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Marketing lessons from the challenges of road

Read weird and wonderful stories, and the most enlightening experiences in the field. These tales reveal a facet of marketing in India that will leave you a better marketer.

Feb 06, 2013, 05.00 AM IST
Read weird and wonderful stories, and the most enlightening experiences in the field. These tales reveal a facet of marketing in India that will leave you a better marketer.
Read weird and wonderful stories, and the most enlightening experiences in the field. These tales reveal a facet of marketing in India that will leave you a better marketer.
From travelling on dirt tracks and, worse, the Indian highway system by night, to being taken for terrorists and sales tax officers, some of the country's marketing professionals have met their biggest challenges not in the boardroom but on the road. BE asks them for their stories, the historic, the weird and wonderful and the most enlightening experiences in the field. Some of them will shock you; others will leave you with a lot to think about. However, the one commonality amongst these tales is their ability to reveal a facet of marketing in India that will leave you a better marketer.

Mayank Pareek, managing executive director - marketing and sales for the leading carmaker in the country - Maruti, will tell you he has visited over 500 districts in India.

That is a remarkable statistic by any standard. It's a simple philosophy he works by: "You can't do marketing from the corner office." Our country, he says, changes every 50 kilometres and therefore it is essential to witness the change for yourself and more importantly share your consumer's experiences. It's surely a better classroom, the open road. Maruti has been running a very successful rural marketing program for over five years now and it has most certainly paid off. Today, one in every three cars sold in the rural market is a Maruti.

But more than the destination it's how brands like Maruti got there that matters. Five years ago, when Pareek noticed a man carrying a gunny sack at one of the company's fairs, he sensed something wrong.

The bag was full of money, cash in all sizes and denominations, over Rs 3 lakh to be precise. The man was obviously a potential customer. Pareek gently informed the man of a dealership 50 kilometres away. However, the man told Pareek he was uncomfortable with the English speaking salespeople and the smart suits and the air-conditioned showroom left him feeling like a fish out of water. "Their idea of comfort is very different from those of us who live in the cities," says Pareekh, noting a seemingly simple yet significant fact.

Moments of revelation like the above gave birth to rural marketing strategies which have driven the car marker's success outside Indian metros. For instance, now Maruti has over 7500 rural dealership sales executives, locally recruited salespeople who double up as agents of influence. Despite challenges like bad roads, worse lighting and long stretches of time without food, Pareek for one has spent three days every week in the field for most of his career. He's not the only one committed to marketing from outside the boardroom, though.

Each time Hemant Bakshi, executive director, home & personal care, HUL, travels within the country he returns with "incredibly eye-opening", extraordinary experiences and insights. For instance, meeting a 30-year-old mother in a village of 2000 on India's border with Nepal, whose life is confined to her home and a few streets around it, her chief source of recreation, a movie or two on the mobile phone. An interaction like that changes the way you think about reaching and connecting with your consumer, points out Bakshi.
Or the disheartening truth that after young girls reach puberty most of them are yanked out of school in towns and villages across the country. Or the fact that a young woman would spend Rs 3000 for her bridal make-up, hair and all at a ramshackle, hole-in-the-wall beauty parlour because her family would not let her travel to a larger town in Haryana.

"Today, mothers want to educate their girls and want a better life for them. The consumer's aspirations are growing and evolving at a remarkable pace," says Bakshi and that's why it is critical to clock-in some serious face time with consumers across geographies and economic strata. HUL has an intense programme that requires every employee working on one of their brands which include Surf, Wheel, Lux, Dove, etc, to accumulate at least 100 hours with consumers when they first join the company.

Indeed the field has many lessons and not one too small, for those willing to listen. The road may not always be kind but it has always been generous with experiences, often of epic proportions. Now, be honest. How many of us can say we employed an elephant to promote a brand at a trade fair only to have it bolt after it saw a comely she elephant at the river bank? True story that. And they had dressed up the frisky fellow too. The valuable lesson Sandip Bansal, chief client and field officer, Dialogue Factory, learnt that day: You can never prepare for every eventuality you will experience in the field.

One of Bansal's colleague, Dalveer Singh, leader at the Dialogue Factory had perhaps an even more outlandish experience when he was in Ahmednagar. He and another colleague were accused of being terrorists because they were taking pictures of the local courthouse. They were confronted by a policeman who wasn't too happy about the fact that the identifying document Singh did have, a passport, carried several stamps of places ranging from Indonesia to Afghanistan.

So if you want to avoid incarceration always carry adequate and appropriate identification papers to establish your credentials. And have a local around because with over 22 official languages ie recognised by the government of India, and countless regional dialects in use across the country you might as well speak in Klingon to the local copper.

Travel Tales

Sometimes even without a language barrier, trouble is not too far behind, as Samir Gupte, president, Ogilvy Action learnt one fine day in a small town in Bihar. Armed with cameras and notebooks Gupte, his colleagues and his client were greeted with closed shops, or those in the process of bringing their shutters down, and a small army of men armed with guns headed their way. The problem: they were mistaken for sales tax officers.

Marketing lessons from the challenges on road

They didn't run but they did beat a hasty retreat and prayed all through the drive back. Some of his other experiences are equally bizarre, insightful nonetheless. "Around 2004, when I visited a village in UP, a 13 year old boy came up to with his personal pistol (a birthday gift from his father). It had his name engraved on it. When I tried to take a photograph, he pointed the weapon at me and said 'asli hain, goli bhari hain isme' (it's real, and loaded)."

Says Gupte, "During the past 9 years I have visited hundreds of villages across Indian states, except the North East and J&K. I have been to remote villages of Punjab and Haryana where no matter how poor the women are, they always wear bright red lipstick when they come for any rural activation. They are highly beauty conscious, that doesn't change with geography."

So women groom everywhere and Tendulkar's domain is similarly expansive. N Krishna Mohan, CEO - sales, supply chain & human capital, Emami got a lesson in this one night in Bihar. "We were travelling through the state at about 8 o' clock at night, having covered 350 kilometres. We stopped for a cup of tea in a village. But the entire place was shut. We were scared (legacy of old Bihar in our minds). We were about to return to our car and rush out when we heard a loud applause. We turned back just in time to see the entire population at the village panchayat. They were cheering at the sight of Sachin's half century."

Although the prospect of a night behind bars or a 13-year old with his new weapon of destruction directed at you are both very serious matters, on an even more serious note, it's the little things that can make and break the experience and a brand's success as one ventures into the hinterland.

The little things like proper storage. A couple of years ago, Atul Singh, president & CEO, Coca-Cola India and South West Asia was visiting a rural market in UP. During this visit he noticed some of the outlets were operating out of ice boxes, with very little ice, because electricity supply is temperamental in most of India, rural or urban it doesn't quite matter when it comes to power. As a result people weren't buying too many Cokes because they weren't cold enough.

Soon after Coca-Cola deployed solar coolers in the affected areas. Interestingly, most of the retail premises the coolers headed to are managed and run by women. "Most businesses, and more so the food and beverage business, are a people's business," says Singh. "We need to be engaged with our consumers and our customers at all times to ensure that we give them what they need. Modern day companies must start from the consumer's requirement and then work backwards if they have to run a sustainable business."

For a beverage company like Coca-Cola it helps when they can decode the consumer's voice, not just for launching new products, but also newer packages, price points' etc. "Market visits are therefore a part of the plan when I am travelling. Even otherwise my leadership team and I spend time with consumers and in the marketplace to keep our finger on the pulse."

Marketing lessons from the challenges on road

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