ICICI Lombard was literally first at the gate. In space-starved Mumbai, housing societies often feel the need to put up signs to stop parked cars from blocking their gates. So the company hit on the nifty idea of offering brand new signboards, which carried the message and in the process carved out a space to frequently flash its name to potential insurance buyers. That was over a year ago and other companies like Reliance Infocomm soon caught on to the advertising potential of gate-signs. But companies today are not willing to stop at the gate.
A decade and a half after India began to unshackle its economy, we are already in a situation where there is too much of everything in terms of products and services (except infrastructure, which is still tied up in deadening bureaucracy and corruption). Many businesses are struggling with over-capacity or with too many brands and products with very little product differentiation. There is not only a mind-numbing clutter of advertising, but even the medium of projection is jumbled – too many media channels and vague viewership data. Companies are struggling everyday to break through the noise and be noticed in this melee in order to expand their markets and reach out to new customers. The smarter ones are finding innovative ways to do this by taking their message right into people’s homes.
For instance, when the brokerage firm called Way2Wealth set up a franchise operation in a new neighbourhood of Mumbai, it had to find ways to reach out to potential customers. Had it tried gimmicks such as a seven-minute ‘interview’ adopted by a soon-to-be-launched newspaper, it would probably have drawn a blank and even had some doors banged shut on it. So it came up with a neat icebreaker. It approached building societies and offered to sponsor the snacks at their general body meetings.
What did it want in return? Nothing significant. They sought permission to put up a cloth banner of the firm at the entrance of the building and handed out visiting cards with the snacks. While the brokerage firm managed to introduce itself to future clients, it is probably safe to bet that this is the beginning of a new trend.
In most housing societies, getting members to participate in general body meetings is usually a chore, but if corporate marketers have their way, these meetings will soon turn into sponsored events that act as a platform to launch new products and services. If the brokerage firm stopped at the general body meeting, then the Godrej Group, which recently launched its Pest Management Service, had found its way right into the domain that its products target — the family kitchen.
Its access point is the ubiquitous gas agency, which lorded over its customers for several decades of the shortage era.
Well, gas agency staff are fast acquiring people skills and morphing into a service centres and sales points for products and services. The Godrej Group has tied up with Bharat Gas, rather than an individual agent. Unlike door-to-door salespersons, who are often barred from security conscious apartment buildings, the gas delivery man/ mechanic always has an entry into people’s homes and even their kitchens. And like postmen, they continue to get a far better reception than other product pushers.
Clearly, the success of Indian post offices in hawking a variety of financial instruments, Internet services, soaps and even puja prasad (as a survival strategy and also as a perfect synergistic fit with their existing job profile) has influenced marketers to work at the transformation of gas delivery outlets. While Godrej’s pest control products are an obvious fit, the link between gas agencies and Westside – the upmarket department store chain of the Tata group is less clear.
Westside too has tied-up with gas agencies to offer a discount coupon to gas consumers, with the clear aim of expanding its market and promoting its positioning of ‘surprisingly affordable style’. If India’s 154,000 post offices and the large network of gas distribution agencies are finding new ways to reach out to people and leverage their relationship with customers, then banks too are in a position to do the same with their 800,000 strong branch network. It is only a matter of time before public sector banks, struggling with profitability issues at their rural branches, wake up to the possibility of leveraging their phenomenal reach, real estate and goodwill.
If private banks today outsource even their core banking activities, I see no reason why Public Sector bank and Regional Rural Banks cannot add to their bottomline or at least upgrade branch infrastructure by promoting or selling a judicious mix of products and services. But the process of reaching new customers by targeting homes and housing societies occasionally has an ugly dimension as well.
For instance, a perplexing issue for many strategically located residential buildings is the request by cellphone companies to install their relay equipment and transmitters on their terraces. Although telephone companies are offering hefty sums of money to rent a tiny 100 sq feet of space, the jury is still out on the ill effects of cell phone radiation. While people struggle to evaluate the trade-off between financial considerations and health risks, the system provides no guidance to people. We have set up many independent regulators, but they rarely communicate with actual users.
And the consumer movement hasn’t developed enough to provide support or run help lines that answer such tricky questions. But that is the other side face of economic liberalisation — one where companies will use every trick to sell products and services, but people need to look beyond the discounts, freebies and goodies to invest in creating their own support networks to provide an informed and impartial assessment on all consumer related issues.