A few days ago, Jagdish N. Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt chair of marketing in the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, US, was in India to attend a book launch and participate in a panel discussion organized by Pearson India on changing consumer behaviour in the digital era.

The discussion was around his new book titled Consumer Behaviour—A Digital Native, co-authored with Varsha Jain (professor at MICA) and Don Schultz (professor at Northwestern University). On the sidelines of the event, professor Sheth shared his views on the changing consumer who is smart, aware and digital media-savvy. Asked if political marketing had changed in the digital era, especially under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, he agreed that technology had made political marketing come of age in India and elsewhere.

“Political parties are able to sense the sentiments of the population much better because of the analytics. I can pretty much in real time figure out the good news and the bad news since you get insight into the minds of the voter. It has become a good listening post," he said. Earlier, politicians went to their constituencies and listened to the people. And that listening was biased because only people from that district who were donating money had access to the politician, said Sheth. But that has changed.

“Those days are gone now because of technology and because the end-user has a device where you can directly communicate with him. That is the key," he said.

Besides, politicians have mastered predictive analytics. They have figured out what is likely to be the outcome in each location. Political marketing has become very scientific, he added.

The Indian consumer, too, has changed, pushing companies to alter the way they communicate with them.

One of the biggest challenges before companies today is that the consumer is moving ahead of the marketers. Earlier, marketers were generally ahead of the consumers. “It is a complete reversal (now) and it is mind-boggling," he said.

Consumers spend more time online than marketers. They are way ahead in information search, too. Today, 75% of the consumers go online first before they go to an automobile dealer. They have already searched for all the automobile models.

“So, say, if I am into luxury cars like Jaguar, Audi, BMW….I know more about all the cars and their differences. The dealer will only know Jaguar if he’s a Jaguar dealer. He will have no idea about BMW. This is how a consumer is ahead of the marketer," Sheth said. He’s also ahead of the marketers because he’s in social media groups where he’s learning about what’s happening in the market from friends and family.

“Marketers, meanwhile, lag in capturing that information. Consumers are relying more and more on the users’ sentiments and the comments people make on websites. For instance, today you go to a restaurant’s website to see feedback from people even before you visit the restaurant," Sheth said.

Sheth feels that the consumer of tomorrow is radically different from the consumer of yesterday, and marketers’ knowledge is based on consumer of yesterday.

The consumer of the future is a person who does not want to live with his parents, likes his freedom and thrives on double income. His necessities are different.“In fact, three things that a consumer learnt from a family are going away: cooking, cleaning and childcare. They don’t know any of these things. So clearly, the service industry will drive the Indian economy, no matter what," he said.

Sheth also observes that the next consumption boom in India will come from its small towns. He finds the dichotomy of India intriguing. According to him, today, the annual income of a software engineer in Bengaluru starts at 60,000-70,000 a month.

“But a crane operator in Mundra, Kutch also earns that kind of a salary. People operating heavy machinery are well-paid. And the Mundra guy has no rent to pay and has his mother take care of his children. Clearly, his discretionary income is way ahead of that of the software engineer in Bengaluru. Which is why small towns are the best markets for the brands. Both Amazon and Flipkart have told me that their best markets today are tier-2 and tier-3 cities," he said. Consumers in these cities do not want to come to big cities to shop.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.