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Madhukar Sabnavis: A confused society

Consumers are grappling with opposites

Madhukar Sabnavis 

Madhukar Sabnavis

The 2014 general election is a special one. This is the first time after liberalisation when India is going to the polls in the midst of slow growth. It could be because of the natural law of averages, the general global slowdown or policy paralysis. Whatever the case, it has invigorated the debate on the best way for development. There is the capitalist belief in the trickle-down effect: support private enterprise and everyone gets lifted up. There is the socialist belief that social equity needs to be consciously worked towards through subsidies. Three philosophies - that of the left, the left-of-centre and the right - are the options before the voters. There is no unanimous view even among experts about what the right way is.

Clearly, we are a "confused" society. This is not unnatural. In fact, it's the natural state of a person in his early 20s. If the first decade after liberalisation was about childhood discoveries - in other words, it was about discovering new products and categories - the second decade was one of the confidence of taking on the world and saying we could do anything. Now, India is in the third state, that of confusion. We are confused about what's the right thing to do as an economy and as a society in order to achieve sustainable and equitable growth. This is the search for stabilisation.

Interestingly, this confusion is also reflected in popular culture and in consumer mindset. Consider the following examples from the advertising world. On the one hand, messages built on social consciousness have found resonance with young India. Idea Cellular has built itself on the back of packaging its product features around social messages. Breaking caste barriers, saving the environment, fostering regional unity through learning languages and democratising education are examples of subjects the brand has used to connect with consumers and create a third strong brand in a highly competitive category. In The Hindu's "Behave yourself, India. The youth are watching" campaign, a teacher beseeches his students to use only parliamentary language in a debate. The students follow it to the T by hurling things and getting at each other's throat to the strains of Vaishnava Jana to. The advertisement made it to national television news and increased youth traffic to the brand's website. Most recently, a Red Label tea commercial that touches upon religious harmony had young people charmed.

On the other hand, it's interesting to see how the same supposedly socially conscious nation has to be actively pursued by both the government and brands to go out and vote - and vote intelligently. One should have expected that such a socially conscious generation should have come out to vote all by themselves.

Given the overall increase in young voter turnout, the jury is still out - we will know by mid-May. Are talking and doing two different things for this generation? Is it nice to say we are socially conscious, but the act of being socially conscious is a slower movement? Causes gather lots of "likes" - and a following - on social media but have less traction on the ground, where people have to actually come out and do something.

This bundle of contradictions manifests itself in other areas too. We speak of a more confident generation and, with it, a loosening up of inter-generational relationships. Yet the opposite is also true. Messages of smartness resonate with young people, and this has helped brands like Mentos and Sprite become big in the last decade. They talk about today's young people's ability to find a way out of anything and say that it is a driving force. "Dimaag ki batti jala de", "Clear hai" and "Chalo apni chaal" are all manifestations of this innate smartness.

At the same time, there is another emerging trend, of the return of hard work. Going by young people's comments in social media, there is a growing belief that there is no substitute for hard work, patience and building foundations today for growth tomorrow. Besides, studies show growing insecurity among today's youth and a need for escape. That is exactly what has made Cadbury 5-Star chocolate a runaway success in the market. Its message of "anti- serious" and "lost in its taste" eggs people on to just let themselves go in a pressure-cooker world.

Look around: we surely live in more insecure times than ever in the past. More opportunities accompany more competition and, with it, come more adverse effects of failures. Suicides, acid attacks and increased cases of depression are all social manifestations of the darker side of confidence and optimism.

Intergenerational relationships, too, are portrayed both ways. Airtel's recent internet campaign with a grumpy father and a lazy son seems real. Just as much as Bournvita's "Race" advertisement, in which a mother competes with her son as part of practice and goads him on. Parents and children are partners in today's world, and no longer teacher and student.

A fourth example of contradiction is the extent to which modernity can be stretched and the return of traditionalism. On the one hand, Fastrack has been built on pushing the envelope on social taboos. The "Move on" advertisement opened by asking people to accept broken relationships; and more recent work daringly tackled the topic of lesbianism. On the other hand, Cadbury Dairy Milk's "Shubh Arambh" campaign over three years endeared the brand to viewers by repackaging an age-old "almost" superstition in modern form. Deep down, it tapped the generation's insecurities in its pursuit of success.

This contradiction and confusion could be a state of evolution - both social and economic. It could be the existence of multiple segments among the 1.2 billion people of this country. It could also be a state of assimilation where an old culture like India is trying to imbibe the new and create a different concoction for itself. This blend could be in its model of economic development or in its way of living. Or it could just be a reflection of the age-old importance given in India to the ability to live with contradictory values and use them at one's convenience. Remember that Indian society has two icons: Ram and Krishna. Ram embodies the value of righteousness; Krishna says that the end justifies the means. And this gives us comfort when it comes to contradictions. Whatever it is, India is in interesting times. Today, brands and policymakers have the opportunity to explore opposites comfortably. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice chairman, Ogilvy and Mather, India.

These views are personal.

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First Published: Thu, May 01 2014. 21:50 IST