Rama Bijapurkar, India’s most respected thought leader on market strategy and India’s consumer economy speaks to Ramdas Shenoy from,

Your journey from a science graduate to India’s most respected thought leader on market strategy and consumer economy?

Every step of my journey was  triggered by a series of serendipities or accidents of fate, not planned choices at all.

I did science because my good south Indian parents believed that there were “solid” subjects and “airy fairy” ones and of the ‘solid’ choices allowed, physics was the one I chose and grew to like.

Last year of BSC everyone was applying for something none of my family had heard of, called IIM and Management and so I too wrote two entrance exams, one for Ahmedabad and one for Calcutta.  I got into both, faced my father’s ire for daring to deviate from his script of MSc, lecturer, balanced life.  I defied him not because I knew anything about IIM but because he had said “over my dead body” and to not pick up a gauntlet that was thrown was not me!  I was all of 18 – too young to know better.  After IIM, some jobs were “women need not apply”, some didn’t shortlist me and I entered the world of market research because it was on offer, and because I was 20 years old and didn’t care too much about what I did to earn the princely sum of Rs 1100 per month!

I fell in love with what I did and have loved my work every day for four decades even though I didn’t always love my co-workers, my clients, my bosses, the billing pressures and the deadlines. Then over the years I felt that market research was high on customer understanding but low on business understanding; and was high on “readings” but low on “so what” action ability; was good at “what do you want to know” but bad at “why do you want to know”. Dil maange mor.

I voyaged, searching for the holy grail, and it took me via more experimenting with my current MR job, a full time consulting stint on competitive strategy analysis and a project stint on new business development with Hindustan Lever as an “insider-outsider” and then a brief employment stint at McKinsey (when I discovered that all blue chip business strategy consultants were high on business understanding but low on consumer understanding) and then I moved on to set up my own practice, got invited on to boards, wrote my books  etc. etc.  That’s the market strategy bit. 

Also along the way I came in contact with economists and found that some of them  were thinking deeply about households, the idea was born in my head, shape help of some wonderful economists as my tutors, that macro-economics needed a sibling discipline of what I called Macro-Consumer.  That’s how the idea of looking at the consumer economy through the people lens was born as was my think tank People Research on India’s Consumer Economy, which I set up with Dr Shukla (an early member of the team at NCAER that pioneered this activity and then gave it up).

My teachers at IIMA asked early on if I would help them teach their market research course and that’s how I came to teach regularly as well.

 So it’s been a voyage, not a mapped out journey; it’s been new opportunities coming out of chance encounters.

How do you see the COVID world with regards to consumer behavior and how should the corporates adapt to this new behavior?

There has been many new behaviours forced by circumstances; some of it is “I can’t wait to go back to my old ways” behaviour that will reverse; some of it is “Oh, I didn’t realise that ……” or “I quite like it this new way” or “It’s the first time I’ve done this and I learnt” or “I was just thinking……..”.  Now it’s up to the marketer or the business to say “I will take advantage of this and create for these new actions and thoughts”. Merely waiting for a fully baked consumer product or service to emerge from consumers gets you nowhere.

Things that are different in recent times : some examples: Millennials in big cities have cooked at home so regularly for the first time.  Rich and poor women have never done so much and such a range of house work before.  Children even lower middle have to get e-ready for school.  So many communication solutions we need.  So many men have been made to do housework.  So many more digital banking first time users and even a lot of non-users who say “I wish I could use”. I read an article about a busy working woman who wrote that she had never seen herself in the mirror so much ever before or so long and all zoom calls are showing her face wrinkle by wrinkle for the first time.  Another wrote that you can’t tell  if people are smiling or not in masks.  All these have possibilities not to mention that its back to “leave your shoes at the door” or “I need to build immunity” or “where on earth are my medical records”.

Companies have to learn to read needs (problems that customer have); and solve them and reassess competition.  If Swiggy genie allows me to now send food to my daughter’s house or receive from my friend’s kitchen, it will definitely compete with ready to cook cooking aids.  Also if destination weddings in Italy aren’t happening and guest lists are forced to be small what will the wedding market start demanding to show off or treat their guests well and  have a memorable event?

How has market research changed in the digital world? How relevant is the role of Market research professionals in the world of Google Analytics and other tools?

 Some market research that used to be done to find out basic facts or estimate things from a sample may not be necessary any more . But analysis of “what” no matter how prolific won’t give you the “whys”.  Self selecting samples of people who respond to you on the net don’t become representative samples just because you have used online data collection.  Earlier you used secondary data and own observations and simple cheap qualitative explorations to form hypotheses and design studies to provide amswers.  Now this exploratory process has a lot of richer data available online of what people are doing and thinking that you can use to define your problems better, identify opportunities, find solutions for and so on.  Big data is market research too , most people get so hidebound in what market research is– it automatically captures so much data about things that it should, in theory, point to patterns that you may not know existed.  Technology also allows us to observe now or auto capture what we used to ask in earlier days.  But market research is not about questionnaires it’s about using the science of information to solve problems.  It’s about insight it’s about “thinking what no one else thought about what everybody sees”.

So yes, its evolving, as is everything else.  We designed a course at IIM Ahmedabad – a new one – one module neuroscience (lets go directly into the brain and see), one module anthropology (lets study contexts and see what they tell us) and one module big data.  Each is a powerful and relevant weapon or musical instrument.  You need to design orchestra scores to make beautiful music.

When organizations have to take tough decisions and still remain human, how can brands communicate well?

 Brands have to decide who THEY are and communicate accordingly.  Not become the thing that they think of customers want them to be. Just like people.  Same rules apply.

Being on the board of several blue-chip companies, one defining moment for you that you would like to share? How has the role of independent directors on the Corporate board changed in India Inc?

There are many defining moments – I will save them for a book.  But all of them are around following your conscience, taking flak and disapproval for not “being pragmatic” or being the difficult one or not agreeing to “just let it go”, or having to walk a path alone, disappointed, wondering if you are the flawed one, fighting what you know are losing battles when you know what’s being done isn’t the “right” thing, but you hope that somehow over time your little contribution, even if your view didn’t prevail, would have  helped strengthen institutions.  I have also been on boards of academic institutions also like IIM Ahmedabad.  Yes, we are beginning to understand and learn by the day, what the role of independent directors really entails as business contexts and problems  are getting more and more complex everyday.

What gives you more satisfaction – as a management professional or as an author?

What gives me satisfaction : Actually as I have a third stream also –  for 30 years I have taught at IIM Ahmedabad and am now appointed to what is called a Professor of Management Practice there.  I think the teaching stream has pushed me to do much more intellectually then I otherwise would have, it has forced me each year to be on my toes and as I said in the dedication to my book on my course, “for my students who make me re think what I thought I knew”.  But all strands of my work feed into each other in a totally integrated way. writing for me is for my own clarity.

What is your prediction for the new India? Your advice to marketing professionals in the future? 

It’s a long and hard, trial and error search for the appropriate model for us – economically socially governance wise  It is clear we can’t copy from elsewhere and plug and play.  It is also clear that the old elite, the old middle class are not the ruling cohorts of the future being replaced by a new and different cohort.  My advice to marketers?  Think from first principles, think from consumer insight outward, think by remembering that consumers are people not just buyers of x or y.  The game for marketers is about adding value to people lives and extracting value in return for it.  Don’t use marketing theories and buzz words unless you understand the consumer / customer logic behind them. Don’t obsess over B2B vs B2C, digital marketing vs. physical marketing; commodity marketing vs services marketing . It is all the same fundas. 

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