11 March 2008

Why the consumer should not be the KING in India: Jitender Dabas, JWT Planning, Delhi

An approach to building service brands in high "Power Distance" societies

The sudden rise of ‘bully consumers’ in India

When was the last time you heard someone warning his mobile service provider and threatening him about switching to another brand? Or when was the last time you snubbed a representative from a reputed bank/ insurance company selling you loans/investment products? Chances are, if you are in India, you would be experiencing one or more of these frequently.
About 10 years ago, it used to take 15 days to 3 months to get a telephone installed at your residence. Today it takes less than 24 hours for an active landline connection and you can have an active mobile phone connection almost instantly. There are more than 20 banks to choose from – all of them armed with latest technologies to make your life easy.
An even more intriguing aspect is consumer behavior before all this. 10 years back, the line man from the state-owned BSNL would install the telephone after months of applying, but most consumers felt very obliged to happily offer him sweets and warm hospitality.
And yet today, when we as consumers are having the best time of our life, and service brands are treating the consumer as King, we are becoming increasingly foul.
What explains the sudden emergence of this rude consumer behavior towards service brands?

Some suggest that increased brand choice across all categories has made him a ‘spoilt child’ and hence his bully behavior. So what could explain the increasing bad-behavior or intolerance from the consumers in a culture which is seen as tolerant and polite?
A look at the social structure in Indian society would reveal a pyramidal construction with the power gradient being steep between levels/classes.

The Power Distance Index
A more scientific understanding of this behavior comes from the study of different cultures by Geert Hofstede on various dimensions. One of the dimensions is Power Distance, defined as "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally".
India has Power Distance (PDI) as the highest Hofstede Dimension (among the five dimensions), with a ranking of 77 as compared to the world average of 56.5.

Implication for brands
To be respected in such a culture, brands will need to increase their distance and will have to assume power. If brands try to play a ‘subservient’ role in such cultures they will not be treated well. Hence the conclusion that in India (and similar cultures with high PDI) THE CONSUMER NEED NOT BE THE KING. Brands should not operate from “You are the king” mindset with the consumer.

What does it mean?

It simply means that brands need to be always at a higher level of hierarchy than the consumer if they need to protect the premium-ness. If the choice has to be made, then brand should be the king.
Service brands need to be careful when they’re training their staffs in soft skills. They need to be told the difference between being polite and being servile.

A good example here is the way Vijay Mallya invites you aboard his flight, it sounds like a ‘King’ inviting you to his kingdom. The equation with the consumer is therefore stated clearly in the very beginning.
The argument that by increasing the Power Distance from your consumers you will become niche is also not correct. In fact, brands with high Power Distance from their consumers will always be the bigger and more desired brands than others.
Not just India but other markets as well
Indian has a PDI (Power Distance Index) of 77. But then there are countries like Russia, Romania, Mexico, Bangladesh and countries from the Arab world with PDI scores higher than 80. While other cultural dimensions too affect the overall consumer behaviour in each country, when it comes to Power Distance, brands will have to decide which side of the power equation they want to be.
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Western COOL and Indian COOL: Shaleen Sharma, JWT Planning, Delhi


The Super Brands UK, Cool Council defines that all cool brands have a consistent presence of certain values:

Cool is forever distinctive and is aspirational.
Cool generally goes against the grain (not necessarily rebellious).
Cool is itself - it doesn’t try too hard.
Cool is authentic, it doesn’t try too hard.
The subscribers of Cool behave like a tribe.
While these characteristics form the core of cool, the ramifications and manifestations of this cool differs across cultures. Cool is not culture-agnostic, instead it is culture-driven.

Western Cool - It is all about doing your own thing. It firmly anchors itself in individuality as the primary instrument of human exploration and creative fulfillment. An individuality that has to be unrestrained and unchecked and must press forward at all costs, even to the exclusion of the larger community.

Indian Cool, on the other hand is all about Me and my community. The Indian way of life has its roots in the ancient Vedic tradition and so holds true with Indian cool as well. It seems that in India if you are outside the ambit of the society, then unlike the West, you aren’t cool- you are an outcast! And nobody wants to be an outcast in a deeply collectivist society like India.

Western cool is all about rebellion, even without a cause
Indian cool is not about rebellion at all. Be a rebel, for a greater cause, when all else fails.
Western cool traditionally springs from bottom up.
Indian cool is mandated and not self-bred! Indian cool often comes from top down.
Western cool is about Expression, Indian cool is about Aspiration.

Emerging themes of Cool
One of the key emerging themes of cool will be the emergence of local movements and expressions, that shall seek to reinforce, re-interpret and re-vitalize local cultural and historical symbols. It could be either through pure play or through fusion.
The new cool will be about coming to terms with these developments and keeping your identity intact.
Human technology interactions will probably be the biggest dynamic that cool will play out on.
Cool will be about evangelism, philanthropy and filial affiliation. This theme will be more visible in developed economies.

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