A year ago, on March 11, 2020, WHO declared the Covid19 outbreak a global pandemic. At that moment, most of us were not even familiar with the term ‘Pandemic’, let alone being conscious of the consequences that followed. We were about to witness an event that was far beyond our wildest imaginations and would change the course of history.

Soon words like lockdown, social distancing, masks, sanitisers, Corona, work from home, precautions, and positive became part of our daily discourse.

Those who were privileged locked themselves in their homes but images of mass reverse migration flashing on our TV screens were heartbreaking and frightening. Fortunately, at Impact Communications we decided to act early and started operating from homes.

I admit, initially, I was ignorantly optimistic that India would overcome this crisis in a matter of a few months and accordingly I kept motivating all my employees during our regular weekly virtual interactions. They needed a morale boost, as continuous working from home under uncertain macroeconomic situations was not normal for them. Actually, it was a new thing for me too. Never ever during my career, I had witnessed any such thing. So, above everything, I took the mantle of reassuring my employees. I witnessed breakdowns, difficult conversations, and emotions running amok. Honestly, it was one of the most difficult endeavours I had taken in my career as some of these discussions turned into therapeutic sessions.

My belief was that the situation will turn back to normal in one quarter. But I was wrong!!!

And soon, I became a worried man. Our complete business that’s largely executed on-ground came to a grinding halt like many other businesses.

I huddled with the leadership team and started deliberating on the fallout of a prolonged lockdown. As a typical entrepreneur, with an old school of thought, we decided to go for a no-layoff policy but unfortunately had to settle with pay cuts to save every job in the company. It was not the easiest of the decisions but my team understood and unanimously accepted it. As promoters, we decided not to take any remuneration till the situation and business becomes normal.

My biggest worry was for our 1,500 plus on-ground sales team posted across small towns and villages of the country, which was the most vulnerable segment in the company. Their salaries were paid by big brands – Signify (Phillips), Reckitt Benckiser, HUL, Apollo Tyres and others and fortunately none of our clients instructed us to lay off and kept patience to retain this trained and valuable Human Resource.

Undoubtedly, Covid19 impacted every segment of the business and even rural was not insulated from it. The supply chain routes were disrupted, institutional permissions were needed to operate but fortunately, the government machinery swiftly managed these challenges, identified essential industries, and ensured a smooth to-and-fro of products, especially FMCG, between farm and industries to the cities.

While Covid19 brought along some never-before-seen challenges, it also placed the rural segment at the cusp of a huge paradigm shift in terms of growth, business, and consumption. In my opinion, every brand or agency that has sweated hard to create its rural operations in the last decade or so is ready to touch the next level. It is this opportunity that has emerged as a blessing from Covid19 kept my team motivated during the lockdown and early phases of Unlock.

We witnessed a massive surge in demand from the rural retailers. They were constantly pushing for more supplies and contacting our teams.

The underlying fundamental for this growth: A sizable population, across socio-economic categories, shifted their base from urban settings to smaller towns (mostly their hometowns) to move away from densely populated urban regions. Now, they wanted the same products and quantity of supplies for their daily needs as they needed it in the cities. Secondly, families staying in the rural areas were together for all meals like their counterparts in the cities and hence they also needed more supplies than ever before. So, the demand at the local retailer shop in the smaller towns and rural areas was soaring and he started to order more and stock more.

During this time, we also saw several local brands making inroads into this region trying to capitalise the big opportunity. They emerged as challenger brands to the traditional players. The situation was a result of disruption in the supply chain.

The situation needed immediate intervention and we activated our last mile channel enhancement team enabling our partner brands to reach out to the retailers across 30,000 villages and 2.8 lakh retailers. The tech-enabled hyperlocal field force ensured fulfillment of the requirements of the local retailers.

In this adversity we were able to carve a huge opportunity for us, we added more clients and revenues. This vertical not only saved many jobs but helped overall business at Impact by adding more revenues.

One thing that has emerged in all my discussions with partners and vendors is that the consumption in the rural segment has increased and brands are pushing more than ever.

Later, we conducted a massive study of over 17,000 respondents across all four regions of the country on impact on various categories and on changing consumer behaviour. The white paper ‘Rural Darpan’ clearly pointed that the digital adoption in the rural region surged. However there is a huge gap in the demand and supply of content and we have taken a step in this direction with Natter, a young digital agency born during the Covid19 to fulfill this demand.

Overall Pandemic taught me two business lessons:-

Evolution and future proofing of business is critical.
If we master one side of the business, we need to have an integration strategy in mind to complete the loop.

These two lessons made me rethink about my future and as a result, I stepped down as CEO from a well-established Impact Communications to traverse a new journey to build a future ready tech-enabled and analytics driven market development, sales and distribution company that is all set to be launched.

I believe that the brands and agencies working on the rural side of the business should work with a fresh approach as they go forward

Retail and Reconnect with your existing consumer base
Disruptive Engagement to empathetic engagement
Lean into vehicles of trust influences offline and online
Hyperlocal connect offline and online
Collaborations will be imperative to growth
Lean is the new smart
Shift from customer centric communication to human centric approach

However, it is true that none wanted to encounter Covid19 pandemic situation but the truth is we are learning to live with it as we go along.

(This article is written by a veteran in rural marketing space. Sanjay Kaul, founder, Impact Group of Companies)

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