India: A window and a mirror

I had the pleasure of attending the recent India Conference at Harvard Business School, a stimulating event that focused on the opportunities — and obstacles — of conducting business in India. This event provided a great window to the intricacies of the Indian business landscape. I found it especially compelling to see how this window actually mirrors issues that businesses everywhere face, particularly in the realms of CRM and new media. I’d like to present a couple of thoughts on these topics, based on insights from this event and ideas with which they have synergies.

A serious challenge for big retailers in India is competing with the endless tapestry of “mom-and-pop” stores that line every urban street. While not a new theme, I was struck by panelist/marketing guru Suhel Seth’s framing of it: He said this challenge arises because the mom-and-pop stores have mastered customer relationship management.

The importance of these “old-school” business dynamics is also conveyed in a Wall Street Journal interview with Pawan Munjal, Managing Director/Chief Executive of motorcycle company Hero Honda. In outlining the firm’s strategy in rural India, he states:

“We are visiting all villages in the country, trying to meet with the village elders, trying to convince them about the company, about its products and about why they should become associated with Hero Honda. Once the lead villager agrees the whole village follows and becomes a fan of Hero Honda.”

Isn’t this a social-media strategy? We have mentions of social networks, marketing messages, possible brand ambassadors/evangelists, leaders and followers. Customer relationship management (and perhaps cultural relationship management) is implied. The customer’s power over sales and brand culture is recognized. Thus, examples like this provide powerful reminders of what new-media strategies can learn from old-school dynamics. After all, in the words of Mr. Seth, India’s first example of social media — complete with user-group and word-of-mouth marketing — was Gandhi.