Multinational corporations, in their eagerness to capture emerging markets for consumer goods, are liable to get things wrong. Companies that sought to dazzle India’s “200 million-strong middle class" between the late 1980s and early 1990s, for instance, learned this the hard way as India’s consumer base proved both culturally and economically resistant to the brands being poured into the market. But then, just as companies resigned themselves to a more pessimistic pace of growth, the market startled them again with its potential. Since the early 2000s, real gross domestic product (GDP) has grown at rates ranging from 6.9% to 8.5%; and along with rising incomes, the demand for goods such as cellphones, colour television sets and cars has climbed to dizzy heights.

We are like that only: Penguin Portfolio,281 pages, Rs495.

As the title suggests, Rama Bijapurkar’s We Are Like That Only—Understanding The Logic of Consumer India is an attempt to make sense of this seemingly erratic market trajectory by focusing not on supply side economics—as business analysts are wont to do—evoking the limited concept of a uniform world, but on the varied possibilities thrown up by consumer choices. It is hard to think of anybody more qualified to undertake this onerous task than Bijapurkar—consultant, visiting faculty at Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, and one of the country’s most widely-read commentators on market strategy and consumer behaviour.

Bijapurkar’s experience as a media columnist is apparent in the easy flow of words. And her wide and varied experience working on products as diverse as bicycles, tractors and gaming programmes provides her with a rich fund of examples and anecdotes with which to illustrate her points. Structurally, the first half of the book presents an overview of consumer India focusing on aspects of demand, income and patterns of behaviour. The second half of the book offers sections on the demographic, psychographic, social and cultural determinants of consumption and the mindsets of specific sections of society—such as the young, women, the rural consumer and the bottom-rung consumer.

One of the world’s largest economies, with a population of one billion—almost half of it under the age of 21—India clearly continues to present an enormous, albeit baffling, opportunity for sellers. Bijapurkar suggests one way of cutting through the complexities of the Indian market is for the marketer to develop a mental model of the India he would like to target in the context of his business strategy, before proceeding further.

Unencumbered by the methods and assumptions of traditional business analysts, Bijapurkar adopts a more buccaneering approach, urging the marketer to “define your India" and, at the same time, offering advice and methods of understanding the elements that make up the country’s consumer base. The few undisputed “truths" that she would recommend marketers keep in mind while creating a mental picture of a “target India" are the following: Consumer India is large, it is mostly poor but getting less so, it has some rich getting richer and it is totally schizophrenic.

The book argues that consumer confidence has undergone visible change as a result of various factors—including greater affordability, increased comfort with borrowing and decline of “the poverty effect".

The manner in which market demand operates is, of course, reliant on a host of factors, including the consumer’s need to appropriate the new in the service of the old (illustrated here through the example of marriage brokers videotaping potential brides to present a greater variety to would-be grooms) and the impact of external factors (such as the emergence of private airlines, cellphones and the age of business travel on hotels).

The sections on youth and women tread familiar ground, but there are interesting insights into the rural market and on poor consumers, both of which constitute unique marketing opportunities, according to the author.

Having made her commitment to the free market clear right at the outset, Bijapurkar suffers from no ideological qualms in making her claims—indeed it can be argued, to a limited extent, that her bottom-up approach indicates a greater respect for the needs of the consumer within the framework of the free market.

Bijapurkar’s strength is her ability to cross reference data and experiential knowledge; her familiarity with her subject, however, does seem to impinge on the ability to place her findings in a more detached, theoretical framework. This is a practitioner’s book, an invaluable guide to anybody involved in the business of marketing and, given its wealth of data, a sourcebook for anybody keen on understanding the contemporary Indian mind.

Amrita Shah is the author of Hype, Hypocrisy & Television in Urban India.

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