'Aspiring Indian Consumer’: Myth or an Emerging Reality?
Over the last decade or so, a lot has been said and written about emerging India. Expert reports, statistics and predictions have all gone into great detail about the rise of middle class India and the rise of Tier-II and III India.
India has been moving ahead since. Crores are being earmarked on large-scale infrastructure, with major companies expanding their footprint across the country, carefully investing and divesting key businesses. New consumer groups are fast emerging. But the focus is still very clearly on the rising urban middle class and the ‘emerging new consumer’.
A lot of newsprint has been dedicated to this new consumer group. Who they are, where they are from, what they do and what they aspire for. ASPIRATION. That has been the cornerstone to their much-talked-about rise. A rise that has been seen as a revolution almost. The retail revolution, the Tier-II India story, the start-up revolution, the e-commerce revolution.
That said, revolution or no, there has definitely been an evolution. And this new emerging consumer is very real. And all around us. We know them from our places of work, we see them in malls and of course we are one of them. The aspiring Indian consumer.
Understanding the Aspiration
So what is this aspiration all about? How does it manifest? What does it really take? What is the role of brands and design? (That is what makes this introspection worth it, doesn’t it?)
The brand-part of the story is well understood. People at large recognise and appreciate the role of brands. Advertising and retail captures their aspiration well. But the design-part of the story is not quite as well understood or possibly acknowledged. Design is not often discussed, except within the community. People don’t see it the way they see brands. Besides, the ‘design in India is at a nascent stage’ moniker doesn’t help things either. The design-versus-price argument too has almost always tipped in favour of price. ‘India is a price-sensitive’ market’ we say.
So is it really true? Do we really always choose price over design? What about the emerging Indian consumer? What do they really aspire for? I have noticed two clear approaches in India in recent times. Both have been contributed to by the ‘revolutions’ mentioned earlier. Both involve the emergence of brands and the emergence of retail.
But which one has really delivered to the aspirations? And taken design along with it in the process? And therefore truly ‘inclusive’? Here is one perspective.
The Design-Versus-Price Era
In the past, the Indian consumer did not have much to choose from. The idea of the masses defined the general aspiration. Price almost always won over design. Over time, these brands became the custodians of the aspirations of emerging India. Then came globalisation and along with it competition. The consumer now had access to information, became demanding and also had choice. Brands now had to offer ‘more’ (read design). But the newly aspiring consumers wanted ‘value for money’. Price was an important criteria but not the only one. The ones that realised this soon, took the market shares away and along with that the aspiring consumers. The emergence of the Korean brands is testimony to this (automobiles, phones, consumer electronics, etc.). A few others continued to believe that price alone can be the differentiator. In the design-versus-price argument, price still led, though design made a quiet appearance. Who really offered ‘aspiration’? The jury may still be out on this one.
In the (not so distant) past, a second wave came. It started with the retail revolution followed the rise of the start-ups and more recently the e-commerce bang. The proliferation of malls, large retail conglomerates and a host of new brands - international, Indian and a host of private labels. Here too, the ones that lead this revolution became the custodians of the aspirations of the emerging Indians. Price was the differentiator yet again for the value-conscious Indian. It almost came to be that the well-recognised ‘cool’ brands with the latest designs were for the evolved Indians while its ‘value’ cousins were for the aspiring Indians. Price trumped design once again. Or did it?
A New Wave
It took a bunch of e-commerce retailers to turn this perspective on its head. By offering a staggering range of products, ever-expanding categories and the latest designs. Plus, the same cool brands and popular international high-street brands at a price that made them accessible to a wide range of consumers. Design AND price? The popularity of the long list of e-retailers, their constant stream of offers, the high inflow of investments and the media blitz is reason to believe. What happened this time? What was different now?
For one, the emerging consumer had come a long way. The omnipresent smartphone with easy access to internet meant that they now had knowledge at their fingertips. International brands like Apple, who were thus far accessible to a few, were leaving no stone unturned to reach out to them. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest put them in touch with the latest global trends, styles and brands. Online shopping itself created a series of firsts. Easy financing options like CoD and a host of payment gateways made online shopping more accessible to new consumers. With brands reaching consumers’ doorstep, any hint of apprehension or intimidation or the virtual barriers of swanky brand stores and malls vanished. The internet has transcended geographical and economic barriers to offer new-found liberation to the emerging consumer.
A more important shift, however, was that it brought in real inclusion. It is basic human nature, demonstrated even by children. Have you ever tried giving kids ‘special’ kiddie chairs or cutlery in a public place? They invariably want what the adults around them want. It is a feeling we continue to harbour much later in our lives. Inclusion does not work by offering aspiring consumers watered down versions or ‘value’ offerings where price trumps design. Something that is especially for them. ‘This is only for you’ connects with the luxury segment, but the aspiring mass wants to feel included, blend in with the rest. They aspire for the latest designs that retail at swanky malls and are not willing to settle for less. They are moving ahead quickly. But they are value conscious too. They are also impatient. They want to fast-track their journey. Can we offer them just great price?
In the design-versus-price choice, they want both. Great design at great prices. Sometimes a tad over-designed, but ‘design’ nonetheless. They want what other consumers around them have. A bike must be a great looking sports bike or a road-trip-worthy cruiser (KTM, Royal Enfield), a car must be a compact sedan or a mini-SUV (with daytime running lights), an Apple iPhone (albeit a 4S), accessories from Decathlon (well-designed specialist products at a great price), smart contemporary furniture (delivered at their doorstep), the latest fashion apparel and styles (international high-street brands or top international brands). All brands and products that even their ‘evolved’ urban contemporaries own.
Emerging Design Consciousness
A popular online furniture retailer recently acquired a significant bit of investment. The official statement cited the reason as wanting to ‘make more Indians conscious of good design’. The way to do this - offering them access.
This consumer is not a myth. They are all around us. Unassuming people sporting well-designed products, clothes and accessories – sharp dressing, smart plimsolls, gadgets, cool watches, often an iPhone, wayfarer sunglasses, swanky bikes, to name a few. No different from your average urban yuppie. Has this consumer suddenly become stylish, inspired by international trends through social media? Or were they always innately design-conscious but didn’t have the access to those products at those prices? Or are they evolving to become more design-conscious? Regardless, the fact is that they have chosen design in their lives.
This is true ‘democratisation’ and ‘inclusion’. It understands that aspiration does not work well with differentiation and separation. It does not seek custodians who may decide that price alone can create a revolution and design comes later in the hierarchy of needs. And cannot make consumers wait for years for design to trickle down to them. This epitomises the aspiring Indian consumer. Do we still believe that emerging India just needs ‘great price’ and not ‘great design at a great price’?
About The Author:
Sumeet Iyer has been with Tata Elxsi for over 5 years, strengthening our strategy & service design offering. He is passionate about design and its problem solving ability & loves the challenge to help businesses achieve their ambitions. Sumeet has led key strategy & service design projects and has brought many ideas to life in the Retail, Hospitality and Consumer sectors.