Chandramouli Prasad – Future of Advertising, The Indian Story

Chandramouli Prasad, VP Client Servicing, Cheil Worldwide

India is at the cusp of a major change. With foreign direct investment in retail being permitted by the government (a big hue and cry against this has been raised by the opposition political parties), the country could well see another sea change in its socio-economic structure.

1991 was a landmark year for India. Economic liberalization coupled with a satellite TV invasion, effectively ended government control over Indian minds. No longer was government propaganda the last word. Beside ‘consumerism’ which was a bad word in the Indian lexicon was freed of its guilt. No longer was it wrong to have wants, needs, aspirations and dreams that were not commensurate with your status and calling in life.

At that point of time, it was argued that the opening up of Indian industry would be a death knell for local players. 20 years down the line, this is far from true and we have seen some of our business houses that were willing to change with the times, going forward and using this opportunity to make a mark around the globe. Besides this a slew of new players have started building competencies that have made them significant competitors in specific industries.

2012 holds a similar promise in India. The deeper penetration of smart phones, the maturing of social media and the opening up of retail to global players (and thereby best practices) will change marketing in India. That will play a big role in the lives of advertisers as well.

The country is home to a sixth of the world’s population. The demographics are skewed towards a younger generation that has grown up in a post-colonial, liberalized era. Like a number of Asian countries, this generation too has managed to draw upon the best of both western culture and a more rooted and conservative Indian culture. This interesting blend has resulted in a third culture that amalgamates the freedom and practical approach of the west with a more traditional culture that has been at the heart of Indian thinking for centuries.

There have been many names that have been given to this generation – but the one I like best is the ‘Remixed generation’. A generation that has drawn from the best of the west and east. A generation that is comfortable with being global citizens while still being terribly proud to be Indian. A generation that has carried this ‘re-mixing culture’ to every aspect of life. Be it a pizza with Indian curry toppings or traditional dresses with Western designs and cuts. A new language has also sprung up with words uniquely ‘Indian’ that are a ‘combo’ of English and Hindi, or English and the other 18 official languages spoken across the land.

The future of advertising therefore will be to ride and if possible shape the wave on three fronts.

The digital revolution which has skimmed the surface is all set to get deeper. The current number of mobile connections stands at 698.8 million users (eMarketer, April 2011). At 58% penetration this is slated to be 72% of the population in another 3 years. India will likewise see strong growth in the smartphone space, with Frost & Sullivan predicting a tenfold rise in smartphone shipments between 2010 and 2016. For a vast majority of Indians who could not afford desktop computers, smartphones are a god-send to be a part of the digital revolution. India’s is the fastest growing country of mobile internet users. The numbers are all set to quadruple between 2011 and 2015.The mobile internet penetration by the year 2015 will be 300 million users, who will be surfing the internet through their smartphones.

The second one is the maturing of social media. In 1991 cable TV exposed the country to entertainment and news from around the world. What Facebook and Twitter have the potential to do will be an interesting watch. Currently Facebook has only penetrated 7% of the internet population in India. The interesting part is that it is the fastest growing country for this service and ranks 3rd in terms of Facebook population.

The need to share and brag is very strong in a ‘collectivist’ country like India. Also due to very strong family and social hierarchies, there are a number of subjects that are still taboo. But social networks in the recent past have opened minds to a spectrum of ideas that border on the radical and sometimes even fanatical. For a brand or a marketer to be a loved and admired brand, harnessing the social network and orchestrating genuine campaigns will be a huge challenge. This will necessarily mean advertising agencies forgoing some of their control and listening to their consumers. A difficult task as the government found out to its great discomfort a few weeks ago. A threat to reign in social media networks was met with more lampooning of the government. Building a very strong campaign against its failures, tardiness and most importantly corruption. Increasingly cornered on all these fronts, the government announced its retail liberalization program – which forms the third important variable in the future of advertising in India.

The opening up of the retail structure is forecasted to increase employment and build much needed infrastructure in this country. But this will also expose Indian consumers to best global practices and brands. Customer centricity which was paid lip-service will now have to walk the talk. ‘Showrooming’, built in with a strong e-commerce backbone will mean that marketers have to be less gimmicky and more transparent. Both traits that are anathema to a culture that preaches that ‘elders know best’.

Marketers and advertisers will have to ride these changes to see success. The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid will have to be mined with more sensitivity. Communication will have to be delivered in a manner that is less intrusive and more relevant. In a country where there is strong pressure on resources, sustainability and ethics will have to be practiced instead of just being preached. It is going to be a phase where communication will have to incorporate the hopes and dreams of the millions while still sounding believable and meaningful.

India has always been a land of thriving contradictions. The next few years will see this magnified to new highs and promises to be a challenge for marketers and advertisers. Through this will emerge a few winners and more losers. It will be a great challenge to play an old game with new rules. All I pray for is may the best win.