12 May 2006

A narrow version

While trying to understand the teen consumer market, I couldn’t help but make a trip down memory lane. Questions swam inside my head; and, since I wasn’t quite sure about the answers, I decided to write this post as a kind of record of my version of marketing history in India. A narrow version perhaps, just a sliver, but definitely an account to put on record.

What was it like to be a teenage consumer 25-30 years ago? Which brands were our favourites? How did we behave as teenage consumers – choosing one brand over another?

Before all that, let me come back to the present. A quick survey of brands from urban teenagers brought up names like Nokia, Reebok, Nike, adidas, Pepsi, Café Coffee Day, Sony, Microsoft, Levi’s, MTV, Coca-Cola, L’Oreal, Shoppers’ Stop and McDonald’s. I sighed sadly. Two of my favourites were missing: Google and Yahoo! But what I found most fascinating was that this top-of-mind list of 14 brands featured only two Indian names: Café Coffee Day and Shoppers’ Stop. Hats off to you! The rest, as you know, are top-of-the-line multinational brands.

When I go back 25-30 years, the startling discovery is that none of these 16 brands (14 + 2 of mine) existed then in India. Barring Coca-Cola perhaps, which was rooted out of the country, along with IBM, in 1977 by the Morarji Desai government. There were no mobilephones then, no personal computers, no Internet, no sneakers, no branded apparel, no branded retail chain stores, and hardly any TV to speak of.

TV transmission was in B&W, only for a few hours a day, from the Government-owned Doordarshan. TV sets were all local brands like Weston, Crown and Televista. Instead of sneakers, we had white canvas shoes called Keds, from Bata, which we had to wash with soap and water and colour it with white chalk. Pond’s led the show for personal care products for women – a queen among hundreds of small local brands. Soft drinks included nationally-distributed brands like ThumsUp, Campa-Cola, Limca, Gold Spot and Campa Orange. And, fast food typically meant idlis and dosas, bhel puris and pani puris, or kathi rolls and vada pavs – with a lot of regional preferences for taste.

Sounds funny, doesn’t it? I doubt if any teenagers will believe this today. But that apart, we may not have been too different from the teenagers of today in terms of consumer behaviour. That is, of course, speaking at a broad level. From my point of view, the way a teenager thinks today is quite similar to the way we teens did 25-30 years ago. It’s just that we didn’t have the pressure of too many consumer brands influencing our decisions. However, advertising and sales promotions were great motivators.

To make a small comparison, I picked up a few statements at random from marketing articles and papers describing the contemporary teen – going back a year and a half at the most – and reviewed them from my 25-30-year-old perspective. For simplicity, I’ve put these statements into a single paragraph as follows:

“Teenagers are very fickle and very averse to being marketed to… They see brands more as a means of defining themselves… They believe brands should allow people to make their own decisions… They buy into brands they can appreciate, a value system they have in common, an authenticity… Reaching today’s teens means meandering through more individual tastes and preferences… Homogeneity and old group stereotypes are out, individualism and authenticity are in…”

We, too, were individualistic in our choices. We, too, believed in authenticity – perhaps a lot more than the teenagers today. We, too, used whatever we possessed to define ourselves. This included our immediate environment and, therefore, we were less cosmopolitan than the teens today. Anybody trying to sell us anything had to automatically cater to individual tastes and preferences. We, too, disliked being marketed to and believed we were intelligent enough to make our own decisions. We, too, abhorred stereotypes and generalisations.

So, what has changed for teenagers today? What is new today which was not there 25-30 years ago?

Many things have changed, as they are bound to, including perspectives to teen life and marketing to teenagers. Here’s a list of four:

The omnipresence of the brand. Brands are everywhere today, increasing the number of options for teen consumers. They are in every product and service category, competing amongst themselves to capture a share of the teenager’s mind. Brands have even created new teen social castes with unique cultural differences.

The omnipresence of technology. There is some aspect of technology in every aspect of a teen’s life. First and foremost, technology has speeded up life for the teenager. It has given birth to many new products and services. It has created many new methods of product and service delivery. It has shaped news methods of information dissemination and evaluation. It has made many products, services and applications obsolescent.

The teen lifestyle. A lifestyle which is totally dependent on ownership of gadgets and tools, with accompanying software, is what the teen thrives on. A lifestyle, of an insatiable need for content to explore the world which these gadgets and tools allow. A lifestyle, dependent on the virtual world rather than the physical one we oldies lived in.

The emergence of barefaced marketing greed. A huge appetite that marketers and brands have today – to prey upon and feed off the needs of the growing teen consumer segment.

No comments: