Rural is more about doing it the right way: Effective Execution of Strategies

The Event Theme:

Rural India is the next growth destination. The aspirations of today’s rural consumers, who are “better-connected” and “more-aware”, are rising. They are fuelled further by their increasing incomes. “Why” marketers should go rural is not a question anymore… The task now is to devise strategies that can seize this opportunity. The “how” of it!

To help marketers navigate this future effectively, Rural Marketing Association of India organized a Conclave with the theme “From why rural to how rural”.

The event saw an amalgamation of two generations of the rural marketing fraternity. Experienced industry veterans joined the new age professionals to share the best practices and preview the next practices through panel discussions, presentations and case studies.

My Session Theme:

While some marketers have hopped on to the rural bandwagon early, many have started exploring more recently. Strategies that worked in rural markets, as also those that didn’t, have been well documented. Riding on the increasing penetration of mobile devices and internet, social media and e-commerce are no longer the things of the future in rural India.

Coming well after the mid-point of the event, on Day 2, my job was to pick a few widely recommended “hows” (the strategies) from the preceding sessions, and share my thoughts on “how exactly” does one go about implementing them.

I picked four “hows” and went on to prescribe “how exactlies” based on the lessons from ITC e-Choupal experience… 

How 1: Because rural is a ‘connected community’ and the rural people are ‘social’, you must work through “Opinion Leaders” to influence the buying decisions of rural consumers.

Such Opinion Leaders could be Panchayat Presidents, Large Farmers, Shop Keepers, Teachers, and so on…

How Exactly does one go about finding the right Opinion Leader relevant to my offering and my context?

Step 1 is to figure out the exact role such a person would play in your business model, and accordingly determine the relevant profile.

For example, it could be a Value Chain Intermediary who is making up some missing infrastructure to improve efficiency.

Like the way the village money lender knows whether or not to extend an additional loan when the previous loan has not been repaid. Despite the missing credit rating infrastructure, he would know what to do because he knows whether the crop has failed, or if an unforeseen domestic expense has come up, or if the farmer simply wants to renege despite having cash on hand.

Or the way an Adathiya in the Mandi knows if the lot of agri produce has to be priced higher or lower than the average. Despite the missing laboratory infrastructure, he would know whether the lot has more of good, bad or ugly material. With one look!

That’s how the role of Samyojak came into being in ITC e-Choupal system. One of the roles of Samyojak, located at Choupal Saagar (the hub of the hub & spoke e-Choupal architecture) is to disburse cash to farmers. While the Banks offered to do this job at a cost of 1.0% of transaction value (accounting for the cost of a bill clerk, a cashier, and a security person, working in two shifts to service our working hours of 0700-2100), the adathiyas were ready to do this at 0.25% by combining all three roles into one! We found a Samyojak in the adathiya. He was making up for the missing cash-less transaction ecosystem. One day, when the infrastructure is in place, Banks will be able to do this more effectively.

Other example could be an Influencer who demonstrates the value of an offering through personal usage. Sort of a “lead consumer”.

It is important that the rest of the consumers perceive this person as “one amongst them”. Not the Agent of a Company, promoting their offerings. Nor should the companies see him as a Leader of the farmers / consumers as in a Trade Union context.

Thus, a medium sized farmer became a Sanchalak in the e-Choupal system. Not a large farmer, nor a shop keeper or a teacher with whom the majority of the farmers cannot identify with.  

The Choupal Sanchalak was the “go to” person for both the villagers (when they had an issue with the companies riding on the e-Choupal platform) as well as the companies (when they had an issue with the villagers). Sanchalak was “one of us” for both the parties!

To my mind, this unique institution of Sanchalak is a bigger innovation in the ITC e-Choupal model than bringing Internet to the villages when most of them hadn’t even seen telephones!

The social capital of the Choupal Sanchalak is further enhanced through a public oath he takes in front of the whole village that he would act a like trustee etc.

How 2: Although the rural consumer’s aspirations are more urban-like, you must tailor-make products for rural consumers and their contexts because rural is heterogeneous (eg. single razor vs multi-blade systems

You must co-create with rural consumers, because you can’t otherwise keep up with the speed with they are changing. They are not urban consumers with a standard time lapse, as someone said.

How Exactly do you co-create? This is an often-used but hardly understood phrase!

It may be easier to understand co-creation, if we first understand what is not J

Co-creation is not more research. It is not bringing consumer voice to the boardroom.

Co-creation is not crowd-sourcing ideas.

Co-creation is not even marketers immersing with consumers and developing empathy.

Co-creation is not testing company-centric product designs with the consumers.

Co-creation is giving consumers the tools and structure that allow them to become designers!

Sanchalaks – as lead consumers (of crop management knowledge, for example) – were integral part of the e-Choupal web portal design team. It was at their instance that a typical “best practices’ content was structured as “current practices, what is right or not right with them” and “why some practice needs to be changed, and then the recommended practices”. This helped add credibility to the portal that the scientists panel understood their context and then only were recommending something else, rather than a conventional expert style instruction…

The structure of periodic village meetings with all the farmers, further rolled up into Sanchalak Sammelans, helped embed their insights and inputs into the continuously evolving design of e-Choupal on an ongoing basis instead of an occasional feedback system…

We pleasantly realised that the brand “e-Choupal” was owned by the community, and that ITC was a mere trustee, when such a co-creation process articulated the brand tagline as “kisanonke hithme, kisanonka apna” in the very second year of the initiative.  The highest level any brand can attain, to my mind J  

When everyone was looking for a low-cost-last-mile to reach the rural markets, ITC e-Choupal was working on an intelligent-first-mile by working together with the communities.

How 3: You must forge partnerships to win in the “high-cost-to-reach but low-ticket-size” rural markets

Partnerships are relevant from many angles, how exactly do you determine what kind of a partnership does one forge?

I have a product, you have the channel. Let’s partner to expand outreach?

I have a product targeted at a market. You have a non-compete product for the same market. Let’s partner and go to market together and cut costs?

All such partnerships are eminently worthwhile. But the best partnership potential is in creating what is called a meta-market.

There is a fundamental disconnect in the conventional markets. Consumers think in terms of activities; companies think in terms products / services. For example, a car buyer would think in terms of information to understand the features of cars available in the market, source of credit, dealer in the vicinity, insurance, RTA etc. Each of these belong to a different industry, each trying to reach the consumer independently!

What a meta-market does is to cluster such complementary products / services and offer a complete solution to the consumer.

In the context of agriculture, farmers think in terms of weather forecasts, market prices, access to farm inputs, credit, insurance, markets for the produce, and so on… The ITC e-Choupal ecosystem assembled all these players from diverse set of industries on one platform to offer a seamless market experience to farmers / consumers at one place, right in the village! As many as 160 organisations ride on this platform today!

How 4: You must leverage technology to operate in the rural markets, because it can cut costs through remote delivery as well as personalise offerings

There is so much technology around me, how exactly do I use technology? Mobile advertising, geo-coding?

Simple! You understand the unfulfilled consumer needs and the current business processes first, and then see what role technology can play. Not the other way round.

For example, when the farmer goes to a mandi to sell his produce, four transactions are rolled into one. Price discovery, Sales, Delivery, Cash Collection. The sunk cost of transportation he has incurred even before discovering the price forces him to sell at whatever he is offered. Taking the produce back doubles his transportation cost with no guarantee that he would fetch a better prices next time he comes to sell.

ITC e-Choupal brought price discovery process to his doorstep using Internet (supplemented by the quality testing by the Sanchalak) empowering him to decide when and to whom he would sell without the pressure of a sunk cost.

When he sells to ITC, we have the ability to stack the produce of different farmers in different lots pooled as per our quality norms rather than the random aggregation done by the adathiya in a mandi. This helps preserve identity and maintain product integrity, so critical for the success of our brands.

A win more + win more solution enabled by technology J