THE last few years have seen a dramatic growth in the readership of regional language publications. Perhaps more than any other measure, this is a sign of the coming of the emerging consumer. For to begin reading a newspaper is to signal one’s inclusion in the larger world. It is to acknowledge that one’s existence is part of a larger network of relationships and that knowledge of the world is a pre-requisite in making one’s way forward. For India to realise its dreams of being an economic superpower, its next wave of consumers must come good. It is with this in view that we at McCann carried out a large-scale study of the consumer next under our on-going Pulse programme in order to get some insight into what drives this critical sector of society.
The most striking thing about the emerging class is that it is not middle class lite. To be sure its dreams are influenced by the middle class but in many ways, the values it espouses are its own. This is a class that measures success more unapologetically in terms of consumption. Ambition is much more clearly arrayed along the axis of economic upgradation rather than moving up the social ladder. Even when the desire is of social recognition, it is usually expressed in terms of wanting to be someone with a lifestyle others envy. Education for children continues to be a very big driver, but here again the desire is for children to provide escape velocity out of their circumstances.
The consumption ethic too is often non-linear. Consumers think nothing of economising on shoes and clothes or using an expensive toothpaste. We found Dove in a few households where there were barely any other branded products in evidence; the simplistic idea of a consumption ladder with one rung ascended at a time just does not hold any longer. Desire is allowed free rein in a limited way; every family determines its own mosaic of demand in terms of what to scrimp on and where to splurge. We came across a family living in an illegal slum under threat of demolition using electricity illegally thinking about getting a computer for their child. At the same time, this is the segment where inflation is a dark cloud humid with foreboding; every small change in price rings heavily in the small space called home.
Ambition too is of two different kinds. One set of people seek escape from a sense of insecurity and crave some form of stability. And there is another growing segment that seeks urgent, discontinuous growth — the desire to vault over the next step and land quickly into one’s final destination. This often involves a pragmatic acceptance of the legitimacy of using all means available. It also involves an incredibly accommodating network of invisible community, which works noiselessly together. Skills are passed on in acts of informal apprenticeship where the young work for free, develop skills and then move on.
There is a strong undercurrent of pragmatism lacing the lives of the consumer next. They lead constrained lives that are often declared illegal; they live in unauthorised colonies, use illegal power, scrounge for water, and work in places that are routinely challaned. The footpath is often their factory and recycling of some kind is a fairly normal mode of manufacturing. In the midst of all this, there is a very strong sense of resilience and an immense faith in one’s own ability to survive, come what may. Pleasure is found in what they have even as they strive for more. The good is acknowledged, as in the case of women who experience a much higher order of practical freedom living at the margins of the city than they do in villages, and the bad is accepted as a circumstance to try and skirt around or cope with.
The consumer next is coming and will carry with him a new ethic of consumption. He will want to move in leaps, settle for baby steps but move constantly he will. There is an energy and an ambition here that is waiting to get tapped. When he speaks, it will be in a new dialect of consumption. As marketers, we need to be ready.