In the late 1980s, Vibha Paul Rishi was at the forefront of PepsiCo’s controversial entry into India; she subsequently crafted the soft-drink company’s aggressive marketing push through the 1990s. After seven years abroad, Rishi recently returned to India to look after the customer strategy of retail giant Future Group. In a chat with Sunit Arora, she explores what has changed—and has not —for the Indian consumer. Excerpts:
How do you now look back at the early days of reforms?
In the 1980s, it was about ‘daddy knows best’ and that status quo is the best thing. That spilled into industry, culture, the way we looked at media, everything. In that sense, the word liberalisation was well chosen—it was a liberalisation not just of the way business was done; it was a loosening of society that happened with it as well. It was fun.
By the 1990s, you had already seen the rise of small-town India.
While migration was clearly a factor by then, in part the cable TV boom had a role to play in the blossoming of small-town India. They were open to the influences, but had very little outlets. It struck me with such force: if we could just do something to liven up the lives of children in small towns. From then to now, that process has just been growing.
What has changed the most on your return?
Small-town girls and women are vastly more open. Shopping is a means of empowerment—I’m doing it because I can make choices. And I have a degree of anonymity versus going to my regular bania where my mother used to go and my mother-in-law goes. It was not surprising, but it was heartening to see the extent of it. One of the biggest changes is that women have entered the economic field. Even when women are not employed, household finances have often moved to them. Today’s 35-year-old consumer has grown up with more choices; her position in the family is different. That’s their frustration too.
At heart, the Indian consumer remains discerning....
The Indian consumer’s lookout for value is true. That’s because we haven’t reached a level of affluence as a society where it doesn’t matter any more. Thhoda khao thhoda phenko will not happen for a long time. Sure, the number of people in the uber-affluent segment has been growing and that has created a luxury market. But for the vast bulk, every day is getting better, but it’s also getting tougher—it’s thhoda hai, thhode ki zaroorat hai. Needs and desires have grown ahead of incomes, so you will always want to get the maximum bang for whatever buck you have.
Are they becoming more experimental as consumers?
They’re definitely more experimental with food and clothes. You are able to experiment more if the core of you feels secure. The culture, the ethnicity, the family is what gives that security. Consumers are no longer happy with just a dream. They want it and they want it now. There’s a dark side to it as well—anything goes is dangerous for a society. Today’s young people are vastly more confident—and a little more lost as well. They have grown up with success at any cost. Where they seem a bit lost is how to get to their dreams. They have the confidence that they will get there. Of course, even the young people I dealt with 20 years ago will be heads of households now. They matter.
What about the market at the bottom of the pyramid?
I don’t think pretty much anyone has addressed them. Their hopes and aspirations are not very different from anyone else’s. There’s a whole new wave of small-town India growing in situ, so to speak, and being a magnet for rural migration. There’s also going to be a big unleashing of money in the hands of people through all these loans against gold.