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Book extract: What drives the aspiring Indian consumer

Aspiration is uniform in India, but it is not just about brands. It is also about status signalling—and one doesn’t have to spend to show that

Every socio-economic class of India is steeped in aspiration. (iStockphoto)

By Rama Bijapurkar

LAST PUBLISHED 26.02.2024  |  06:30 AM IST

If I had a rupee for every time the word ‘aspiration’ has been used in the last decade to qualify Indian people, consumption, target group definitions or voter choices, I would be very rich indeed. Consumer India’s consumption is located at the crossroads of high aspiration for a better life, woefully inadequate quality and quantity of public goods and amenities, and modest incomes which are also unstable. Even as incomes increase and public goods improve, aspiration increases (because there is a long way to go for most Indians to have even the basics of a good life, while information resources are available to them let them imagine that better life more concretely).

This gap between where they want to be and what they want to have, and the hard reality of income and availability of quality public goods makes their lives—and their consumption behaviour—one big balancing act. Marketers who fail to understand this often do not see the inter-category consumption that exists, and are bewildered by the sudden changes in consumer behaviour, when nothing much appears to have happened to cause it.

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Aspiration is universal and multifaceted

Every socio-economic class of India is steeped in aspiration. The rich and the poor alike aspire to climb the next rung of the ladder of a good life—a better house, better transport, better education for the children, better healthcare, better entertainment, better experiences and indulgences. Take housing, for example: At the bottom-most rung, the aspiration is to do better than a mud hut and get a pucca house, while at the top it is to move to an even bigger, better located, more luxurious house and have a second home in the hills or near the sea. There are several shades of this in the middle. …

Modest-income families aspire to have conveniences that save labour and improve productivity (refrigerators, washing machines, mixer-grinders), basic comforts (furniture, air conditioners, room heaters), and better transportation and travel conditions to enable them to widen their footprint of activity with some degree of comfort, convenience and affordability. This will provide them access to things and places that are further away, including well-paying jobs, cheaper housing, schools and hospitals in bigger towns. [They also aspire for] enjoyable experiences and affordable indulgences for the entire family. There is a whole Maslow’s hierarchy embedded in the physiological and safety improvements that Indians want in their lives.

Lilliput Land: How Small is Driving India’s Mega Consumption Story, by Rama Bijapurkar, Penguin Random House India, 304 pages, 699

Consumer India’s spending is, in large part, pragmatic and utilitarian, directed towards things that improve quality of life. A significant part of this is what policy advisor Akhilesh Tilotia refers to in his book The Making of India as the private cost of public failures. … Looking at expenditure by value spaces across product categories, a major category comprises productivity tools to enable the release of earning time or rest time to make one fit to earn. In a mostly self-employed country, if you don’t or can’t show up at work, you don’t earn. Cell phones and two-wheelers are must-have productivity tools. A refrigerator and LPG gas enable the modest-income woman to make and keep food for the family while she works longer hours or to be more efficient in packing the family lunchboxes (and being able to get everyone, including herself, to get to work on time).

Another value space is that of ‘cost-effective quality of life improvers’. All categories of digital-related spends are included here—for example, buying smartphones so that you can connect with scattered families, migrant husbands and fathers on video calls and save time and travel costs, do money transfers without paying a go-between, and entertain yourself very cheaply. A survey done by one of my student groups showed that the largest users of cellular data were security guards, who have a boring job and no access to Wi-Fi, unlike office job workers. In India in the 1970s and 1980s, it used to be said that the price of onions would determine the outcome of elections in the country. Today, I would venture to say that it is the price of data. A government that fails to keep data rates low will have a very, very upset mass consumer base.

Once-in-a-while indulgences and experiences, such as a trip to a multiplex, a small restaurant, an amusement park or just Chowpatty Beach for ice cream, as the purse may permit, is another value space of aspirational spending. For upper-income consumers, it almost certainly is travel abroad or in India for new experiences. The experience economy is here too in full force, and the tourism and hospitality industries are yet to catch up with it.

So, aspirational goods in India are, mainly, not about fancy brand labels or higher-order needs. Of course, status signalling or self-expression is very important, but it is the ability to have access to things and experiences and post them on social media that does the job as well or better than having an expensive ‘badge brand’ that fewer people will get to see. In the modest income groups, social media and even WhatsApp display pictures can be cheaply changed every week to make a statement—on a borrowed motorcycle with a borrowed jacket and dark glasses or in front of interesting-looking buildings or houses, selfies at interesting locations or selfies with celebrities and so on. …

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Consumer India is probably one of the most demanding consumer bases in the world. It has gone through almost three decades of prices coming down and quality going up: first, on account of the transition from the socialist economy to the free market, when taxes came down and competition came in; next on account of Chinese goods and then the e-commerce revolution driving prices downwards and improving range and service (no-questions-asked returns, cash on delivery etc.); then the absolutely free digital payments environment.

Along the way, before high touch could go out, hi-tech came in and ‘omnichannel’ and ‘phygital’ became the supplier’s mantras. Monster consumers are shaped by the high-touch, hi-tech environment that suppliers offer them—you can go to an airport, stand in front of a check-in machine and as you fumble, have an airline representative come instantly to your aid. The security barrier is meant to open automatically as you scan your boarding card, but if you are too tired to do that, someone mans the barrier and will happily do it for you. The Uber driver doesn’t want to always bother with using his GPS and will call you and ask you to guide him to your location. …That is the sort of personalized service we Indians love.

Extracted with permission from Lilliput Land: How Small is Driving India’s Mega Consumption Story, by Rama Bijapurkar, Penguin Random House India.

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