This isn’t the first time Spotlight is focusing on rural India – the last time was in 2019, before anyone had an inkling that things were going to drastically change in just a matter of months. Almost two years later and a pandemic wiser, WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das revisits rural marketing in this India Spotlight series and asks how strategies are changing, and what the new opportunities and challenges are post-COVID.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on rural marketing in India. Read more

The COVID-19 pandemic and the sufferings it has wrought have caused a shift in mindset. For the marketing world, it redefined consumer sentiment in many ways. Broadly speaking, the challenges in rural India remain the same but what has changed are the ways a marketer can now look at addressing them.

There has been rapid digitisation, for instance. The acceptance of the digital way is an initiative that has long been pushed by the Indian government and which gained momentum during the lockdown. And it was not just an urban phenomenon. Rural India knew better than to shy away from the convenience of technology, opening new vistas for the Indian marketer – a point that hasn’t been missed in this edition’s knowledge papers.

The first wave of COVID-19 in India also resulted in migrants returning to their native homes. Albeit jobless, reverse migration also triggered a change in rural consumer behaviour.

The FMCG sector that almost always found favour in rural regions took note. We did too and approached Parle Agro, one of the leading FMCG brands in the country to share insights.

Nadia Chauhan, joint managing director and chief marketing officer of Parle Agro, affirmed the beverage company has always had a pan-India strategy rather than focusing on either rural or urban but also mentioned that rural India has always been on its mind.

Adaptation has been the key, she said. The brand didn’t even stop launching new products and foraying into new categories during the lockdown. If that’s not identifying opportunity, what is?

Over the last year, it has been noted how during the first wave, rural India provided a cushion for brands even as the rest of the country took a hit.

While the second wave hit both urban and rural regions just as severely, the silver lining that all agreed on is there is a hint that consumer demand is on the rise. Being observant and leveraging the opportunities present will serve the marketer well.

Championing rural India

Strategists contributing to this Spotlight India agreed that the digital momentum would be what to make the most of while marketing to the rural consumer. For instance, Mohit Joshi, chief executive officer of Havas Media Group India, is optimistic and sees the pandemic as a mere bump that cannot eclipse the potential of rural India.

“The larger challenges that marketers face with the evolving rural consumer are the complexities of hyperlocalisation with languages, dialects, beliefs and traditions, as well as adapting to the uncertainties caused by the pandemic.”

He adds that there is no doubt the future lies in the rural markets.

“They are becoming more and more promising, and with the right investment in education, infrastructure, women empowerment, financial schemes and technology, they are bound to be more pivotal to the growth of our economy.”

Neha Chauhan, brand strategy partner – experiential and shopper marketing, Arc Worldwide, interestingly observes how reverse migration resulted in the woman of the house becoming a secondary provider – an insight that cannot be ignored.

“With this change in the role of the ‘nurturer’ came the ‘prioritisation of spends’ on purchases, given the limited cash inflow. The needs were now being weighted from the woman’s lens and this resulted in a major shift in the ‘hierarchy of cash flow’ within the rural household,” notes Chauhan.

DDB Mudra’s strategy head, Anand Murty, also paints an optimistic picture saying rural consumer sentiment is leading the charge after the second wave.

He says: “While rural consumers aren’t yet bursting with optimism about current economic conditions, they are looking more confident about the future and expecting an improvement in the financial and business environment.”

The team from Anugrah Madison, an arm of Madison World that focuses on rural activation, notes how brands need a robust Go to Market approach right now and lists the way to go about it.

Sharad Varshney, national planning head at Dialogue Factory, GroupM, champions digital as a serious opportunity in the rural markets right now. According to him, rural Indians are becoming increasingly concerned about their future well-being and focusing on financial planning, in particular. This is a point that the GWI report in this edition also makes.

“With the pandemic accelerating digital adoption, rural Indians are also increasingly relying on digital services for their day-to-day activities, while major e-commerce retail giants are expanding their distribution and deliveries in small towns or at taluka headquarters,” observes Varshney.

Research strategist Shraddha Ganesh notes how digital behaviour is being redefined in rural India. It is fast becoming a way of life and she cites the example of WhatsApp that reportedly has 309 million Indian user – the bulk from Tier 2 and 3 cities.

Further noting that there are 15 million WhatsApp Business users as the app continues to evolve, it is one of the many potent tools for the rural marketer.

“On most marketing calendars, for digital-first brands or otherwise, WhatsApp has yet to establish a significant presence. Considering the comfort the app has managed to establish in rural India, it will be a shame to not optimise these upcoming features to not only sell efficiently but to also establish a personal relationship with the consumers,” she says.

Amit Rangra from Wunderman Thompson says that rural India is no longer access deprived and is much better connected than ever. Among the points he makes that is significant is how marketers will need to pay attention to language.

He says that “with increasing acceptance for making and consuming vernacular content, brands need to ensure that they make communication understandable, not through dubbing but in the local lingo using local idioms, anecdotes, and cultural and social symbols that keep the communication relatable”.

He adds: “We need to accept the fact that today’s rural consumers are comfortable with their language and technology is helping to shape this newfound belief and confidence.”

Rural marketing enthusiast and YES Securities’ marketing head, Amit Bhandare, mentions how the pandemic gave rural households a sense of purpose, making them more proactive about aspirational buying. He lists the challenges and opportunities for brands in rural India in his paper.

“All in all, the second wave ended up strengthening rural market fundamentals, amid other conducive factors like good monsoons, adequate water levels across reservoirs from last year’s decent rainfall, higher crop harvests, better minimum support prices, and growing non-farm incomes,” says Bhandare.

Gandhi once famously said how India lives in its villages. It has been a few too many decades since he did but we still dare not disagree.