A NEVER-BEFORE WORLD
Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India
354 pages; Rs 699
Despite a title redolent of pop science, A Never-Before World by Rama Bijapurkar is an amusing, if somewhat uneven, book. It tracks the evolution of consumers in India and examines why some companies failed while others succeeded in this market.
The first part of the book is pretty fascinating; it does a neat job of discussing the factors that make the Indian consumer so unique and the market so distinct. Ms Bijapurkar's genius lies in her keen perception of how the elements of business and society must work in harmony (that good old "synergy"), and in her unfailing ability to spot what many global companies operating in India do not. She does a really good job of joining the myriad scattered dots that constitute the heterogeneity of the Indian market and the failings of mass marketing. It is well written and well organised, and is even funny at times.
The most interesting part of A Never-Before World is how persuasively the author argues that India is full of contradictions and double standards. Sample this: "Parents earlier used the line 'what will people say' and 'who will marry you' to firmly discourage relationships prior to marriage. Nowadays they ignore that part of their offspring's behaviours that they don't want to acknowledge and go about the arranged marriage business as usual" (chapter 12: "Society and culture"). That set of ideas - and the implications - is interesting and important if you are an outsider and want to know how to pitch your products to the Indian consumer.
Indeed, you cannot explain the Indian consumer without setting her against her society and culture. But think about it: you cannot explain any consumer anywhere in the world without defining that framework. And that has been a persistent theme of a whole host of business books published in recent years that have attempted to explain some macro phenomenon by looking through the lens of the culture of a country and of its people. For instance, in Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour, Michael Lewis pins Europe's credit crisis on the cultural traits of the region's people. In The Culture Code, an Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do, Clotaire Rapaille talks about the culture codes around the world and demonstrates the importance of appealing to them to thrive in business. But these books are entirely about the so-called "culture markers"; this one deals with it as one piece of a big jigsaw puzzle.
Even though the book is a fun read, it proved enjoyable (at least to me) up to a point. After a few chapters, I realised that I wasn't really the target reader. I had expected to read more on the psychological aspect of consumerism and gain a deeper insight into some of the tools brands and corporations use to open our wallets. This book wasn't exactly what I had expected, so I'll take the blame for some of my disappointment.
The biggest problem with books like this is that they fall prey to the only-tool-is-a-hammer syndrome. There are large sections that are very much on target (specifically chapter 13: "Consumers ready, suppliers lag behind"), but there are also swathes that strain to fit into Ms Bijapurkar's metaphor. Unlike some of her previous work, this book has elements of "consulting" (read advice that is not grounded in the exigency of actually running a marketing operation and generating profitable sales) in small doses.
I am a big fan of Rama Bijapurkar, but I still believe this book could have been condensed without losing much by way of content or clarity. About 25 per cent (beginning with her take on the new Indian woman) can be skimmed through. While chapters like "Diverging, not converging" and "What's new" are thoughtful, once Ms Bijapurkar sets about unravelling the Indian woman (chapter 9: "It's her turn") or the Indian youth (chapter 10: "Gen next angst"), she falls back on broad-brush assertions backed with loads of published data and vague hand-waving. Had she taken the opportunity to use these chapters prescriptively, she could have done quite a bit to eliminate the weaknesses she perceives in addressing the needs and desires of these two important consumer groups. Instead, it is up to you, the reader, to glean the advice from the rhetoric.
As for the remainder of the book, although the research itself is interesting, you will see a pattern: "some people think this works in India, but this is why it doesn't and this is how you can make it awesome." Also, if one were to remove all the sections that refer to Ms Bijapurkar's 2007 bestseller, We Are Like That Only, this book would probably have 30 pages less.