Mumbai: At the launch of his book Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense Of Everyday India, Santosh Desai, noted advertising professional and managing director and chief executive of Future Brands, spoke about consumer insights derived from fragments of everyday life as experienced by the middle class in urban India. He explains why we are obsessed with our stomachs, why a slap is the ultimate insult, and why consumers still expect dhaniya and mirchi (green coriander and chillies) free with their vegetables. Edited excerpts:
Brand value: Desai says Indian consumers can dismantle and reconfigure any brand packaging. Shriya Patil Shinde / Mint
You’ve drawn from your own experiences of growing up in a middle-class Indian family. Will the book touch a chord with new consumers?
This is the thing about India, there is a certain amount of things that are changing, but our desire is to believe that nothing is. If you ask people if they are comfortable with their way of life, young or old, most would say yes. The young are not looking to redefine their lives. It’s not like 18-year-olds are moving out of their parents’ homes, they are not saying: “What is this ridiculous way of getting married?” If we really wanted a discontinuous way of life, the young could have easily walked away from the past. But they haven’t. This is a story of India as it exists, because it is continuous, in a sense it goes back to explain where this continuity comes from, to explain the present. Early anecdotal evidence shows that young people are reading it like a novel. Yes, perhaps it will strike (more of) a chord with people of my generation.
Your observations of everyday India are so detailed.
The insight into anything is retrospectively self-evident. Once you say it, I have always known it. So in a sense, it’s not observing anything that did not happen, it’s merely pointing to things that did. All of us have the same memories; the problem simply is that we don’t think of them as important and, therefore, don’t notice or actively remember it.
I mentioned this habit of people at a paan shop who will from a distance signal at the guy and revel in the fact that he knows their preference without being told. In India, which is such a huge country, facelessness is such a problem: How do you become somebody? There are so many such signs… It is all these small things, respect, the seat you get in a bus, etc., are the only things setting you apart. It is the inference you draw, and all these things become additive, you start seeing a larger pattern and explaining India, brick by brick. So, instead of some grand theory, there are a lot of books which say that we are like this because Hindu thought is like that. This goes the other way round.
What sets Indian consumers apart?
I think it’s a great ability to almost dismantle anything that you give them as a package. To figure out what’s the most valuable part and reconfigure it in its most valuable form. Indian consumers don’t accept your stories but will create their own around your brand. Which is possibly why you find that moving up the price point ladder in India is not easy. That’s possibly why luxury brands haven’t had much luck here. Look at wines—consumers are not buying into that cultural baggage of it being French, etc. But they understand Johnnie Walker because it’s a simple status ladder.
What is it giving me? One aspect is that you will buy value, and another is that you will see value in something. But it’s not like we’re cheap.
Consumers are happy to spend money like water to get their children married because they see value in it. Otherwise they will haggle everywhere. It’s that ability to see and reconstitute value on your own terms that makes the Indian consumer special.
What was the inspiration for the title?
A number of people may not get it at first glance, but if you Google it, a number of matrimonial ads with that phrase will pop up. I was looking for a title that captured the idiosyncratic nature of India and, to some extent, of the book, which is lightly written but the depth comes when you navigate it. Something that was not a cliche, like “arranged love marriage” but something that captured the flavour of India. I remembered this phrase “mother pious lady”—(it) was something that was so peculiar—the Indian matrimonial ad itself is a peculiar phenomenon. The funny thing is that this (mother pious lady) is always said about the groom’s mother. There are a number of things that it points to, that in today’s world even, the groom must market himself. And say things like “mother pious lady” to make it clear that his mother is more interested in burning incense sticks than burning her daughter-in-law with kerosene.
What is your favourite chapter in the book?
I’m sure I will think of something else after saying this, but in many ways it would be the chapter titled “The dignity of ultramarine.” It argues in some ways that ultramarine was the sign of the middle class. To be in the middle class in India was to experience poverty with a full stomach. You could have everything you truly need, but nothing of what you desired. And the neel (ultramarine) is a sign that you have old clothes, but you want them to look white long after they’ve stopped being white. At one level it’s heartbreaking, and at another it’s brave and dignified.