Back in the late nineties and early 2000’s I visited India and was struck by the changes around me. You could see people were beginning to express and differentiate themselves from one another through western brands. They were moving away from a traditional loyalty to home-grown brands that had proliferated when the market was more tightly controlled. People were actively searching them out, even preferring to eat in McDonalds and Pizza Hut rather than the local dosa restaurant.
But this desire to surround themselves with brands had a limit. People were definitely more interested in brands that their peers could see. So they wanted the Sony TV but had no interest in the likes of expensive shampoos or soaps, well not in the numbers that really made it count. Essentially soap was soap, it wasn’t something you spent money on.
That for me was a sign that the brand bug hadn’t fully bitten India. There was still a level of rationality to people’s purchasing habits. And it’s only when the rational outlook becomes more emotional that you can say a culture and its people shift to a brand oriented one. Because then people buy brands because they make them feel good, whether their peers notice it or not.
This time, seeing that premium toiletry brands had taken hold, I knew things had properly changed. You see the younger generations hanging around malls, young professionals and families shopping for the brands you love (or loathe). From the likes of Hugo Boss, Nike and Levis to Waitrose, Tescos and Marks & Spencer, they’re all there in abundance.
The western status symbol cars have arrived too. Porsche, BMW and Mercedes to name but three. Given the state of the roads, you’ve got to have a fair wedge to keep them roadworthy. Even the TV is similar – Ben10, Spiderman, Strictly Come Dancing, talent shows – you name them, they’re all on the box.
The truth is, language aside, I felt less like I’d travelled to another part of the world. But there was one big difference. One that has a major impact – size.
You see Bangalore has a population of around 10 million people (London c.7.5 million) and it’s not even India’s largest city. It’s moving fast too. They’ve already got 4G and there’s talk of mobile broadband coming in to the city, well I suppose it is India’s Silicone Valley.
But these developments and change in patterns tell me there is definitely an appetite for more. More brands. Greater engagement. It’s even shaping viewing tastes with people wanting to see and even experience celebrity and fame.
The culture is changing to a more brand oriented one. And with predictions of the middle class accounting for 70% of the population in 15 years, you get the feeling there’s a lot more to come.
So what does this mean?
In a nutshell you could say it means that given enough money, time and opportunity, consumers regardless of their cultural background all become the same. We all do eventually buy into brands and develop relationships with them.
I’m interested to see where this journey ends for India. Will they deviate at some point from the manner in which western consumer operates? Or will this convergence continue. It’s going to be interesting.
In the meantime I’ll appreciate the fact that I don’t have to queue for my dosa at Woodys on Commercial Street, well everyone’s in the McDonalds up the road now.