Designing for a
new Indian
identity
Madhav Srinivasan

I was at an upmarket mall in Mumbai on a recent weekend and there were groups of college boys, young couples and even families that were there not on a shopping expedition but there for the sheer excitement of hanging out. It was as if they believed that proximity to prosperity in itself would be a guarantor of good times. After the initial euphoria of being there had died out though, a different body language surfaced – the awkwardness of not belonging.

One family in particular was clinging to each other’s hands almost to find some solidarity in a world that was not entirely welcoming. They would steer clear of entering any of the stores, showed restraint in their self-expression and simply took in the glitz around them. As I left the mall, I ended up right behind one group of these boys and noticed that they walked straight to a McDonald’s. Instantly their chests filled out and there was a greater spring in their step. They sat on the bench next to Ronald the clown and started taking selfies. The difference in confidence was palpable.

So, what was that awkwardness in the more premium space? I could picture these kids getting ready to leave home in great enthusiasm, slapping their hair gels on and wearing their best denims and feeling good about themselves. Imagine the let down they must have felt when all that effort to look good still meant they didn’t look the part. By contrast, hundreds of other regular patrons there in casual shorts and even unshaven looks enjoyed better treatment and showed natural confidence in belonging there.

When spaces of aspiration become reminders of one’s social gap, it builds antipathy towards these spaces and people that leave them feeling denied.

Western aspirations have, for long, teased mass India into a spree of giddy consumption. But its rewards have been less pleasurable than fantasised about. The idea of prosperity for all and the supposed joys of cultural inclusion that globalisation promised have transmuted into stress and cultural dilution. Despite the seeming elevation in lifestyle from the new found ability to consume big, he still fails to exude comfort and off-handed familiarity in elite spaces. Disillusioned and resentful, this consumer has felt a need for a new anchoring.

This can be seen globally in the steady ascendance of a large new segment of citizens who are defined by their strong ‘us first’ and anti-elite ethos. They have risen out of an uneasy pluralism that they believe offered them a raw deal.

The tug of war
It is at this juncture that masculine nationalism has offered a reassuring passage back to one’s roots. In Narendra Modi’s India the mass consumer has not merely found refuge but discovered a position of power in an unapologetic expression of his Hindu identity. The more pronounced this expression, the more unquestionably Indian he becomes. This Indianness has offered both stability and meaning. This is not simply a political trend but a tectonic shift in our cultural plates. In the course of studying this phenomenon we met a homemaker in Delhi who summarised this crisply - moved by Patanjali’s swadesi propaganda, she explained “It is made in Bharat – apna lagta hai."

In the early years of globalisation ‘Being Indian’ was the cultural training wheels we needed to gain comfort with new influences. However, today the idea of ‘Being Indian’ is not just a safety net but a matter of pride, strength and feeling good about oneself. It is something we seek to actively express and export even. And the spirit and underlying values here find many manifestations – nationalism, regionalism, anti-elitism, sectarianism etc. The Patidar uprising, the Jat agitation, the Anti-Hindi protests, the extreme reactions to the film Padmavati including a price on the Director’s head are resounding examples that should not be brushed aside as political opportunism. These are all movements that have managed to find profound resonance with the masses because through them people have derived power and meaning. Social media has seen a storm of emotionally charged views on these from even groups of people not directly related to this, showing us that there is a widespread need for the same meaning system.


However, the Western model of aspirations has not been completely exorcised. There is a continued pursuit of this as it offers something that the return to roots model doesn’t – class mobility. With growing purchasing power, the desire to consume one’s way up the ladder is rewarding in itself (despite the glass ceilings here). The ability to be slightly better than one’s peers through the sheer power of acquisition and new experiences is a social advantage of significance.

Effectively, the new Indian identity is a tug of war between these two polar forces of roots and Western aspiration.

How can brands design for this consumer?
Many brands are simply riding this opportunistic bandwagon and taking advantage of the ‘mood’ – this space already feels like a tired cliché. Creating real resonance will require more than just clothing a brand in Indian colours.

The principles of designing a brand for this consumer must understand his/her value quest. This consumer as mentioned is torn between two worlds and the real opportunity lies in resolving this tension.

This could be done in different ways: creating meaning by taking a position ‘against a threatening value system’ as in the case of Patanjali. The brand is not simply a ‘made in India’ proposition but a return to Swadesi. The brand appeals to us at a higher level and equates its consumption with performing a national duty. Patanjali negates the tension by glorifying the idea of return to roots and pushes the idea of cultural purity. It is no surprise that its offerings like Ghee are amongst its best sellers, where it has been able to extend the agenda of ‘purity’ more fervently – 100% pure ‘desi’ ghee, indigenous cows etc. (That its sales are stagnating is perhaps a reflection of business strategy and product performance rather than a reflection of waning consumer pull.)

The other way is enabling access to aspiration while still staying connected with our inherited identities as in the case of Amazon’s Aur Dikhao and Apni Dukan campaigns. These resolve the contradictions between progress and rootedness by couching the Western idea of consumerism in the very Indian idea of ‘research’ – Aur dikhao. It taps into our deep desire for paisa vasooli (value for money), for which we will peruse through thousands of options without feeling obligated to buy. It also borrows other core culturally ingrained notions of well thought out choices, cautionary spending and looking out for one’s family. This is perhaps a better way for ‘Western brands’ and aspirational lifestyle categories to appeal to the new Indian rather than simply emulate Patanjali.

And this is perhaps why McDonald’s is a space of accessible aspiration for this new Indian consumer. While it offers participation in a very American experience of eating burgers, muffins and shakes in a modern, airconditioned environment, it allows for culturalism to seep in. For mass consumers, the joy of eating at a McDonald’s is that they do not have to be watchful of their table manners while still experiencing aspiration. Indianisms like being loud or eating with one’s hands or sharing a plate are not frowned upon but seen as part of the environment. Choosing from a simple visual menu and ordering it to a guy across the counter is an inclusive experience in contrast to having to place an order from an obscure menu with a bow-tie wearing, smart aleck waiter.

While peddling aspirations to this consumer, brands have to be accepting and inclusive of the culture that consumers bring in.

The two key questions brands must consider as they attempt to dig into this opportunity are a) how can this be done in a way that is authentic to your brand and b) what meaning are we creating for this consumer?

 

(Image courtesy of Word Bank Group)

 

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