To talk about India without mention of the country’s rural communities would be folly for any brand seeking main market dominance or appeal.

It is a group that accounts for 12.2% of the world’s population and is responsible for about 50% of the country’s GDP. Rural areas, according to Nielsen, is growing at around 1.5 times the rate of urban areas, with today’s USD$12 billion consumer goods market in rural India expected to hit USD$100 billion by 2025.

High-profile metro hubs such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad have oftentimes been touted as prime examples of India’s rapid march towards a digital and hyper-connected economy.

But beyond these urban hubs lies the rest of India – an emerging wave of consumers, entrepreneurs and families whose lives have been irrevocably changed by development, technology and the unceasing march of global commerce.

This edition of WARC’s Spotlight series puts the practice of rural marketing in focus. As brands look ahead to a less than positive economic climate in 2020, the preferences and priorities of rural India will become a critical foundation for marketers across industries currently rethinking their engagement playbook.

Any brand strategy to capture the hearts and wallets of a market like India cannot be done without knowing the proverbial ‘soul’ of India. Our expert contributors offer much food for thought in how brands need to re-adapt and re-engage.

Amit Tiwari, vice president of marketing at Havells India, lifts the curtain on the changes taking place in small-town and rural India via a recent ethnographic study conducted by the agency.

“The true potential that India holds cannot be measured accurately without understanding the consumers of small-town and rural India, the environment in which they exist, their social fabric and their interaction with retail,” he argues. “Don’t be surprised if you find the small town or rural Indian consumer more brand conscious and loyal then their urban counterparts.”

Amandeep Singh of VMLY&R India speaks from deep personal experience in his piece, zeroing in on the nation’s farming communities. India may have come a long way since the Green Revolution when farm mechanisation was introduced, however, the situation for farmers has not, and remains a serious issue.

“The potential is massive, but the challenges for farmers and brands keen to target rural communities are many,” he writes. “The digital transformation taking place across rural India does hold some promise, and it all starts with mobile.”

Rural marketing veteran Sandip Bansal, currently chief client & field officer at Dialogue Factory for GroupM Media India points out that one must recognize that the spread-out rural India has specific distribution needs.

“The standard distribution approaches, if forced-fitted, do not work. Till one has an inclusive approach, it will never be able to deliver and will render most sound strategies futile,” he writes. “If we must win in rural India, we need to break it down to smaller geographies and not [only] the regions.”

Meanwhile, Bianca Joseph and Krishnan Subramanian of TBWA India advocate a more radical reset of the way things are done, especially with rural markets developing at twice the rate of urban Indian markets.

A combination of literacy, aspiration, and affluence further magnified by technology-driven access is changing the very nature of the rural consumer. The duo believes that the long-held maxims of marketing to rural communities in the country no longer hold sway and have lived well past their expiry dates.

“It's time to put our preconceived notions about these markets under the scanner,” they argue. “It is time to retire them and connect more richly with the emerging rural Indian consumer.”

Rural India has changed and continues to change. Marketers need to get reacquainted and redefine the relationship or risk missing out on what could be the biggest consumer tsunami since, well, China.