Don't flirt with rural marketing

R V Rajan, founder of Anugrah Madison Advertising Pvt Ltd, Is known for his expertise in rural marketing and communication, which he has championed for over 25 years. He began his career with Clarion McCann, Bombay and the multinational Grant Kenyon Eckhardt and went on to become the CEO of Advertising Consultants of India Ltd.  His tryst with rural marketing began when he re-joined Grant Kenyon & Eckhardt in 1974.In 2005 he became the president of the Rural Marketing Association of India (RMAI), and in 2009 was honoured with a life-time achievement award by the RMAI. After the publication of his autobiography Courage My Companion in 2009, he has translated his experiences and ideas into writing. In this interview, he talks with Swetha Amit about his new book Don't Flirt with Rural Marketing, his journey and what it takes for corporates to enhance their sustainability in the rural markets.

R V Rajan, founder of Anugrah Madison Advertising Pvt LtdRural marketing is an interesting concept. What prompted you to write a book on it?
I have been associated with rural marketing for over 35 years - right from the time when it was not a buzzword. I have seen it evolve from a purely agri-inputs marketing business aimed at the farmers in rural India to a business that covers the entire spectrum of rural audiences with a wide range of products and services.

Over a period of time I have been sharing my experiences of dealing with rural markets in the form of articles in business journals and lectures in management institutes. In 2009 when I approached my publishers, Productivity & Quality Publishing in Chennai, to help me with the publication of my autobiography Courage My Companion they agreed to do so on the condition that I give them a book on rural marketing. I decided against writing a text book since already several books on rural marketing have been written mostly academicians.

When I converted all my p0ower point presentations that I use for my talks at management institutes, into articles, I found a pattern emerging. So I decided to write a handbook on rural marketing detailing a 14-step approach to effective rural marketing, based entirely on my 35 years of experience, incorporating case studies with which I was personally associated. 

Over the years I have found that most of the marketers talk about going rural but when it comes to actual implementation of rural strategies they become tightfisted. They think that by hiring a couple of AV vans and going around selected villages promoting their products  for a limited period of  time, they are doing rural marketing. Such marketers are only flirting with rural markets. Hence the title of my book is Don`t Flirt With Rural Marketing: The Handbook of Rural Marketing.

You have had a brush with rural India in your childhood and in the 1970s when you were associated with a communication education program on nutrition for CARE. According to you how the rural sector developed over the years?
A lot. Driving through the small towns of India one can see perceptible changes. In the last 15 years, the development programmes of both the state and central governments have started reaching the poorer people of rural India, particularly in terms of literacy and health education.  There is a huge income shift taking place in rural India. People are moving up the economic ladder.  The percentage of people at the bottom of the pyramid is coming down.

Apart from rising disposable incomes and the aspiring middle classes, it is the rise of consumerism which makes rural India a promising market of the future. It is a market which, is even today, under-penetrated in several product and service categories.

For example, mobile services have only 41 per cent penetration in rural areas as against 140 per cent in urban areas. Besides the increasing media reach through language press, cable TV and DTH has also helped in stimulating rural consumption.

In my opinion the biggest support that the government can provide is in the area of physical infrastructure like good roads, better transport facilities, regular power supply, effective communication systems etc. In states where the development has reached the common man, you can see that the rural segment has grown. We call these areas economically developed rural India that cover, for example, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana, etc. The other so-called BIMARU [acronym for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh] states have also started catching up.

If the new government seriously implements its plans for inclusive growth in terms of banking, insurance and other financial services, you can expect better rural growth in the future.

Being a city-bred person, how easy or difficult was it to gain a deep understanding the rural market?
As I have mentioned in my autobiography I got into rural marketing by force of circumstances. In the first 10 years of my advertising career, I handled only FMCG brands like Colgate, Forhans, Nestle, Coca cola, etc. But when I moved to Chennai I found that there were hardly any FMCG brands which I could get using my experience.

While looking for new business opportunities for my agency Grant Kenyon Eckhardt, when I was resident director, I landed the agri–input business of Shaw Wallace.

While handling the fertiliser promotion business of Shaw Wallace I started travelling extensively in rural South India trying to understand the farmers' needs and what they were looking for, etc.

Despite the hardships involved in such endeavours, I was beginning to enjoy the visits and would come back with new ideas for promoting the client's products. I realised that you cannot plan campaigns for rural folks, sitting in the air-conditioned comforts of your office. One had to foot it out in the hinterlands of India.

Clients started appreciating the insights that I was able to bring to the table because of my frequent travels. Word about my knowledge levels in rural marketing, sincerity and commitment to it started to spread in the market, which brought more agri-input clients to my agency – and I started to develop a reputation in the market as a rural communication specialist. It was not easy. But in retrospect I must say that my foray into rural markets has been a rewarding experience for me personally and also to my clients.

What strategy does an organisation need to adopt to have long-standing sustainability in the rural market?
I recommend the following strategy to any client interested in entering the rural market:

  • Find a niche segment for your brand
  • Develop a product which fills the need gap and satisfies local tastes.
  • Ensure that the packaging and pricing is right  
  • Use a communications programme that creates an empathy in the minds of the customers
  • Deliver the communications programme through cost-effective local media 
  • Constantly monitor the competition and respond quickly with counter actions.

My advice to corporates who want to go rural in a big way is to tell them  to go `bottom-up' and not 'top-down' as they are currently doing. Success stories of brands like Ghari detergents, Cavinkkare, who started with rural marketing and are now giving multinational brands a run for their money, proves the point. One can learn a lot from the success of regional brands in the country, which have not only withstood the competition from multinationals but are also holding the fort very well in their respective markets. 

Tata chemicals adopted an emotional quotient (EQ) factor in a campaign to save whale sharks in Okhamandal. How important do you consider the EQ factor in the promotional campaigns for rural markets?
Emotional quotient does help in promoting products in rural India.  A number of corporates are adopting villages around the location of their factories and helping them with inclusive development plans. Such efforts do create a favourable image of the company`s products.

In order to succeed, communications aimed at rural markets for any product must create empathy for the product with the target audience. Trying to enforce urban-oriented communication on rural folks, often fails to create the desired effect. Understanding the local tradition, customs and habits and building them in communication programmes focused at specific audiences, will certainly help the rural audiences relate to it better.

Rural markets are heterogeneous in nature. What are the different product strategies that need to be adopted to tap different markets?
There is no standard strategy available for dealing with rural markets.  The strategies will vary depending on the product, the market and the media available. However one can broadly say that while small size (sachet) packs of FMCG brands can help make entries in the rural markets, it is different in the case of consumer durables. Here, it might be necessary to identify specific models of products which will appeal to rural folk and promote them. Customised products catering to specific needs of markets will work even better.
Rural folks are always looking for value for money. So if a company can offer a brand that satisfies the needs of rural folks and promise them value for money and if the message is communicated in a language and style effectively, chances of such brands succeeding in the rural markets are greater. More and more high-end customers in rural India are also willing to buy expensive products if they perceive that they are getting value for the money that they are investing. The success of many automobile products and even FMCG brands proves this point.

While for FMCG brands the urban  - rural divide is diminishing, there is still a gap when it comes to consumer durables. This is because of the fact that  even today the role of opinion leaders continues to play an important part in the decision-making process for a consumer durable  or any lifestyle brand that costs a few thousand rupees or more.

But the composition of opinion leaders has drastically changed over the years. It is not the village elders but the educated village youth working in neighbouring towns or cities, who are in touch with urban trends, who have a say in the choice of brands. Again, the kids 'pester power' evident in urban in India is also making its way into rural India. Thanks to the growing literacy and multiple choice of media, it is becoming easier to communicate with rural folks. The concept of 'media dark' areas, is a thing of the past.

What sort of mind-set is required in order to work in smaller market areas?
Corporates must be willing to invest their time & money for the long haul if they are to succeed in rural markets. Before they enter the rural market, corporates must conduct a thorough study, using the services of rural-focused research agencies to understand the mind-sets of the rural consumers and potential of the market for their kind of product.   Only after that, should they develop a comprehensive rural strategy with a dedicated team to implement it.

I have encountered many brand managers who want to try out a pilot rural project to promote one of their brands in one or two districts of a state and based on the lessons learnt would they like to go national.  If rural marketing was that easy we would have more success stories than the hundreds of aborted rural attempts by many corporates.

In hiring manpower for the rural initiatives, it is good to hire candidates who have a rural / small town background and who feel comfortable in rural settings. It has been found that forcing city-bred executives with rural initiatives has often resulted in failed efforts.

How does one battle against the logistics issue of delivering undamaged goods, considering the condition of the roads in the remote areas? Does distribution become an issue in such a scenario?
Thanks to the Golden quadrilateral highway programme and Gram Sadak Yojana of the first NDA government, most of the feeder markets for villages are well connected today. And it is not necessary and not possible for any company to physically reach their products to every one of the 600,000 villages of rural India.

Distribution is traditionally considered a big hurdle to reach rural markets which, I do not agree with. All popular brands of Hindustan Unilever and some other brands like Colgate are available in sachet packs in petty shops in the remotest villages of rural India. Not because these companies are physically reaching the villages. It is because their communication beamed through television, is reaching the nook and corner of rural India. A demand is generated and the supply is initiated by the local shop keepers who buy the brands from nearby feeder markets and stock them in the consumer's preferred sizes.

In the case of FMCG brands if you can reach your products to feeder market towns with population of 10,000 plus and in the case of consumer durables to towns with population of 50,000 plus, then you can be reasonably sure of your brands percolating down to small villages through market forces. These feeder markets today are well connected by roads and chances of your products getting damaged while being transported are much less. Of course, one has to take enough precautions to ensure that the packaging design and structures can withstand the rigors of transportation in rural India.

While the challenges of Distribution could vary depending on the product or geography, many marketers are experimenting with new distribution models to ensure that their products reach the rural consumer at an affordable price.

'Gaon Chalo' project initiated by Tata Tea by tying up with 12 NGOs proved to be a success in penetrating the rural markets. Will tying up with NGOs like what Tatas did, help many other companies to capture the rural market segment?
Tying up with Good NGO`s is one of the options available to marketers in targeting rural India. The decision has to be made depending on the brand, the markets and the capability of the NGOs concerned to reach such markets with their networks. The credibility of the NGO concerned can play a vital role with regards to the rural consumer accepting or rejecting the brand.

Lastly what are your future plans? Are you planning any more books in the near future?
The success of my autobiography published in 2009 led to my taking to writing as a hobby post retirement. I started writing on a variety of topics and uploaded them on my blog. Some of them have been published in local journals. 
Immediately after the publication of my book on rural marketing in November 2013,  I started working on a collection of my essays in a book form. The result is a book titled This & That.. Then & Now published in February this year. I have already started writing short stories. Hopefully my next book will be a collection of my short stories. At 72, my ultimate dream is to write a novel.

My association with rural marketing will continue in the form of occasional articles / interviews in business journals/ websites and guest lectures at Management Institutes.

An excerpt from Don`t Flirt With Rural Marketing: The Handbook of Rural Marketing.

The two vital arms of rural communication are, firstly the development of creative ideas to suit the targeted audience, and secondly, the choice of communication delivery medium using appropriate vehicles of communication.

While there are three segments in the rural pyramid consisting of the rural rich, the aspiring middle class, and the masses at the bottom of the pyramid, most of the rural initiatives by corporates are aimed at the top two segments-particularly the aspiring middle class. The bottom of the pyramid is not considered as it does not have any purchasing power.

The role of opinion leaders in influencing the rest of the people in a village should not be underestimated. While the rural folks receive their message through multiple sources of communication, it has been found that the two-tier system - opinion leaders and the masses continue to exist where the opinion leaders are continuing to play an important role in the decision making process. They are always consulted by folks before taking decisions regarding any high end products, consumer durables, or services. Decisions are still community or group based. However the compositions of the opinion leaders have changed over a period of time.

Today the educated village youth and schoolgoing children, apart from the empowered village women, are influencing the choice of brands which enter a household. This fact must be borne in mind while defining target audiences for specific media strategies for brands.

Whatever media strategy is planned for an urban audience is also applicable to a rural audience. When it comes to FMCG products, television is invariably the primary medium used by most of the FMCG brands. Since television does not distinguish between urban and rural audiences, your commercials are exposed to the vast majority of the rural audiences, whether you like it or not.