FEATURE12 November 2012

Switched on India

India is a market of more than a billion diverse consumers. Joe Fernandez and James Verrinder discover how online and mobile technologies are helping brands make the right connections.


Despite the global economic downturn India remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is also the second most populous nation and is expected to overtake China by 2030. This makes it a country of great interest to brands – but doing research here is difficult and expensive. India has 28 states with different languages, cultural nuances and consumption habits. But despite a large – and largely poor – rural population, technology is helping overcome some of these barriers.

The growth in internet penetration has been a boon for researchers in India. It’s estimated that as many as 121 million Indian consumers are able to surf the web. That’s 10% of the country’s 1.2 billion population, but the spread of the internet is not just confined to wealthy audiences.

A recent study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and research agency IMRB International found that rural India has 38 million claimed internet users and 31 million active internet users. The penetration of claimed internet users in rural India has grown 73% since 2010 and is expected to reach 45 million this December.

This growth in connectivity puts consumers in a position to be able to interact with brands virtually, using webcams for depth interviews or online focus groups, or by sharing their lives through mobile ethnography approaches.

Here and there: Views on India

We asked four researchers – two based in India and two overseas – what they thought about India and the market research industry’s place in it.

Raj Sharma, co-founder and president, MRSS

A decade ago there were hardly any big research agencies in India, apart from Nielsen and one or two of the Kantar companies. Then around 2003 we saw an influx of companies like Ipsos, GfK and TNS. Things have changed a lot since then. Traditionally the Indian market has been very conservative, so market research itself in India was not seen as a major activity. It was an industry that was looked down upon.

When we first started doing computer-assisted telephone interviewing, telephone penetration was very low and a lot of clients scoffed at us.

We had to sell the concept to them. There were also no specialised research facilities in India; all the focus groups took place in hotels or conference centres.

The big change over the last decade has been the introduction of new tools and new technology. Some of the demand for these innovations is coming from the clients – they know what tools and technologies are available in other markets and they want them here too. In addition, research buyers who were previously a bit snobbish about online surveys and online communities now realise the value they bring.

What’s great is that market research in India isn’t seen as just something you have to do. It has won acceptance among businesses and increasing numbers of them have very good in-house research teams. It’s become part of their budgets and is not looked down on any more.

This all began when the recession first hit in 2008. People realised that they needed to start making decisions based on evidence, not on instinct. In times of recession, failure is not an option so clients realised market research was important.

Back then, they started to invest in research and research made them heroes. We would be able to identify specific business problems and offer efficient resolutions and justifications. This has since become the norm in India as the economy picked itself back up again.

There are, however, limitations to the use of the internet as a research tool. Many still view the costs of online access as prohibitive and unstable power supplies are also common. Meanwhile, ensuring accurate representation often requires boots on the ground. Mumbai-based Quipper Research, which partners with international agencies such as Firefish and The Big Picture, finds that it often has to bring technology to its respondents to make sure they can participate – handing out laptops or inviting them to community centres or cyber cafés (web access points used by almost 58% of the rural audience, according to IAMAI and IMRB).

Well connected
Instead it is mobile technology that offers the most enticing prospects for researchers in India, with 898 million mobile subscribers spread across the country. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India estimates that there will be an additional 200 million mobile subscribers by the end of this year.

According to Sanjay Kapoor, deputy CEO of Bharti Airtel, India’s largest mobile operator, the bulk of consumers now make their first phone call on a wireless device rather than a landline, and many choose to surf the web on their devices under flat-rate data plans.

Advertisers like P&G and Unilever are among the international brands that have experimented with mobile-based research. Niti Kumar, a national director of new business and insights at MediaCom Asia Pacific, says the adoption of the technology has been pivotal for these brands “in order for them to identify with the growing base for personal care and durables consumers in rural or less-educated areas, ensuring responses in an otherwise hard-to-reach segment.”

Here and there: Views on India

Pia Mollback-Verbic, director, Quipper

India is a country built around a collective culture – people want to have their say because it is culturally rewarding to do so and puts them on a par with their peers. For Indians, research is an experience built around engagement.

The challenge for any company who wants to work in India is finding the right balance between audience segments and demographics. Once you have this, you need to ensure you are taking the right approach to gathering information.

The onus is on firms like ours to provide a lens for brands which can be used to influence strategy relevant to Indian markets based entirely on contextual information. We do this by taking laptops or tablets out to users and asking them to interact with brands via webcams. Sometimes we pay for users in rural areas to do this in a cyber café, with moderators and translators on hand to help. Examples of how such approaches can work include making FMCG brands rethink their packaging. Sachets are preferred to bottles by a lot of Indians, so we ran ethnographic studies to show brands why it would be wrong for them to axe sachets in India.

Western habits are starting to creep in – a quarter of all online minutes in India are spent on social networks. However, handholding is still required to get the best out of market research projects and that is why panellists prefer our approach over telephone calls or focus group sessions in hotels.

Pala Kuppusamy, chief executive of Research Now Mobile, who previously founded and led the Indian market research services firm Dexterity – says: “Mobile provides a reach that no other channel does. Texting and data plans are quite inexpensive in India and sub-$80 smartphones are expanding the user base aggressively. Survey buy-in may be limited initially but can be overcome with incentives and a brief introduction on why the survey is being administered. Furthermore, instant gratifications can be considered to attract higher responses.”

Don’t hang up
Researchers, however, need to tread with caution over how they make their approaches to potential respondents. According to the State of Mobile Advertising report, published recently by Opera, India
is ranked eighth globally with respect to ad requests on mobile devices.

13 billion brand interactions – mainly adverts – are known to be sent to mobile devices every month and this has precipitated a government crackdown.

Regulation has been imposed levying charges on commericial texts, says Kuppusamy. “Researchers need to factor in this cost,” he says, “although it is not prohibitively high. And there are alternatives, including sending a text survey invite with a link to a web app or a mobile web survey.”

Meanwhile, there are technological restrictions to bear in mind, says Alistair Hill, managing director of On Device Research, which specialises in emerging markets. “The majority of Indians still own feature phones rather than smartphones so it’s vital to adhere to best practices for mobile survey design in India, such as a maximum of 15 questions and questions limited to 140 characters.”

Here and there: Views on India

Simon Everard, group chairman, Kadence International

We set up our Indian office from scratch five years ago, and trained local staff on how our business model works. This approach is based on our UK operation and works on the premise that in order to be able to collect data you need to have good coverage.

In India we always knew that in order to compete on a level playing field we’d need that coverage. It took us significant time to find the right people to be able to set up there. The barrier to entry in terms of money is not huge but without the right people and connections you’re going to find it very hard.

There are also factors to bear in mind such as cultural sensitivities and you need people that understand those issues. Even with the resource it still takes time to earn trust. The fact that you’re a European company does not mean people will say ‘OK, I will buy from you’; you still have to prove yourself.

Payment terms are also a factor to consider before setting up in India. There, 90 days is considered a luxury, unlike in the west. For us it’s been a steep learning curve but we now have the biggest computer-assisted telephone interviewing centre in India. It is bespoke for the country and that localism has gone down very well.

Setting aside technology for a moment, Hill says, there are cultural considerations that also need to be taken into account. “In India,” he says, “it is notoriously hard to get feedback from women, so you’ll probably need to over-recruit female respondents to ensure a decent sample. Culture and religion varies considerably between regions, which must be factored in before going into the field. When researching alcohol brands, for example, answers could differ considerably due to local attitudes towards drinking.”

Technology’s benefactors
Broadly speaking, attitudes in India are shifting in response to outside influences. But still many brands and researchers come to India with pre-conceived notions, says Jyotsana Bohra-Puri of Majestic MRSS. “The way that Indians shop, think and feel is changing,” she says. “Companies doing research in India need to come in with an open mind and be ready to absorb all these changes.”

Hindustan Unilever CEO Nitin Paranjpe says: “These rapidly changing times put an even higher premium on an organisation’s ability to embed consumer and customer centricity in everything that it does. Towards this end, we have encouraged all our employees to spend time engaging with consumers and customers to understand their needs and address their complaints. It is this single-minded focus on the consumer that has helped our brands deliver better consumer value.”

MediaCom’s Kumar says that the influx of digital opportunities will make it easier for brands to understand their consumers. “As technology and digital penetration grows, getting insights into the large and diverse Indian population will get easier, faster and more productive for marketers,” she says. “Web-savvy audiences will increasingly be just a click away.”

And yet there is still much to do in India before market research truly fulfils its potential. But progress is happening fast, says Subho Ray, president of IAMAI. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. In the next two years, a combination of affordable smart phones, optic fibre backbone and local language content is likely to beat all projections of internet growth in rural areas. This will be a major development for our country and for the research industry, among many other benefactors.”

Here and there: Views on India

Paul Thomas, director, Incite

The image of Indian market research is all about off-shoring, cheap labour and fast turnaround logistics support to help us here in Europe and the US script surveys and populate huge PowerPoint decks. This image has to change. Head for head, those involved in market research in India are mostly better educated and have more MBAs than we do. It’s vital to work with partners on the ground – the days of sitting in ivory towers watching over things are gone.

Rather than rely on old-school ideology, we should all work together to maximise this intellectual capacity to provide better insight, better innovation and better understanding of the consumer rather than just smoother, cheaper, large-scale logistical benefits to our research process. You have to find ways of building
one-to-one communications and showing we understand the importance of cultural influences.

When it comes to implementing traditional research methods in India we still need to conform to long-standing cultural norms regarding things like single-gender groups or tight age ranges. However, the way brands are communicating in India is challenging this – for example the approach to brand communications has become far less conservative and rigid than before.

Brands that have successfully engaged with Indian audiences have tapped into emotions and used at times racy humour to reach their targets. In addition, India has seen a massive explosion in the use of social media, apps and all things mobile – not just in the big cities but everywhere.

The point of working with regional experts is to help understand that we need to re-write the traditional rules of engagement with the Indian consumer in order to get to grips with such a vast, varied and fast-changing consumer landscape.