Never mind TV

Rural India is an increasingly important market for companies such as Unilever. But it takes great ingenuity to reach such a linguistically and culturally diverse market.

There’s no surprise in learning that over 70 per cent, (roughly 670 million) of India’s population lives in rural areas. Of these, some 260 million live in almost complete media darkness, without access to TV or radio and beyond the reach of newspapers and magazines. Widespread illiteracy, allied with the multitude of languages and dialects spoken, puts most of these people beyond the reach of conventional media planning.

Yet the villagers are increasingly important as consumers. A survey by India’s National Centre for Applied Economics and Research revealed double-digit rural growth rates in a cross-section of products ranging from scooters to confectionery between 1995 and 1999.

For companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, Glaxo and Lucky Goldstar, rural consumers are a huge market opportunity. About 45 per cent of soaps, 40 per cent of teas and 60 per cent of watches sold in India are bought in rural areas. Now penetration for many consumer products in urban areas is high, the rural markets are growing in importance for both marketers and their agencies.

Ogilvy Outreach, O&M’s rural arm, started with one employee supported by the head of the media division in 1994. Today it has a team of 1,000 supervisors plus another 5,000 people who work on a project basis.

Ogilvy Outreach president DK Bose says selling in rural India is no longer restricted to using mobile vans with TV sets screening Hindi film songs interspersed with messages about a product. New avenues include games (with the product being given as a prize), door-to-door sales, folk dances, wall paintings and even putting up shoe racks in temples, tiling village wells, occasionally painting the horns of cows and putting up scarecrows.

Tapping the rural market calls for new insights into what helps consumers remember and understand brand messages. Research carried out by Ogilvy Outreach discovered that the rural consumer identifies more with colours, numbers and visuals of animals, all woven together in loud, colourful messages. These findings appear to be supported by the high recall levels enjoyed by brands like Lifebuoy (popularly known as the lal sabun), 555 and Monkey brand tooth powder.

McCann-Erickson is also developing rural initiatives in India. Its strategy is built on two key planks: consumer insight, which helps it to understand rural consumers from their own perspective, and experiential marketing, which it says will be the most relevant, emotive and powerful tool, given the language and cultural diversity of rural India. Result:McCann, McCann India’s integrated communications company, is working for TERI (Tata Energy Research Institute) on a World Bank- funded project for farmer education on farm forestry in rural areas.

The knowledge gained from rural marketing in India is already being applied in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Africa and part of China, and may yet prove to be the pathway that extends the franchise of many brands to Asia’s rural billions who are beyond the reach of television and the Internet.

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