Intimacy in India

Qualitative research in India is going through a sea-change. Brands have used it for years and had great success but, more and more, the insight gained from traditional methods isn’t enough for brands to make big, strategic decisions about how they win the market. If they want to break through, brands need to take an interest in a different kind of consumer.

Neha Viswanathan

Associate Director at C Space

Neha Viswanathan is a nimble-minded, creative thinker who’s known across the business to push ideas beyond the obvious and into “ah-ha.” Her irreverent sense of humour, ability to tell straight talk and always-think-bigger mentality is why her clients keep coming back. To her family and colleagues, Neha is the passionate mother, the Bollywood binger and the environmentally conscious waste-not-want-not recycler.

Researchers and brands realize they are not reaching wide enough, nor deep enough. They are doing ten ethnographies over several weeks, going shopping with customers and seeing how they live at home. Or they are conducting broad surveys of thousands of people. Or they are doing a combination of both – and that means a compromise between breadth and depth.

In my previous work in India, I often found myself coming out of a project thinking ‘Could the insight have been a bit better? Could I have found something if I looked a little bit harder?’ No matter how good your traditional qualitative methodology, this is a big country, and it’s hard to say with certainty that you’ve got the right answer.

We need to really think how to approach a big market like India because the market itself has changed. A credibly researched income pyramid shows that it’s likely we are talking to only the top 3% to 8% of people there whenever we do research in the typical way.

If we are doing qualitative research with groups, even if it’s in-language, we may be getting through to only the top 15%. True innovation comes from speaking to someone who has just come into the fold of your brand, or who isn’t familiar with international trends and has completely different needs from those in the wealthy classes, but in terms of money and volume, the big market is actually the lower-middle and aspiring classes.

Many companies have traditionally taken a spray-and-pray approach to this group, waiting for things to trickle down. They launch smaller formats of products and see if something sticks, but if you’re building a relationship, that’s not the approach to take. You have to sit down and get closer to people.

The challenge: How do you get intimate in a country of 1 billion people? Moreover, how do you do it every day? Not one off engagements, but ongoing & meaningful iterative engagements that allow brands to constantly improve and innovate. How do you build a long-term relationship with these classes by speaking to them in an intimate setting?

We, the researchers, have to question our ability to form the kinds of relationships with people in the lower and aspiring classes that lead to the best insights. In India, researchers are typically in the top 8% themselves. Can we truly empathize with someone leading such a different life?

I have certainly had to check my assumptions. For instance, I thought that the show Game of Thrones would be very niche in India, but it turned out to be the most pirated show in the country, and prompted the TV networks to start showing it. You don’t get to that position by appealing to just the top 8%.

When you are trying to build a relationship with people who are generally ignored by international brands – they tend to test a product on this group only once it’s been launched – if you start with lots of assumptions, intimacy suffers. You can become judgmental, and the person on the other side of the table feels judged as well. If a researcher is seen as an outsider, or wealthier, it is hard for people to be honest. It’s not easy for a person to admit why four share a bedroom but all have a smartphone – and they won’t want to say why they don’t like your client’s product either.

In places like India, we have to be aware of cultural norms like hierarchy. For someone from an underprivileged group, speaking to authority takes on a certain tone. They do not want to displease or challenge, so you have to find a way to give them permission to talk freely and articulate exactly how they feel. That’s what leads to findings, and to insight.

So what are the techniques we have used in India to get the level of intimacy we need?

Let’s talk about Rahul. On the morning in question, Rahul checked to make sure no one could see his laptop screen every time he wrote a new message. He was telling us about his porn habits.

Logged in to one of our private communities used for research, he was chosen because he was someone a big tech brand wanted to get closer to – the urban Indian lower-middle class.

We had asked him to take part in what they called a ‘confession group,’ where he and a few others could write anything they wanted, virtually anonymous; with only his first name displayed. Over the course of several weeks, we’d created an environment that helped make him feel safe enough to volunteer his sexual viewing preferences in a country where talking about this stuff can quickly make you a social outcast.

But on this day, he and the others in the group were free to say what they really thought, about everything. And if he could talk about porn without a problem, then he knew he could be candid about other things too.

It’s in these moments as a researcher, that you feel people are actually beginning to trust you. Small confession groups on an online community allow you to do that. There’s an element of anonymity. You only know people’s first names but you know people’s personalities too, and that’s a big difference from being completely anonymous.

Complete anonymity means one interaction one time, whereas here you are developing a safe relationship. The community members feel very secure in it. They let you into their lives every day but they still feel secure. They begin to trust you and that’s an explosive mix in terms of insight and closeness, and leads to a great relationship.

The confession group Rahul was a part of is just one of several tools we’ve added to our belts for working in India. Using different techniques like these to get intimate has helped us get past the superficial and delve deeper into what people in such a rich and complicated emerging market truly feel…

If you have a consumer who likes to please brands, they don’t want to say anything harsh to you and you end up with superficial findings. To find out what they actually value about the brand, we take the product or services away from them for a week – through deprivation techniques. What we want to know is the things about the brand that stick with them. What is it they are really giving up by not using the brand? Can another brand fill the same needs?

At the other end of the spectrum from deprivation, what happens when people have to use a brand for a period of time? There are a lot of brands out there trying to understand how they can form habits in India. How do I ensure you buy me every week? How do I ensure that you don’t go to my competitor? Stickiness is so important because this is a market that people assume is driven by value.

To go beyond the value conversation we go on to research strategies like  accelerated usage where we force consumers to use something for a short period of time and try to understand what actually changes in their life and what doesn’t. We set up challenges and experiments to introduce consumers to products and services in a playful manner, so they focus on potential, rather than give us a rational response on usage. This opens up opportunities, expanding the market and fuels the innovation pipeline.

…and sometimes it’s good to just have a great back & forth. We use spaces in our online communities as always-on cultural windows. This provides both the client and the researcher with a ‘stream of consciousness’ of the consumer’s life. These are organic conversations that come up in our online community. We pay conscious attention to them to understand what they’re buying, what they’re selling, what they’re watching, what they’re believing and how trends are changing – but without putting people on the spot. Using the community like this provides an always-open cultural window, and that’s what’s truly inspirational for the client because you never know where you will get your next idea from. India is a market that demands innovation, and that comes from having an open mind. Having a community like this helps both clients and researchers have more open minds towards their consumers.

We’ve now started thinking about what our work in India can teach us about our work in developed economies. The failure of market research to accurately predict some of society’s big political changes has shown us that there is a gap between what the researcher perceives and what the market is driving towards. The tide can turn every day. A survey done three days back ceases to be relevant, because people’s social media feeds don’t stop. Their exposure to events on the street keeps shaping their opinion.

Our lessons from India show us that there is value in reaching out to the consumer who may not be the ‘right set’ in terms of wealth or age group, but could inspire growth and innovation. There is inspiration to be found in the small towns of England, in the homes of empty nesters in the southwest and mothers of older children living in Wales. We need to adapt the techniques we use in India to reach out to these groups, and bring path-breaking inspiration and insight to brands in developed markets.


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