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Madhukar Sabnavis: Jugaad - Maximum for minimum

There are many ways that the classically Indian mindset can be used by marketers

Madhukar Sabnavis 

I remember a famous Fevicol commercial, showing a bus ambling along with people precariously perched inside it and above it — an oft-seen sight in semi-urban and rural India. It ends with a Fevicol board at the back of the bus. While it poignantly captures an idiosyncrasy of every day India, it also reveals the “jugaad” nature of Indians: More people can be accommodated in a bus than the number of seats fitted in it; standing in the bus and sitting atop it are also ways to ferry passengers! And the driver moves slowly — ambling along like a camel — mindful of people atop the bus so that they too can travel comfortably without fear.

Unsafe though it may seem, accidents rarely happen in those parts of the country and both passengers and drivers have mastered the art of that form of travel. I often wonder why bus manufacturers don’t make buses with fewer seats but more space for standees (like the ones at airports that ferry passengers to and from the terminal and aircraft), recognising that it’s how people travel in small-town India any way. And travel companies can then charge differentially for seated and standing passengers.

Jugaad is a way of life for Indians. In their book Jugaad Innovation, the authors Navi Radjou, and translate Jugaad as “an innovative fix, an improvised solution born from ingenuity and cleverness”. And we see its manifestations everywhere around us. It could sometimes be “street-smart” — but moving into the unsafe (if the Fevicol bus was to move at faster speeds) and the unlawful (when shop keepers conveniently expand their shop sizes by encroaching on the pavement in front of them for promotional displays).

However, it is instructive to study the innovative ways in which it works, to understand the household and business mindsets of average India. And this could be the form of innovation sought from marketers as we go into the future.

The origin of jugaad is a scarcity economy, where people — many of them — have to make do with limited means and so the drive for ‘maximum from minimum’. Overloaded buses are one manifestation of this. Similarly, the average Indian housewife recycles everything. Bottles and cans become containers for storage or flowerpots; mugs with broken handles become pen-stands. Plastic bags dispensed at grocery stores get recycled as garbage bags, even in upper middle class households — “formal” garbage bags used on holidays, or days when there will be lots of garbage, and shopping bags become substitutes on leaner days. Gunny sacks are used as floor mats to clean feet before you enter interiors of homes or shops or offices. Broken buckets are used to store kids’ toys; wooden boxes getting converted into ‘sofas’ in drawing rooms by putting mattresses on top of them and resting them against the wall. In semi-urban and rural India, washing machines are used for whipping up lassi, and tractors are used as taxis in off-seasons when there are no farm needs.

Jugaad - Maximum for minimumThe Indian business world too is about extracting “maximum for minimum” in legitimate ways that the Western world won’t easily understand or appreciate. “Core competency” is the mantra of the West — so a plumber will specialise in plumbing and nothing else. In India, if plumbing is the entry point for a person into a household, he then quickly learns other tricks to fix many other little everyday household problems. So, he becomes the household handyman — plumber, carpenter and mason together. Thus, he extracts more value for the equity he has built. In other cases, he uses his equity to introduce “friends” — often as someone also from his gaon, thus keeping business within his network. Either way, it’s a less sophisticated but more real form of loyalty marketing and building consumer lifetime value.

Similar ‘instinctive jugaad’ thinking was the basis of Years ago, it introduced multi-level marketing (evangelised by Avon and Tupperware in the West) by hiring part-time agents — often in finance departments of companies — to sell their policies. Recognising the need for extra income for the average middle-class clerk, leveraged the network of these people and their financial credibility to sell insurance. Not surprisingly, many clerks took their annual leave in March to peddle their wares as “tax-saving instruments” and thus drive life-insurance literacy in India.

At the other end of the spectrum, similar smart thinking was the origin of the Udipi restaurants getting labour from their home village and providing them jobs and accommodation on premises in big cities. The labour was the foundation of their model of quick service restaurants — the predecessors of McDonald’s and in India. While these iconic brands introduced the concept of QSR to the west, it was already existent in India at much cheaper prices! The Udipi restaurants provided quick service to the ‘helpless’ Indian consumer the Indian way, and at the same time gave upward mobility to many small-town Indians.

“Share a cab” is an interesting way in which people travel in Mumbai from station to office in comfort and yet don’t pay full fare. Each pays less and the cab owner earns more than what he would have if he was to ferry one person — a win-win for everyone. Crowded parking lots have given birth to informal valet parking — parking attendants who will take custody of your car when you are away. And the parking attendant makes a little more money on the side by doing this!

Jugaad is about frugal and flexible thinking. It’s about extracting more from every little thing you do in everyday life. It’s about smart thinking that helps you get your way around in life. Let me end with a couple of examples that reflect jugaad thinking. How do you prevent “uncivic” people like Indians from defacing a public wall? Put picture of a God on it. How do you sell pens at a bus stop outside a college, close to exam times? Many years ago I heard a seemingly “uneducated” pen seller say, “Buy this pen, it works uninterrupted for three hours of an exam and your hands will not pain”. It touched the hearts of many panic-stricken students. You don’t need formal marketing degrees to think of sales messages — just the will to survive and find your way around things. Finally, how do you use a network’s connectivity and not pay for it? Give a missed call. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is Vice Chairman, Ogilvy and Mather, India. These views are his own.  

First Published: Fri, August 03 2012. 00:10 IST