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Think rural to understand rural consumer … Remove your ‘Urban Hat’ while Researching ‘Ruralconsumer’

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More than 70% of Indian population lives in rural areas and urban slums. These markets not only contribute to more than 3/4th of the workforce in the country but also are becoming the new drivers of growth. Despite the huge potential, these markets remain underserved in the country due to various challenges including logistics, huge price sensitivity, seasonal employment etc. But these continue to remain attractive tothe marketers as there are estimates that just the FMCG markets for rural India will touch UDS 100 billion in the next 5-7 years.

The issues

These markets and consumers remain under-researched despite their potential. Marketers still face multiple issues while researching these markets due to high degree of variance among consumers in terms of lifestyle, language, rituals across the country. Some of the issues are:

  • Inability of the respondents to comprehend the line of questioning leading to low/ no response during interactions
  • People who turn up for interactions typically are not representative of the average population in the area being researched
  • ‘Bombing’ of usual projective techniques during the consumer interactions due to lack of exposure and a reference point
  • Research scales not being understood by the respondents, leading to faulty/ incorrect results
  • The phrases/ words used in the research instrument were not understood despite being in the local language due to prevalence of multiple dialects
  • Significant difference in claimed response in formal interaction versus on-ground reality seen through observations etc.

The cause

These are some of the common issues usually voiced by the Marketing fraternity while researching rural markets. Most often, the reason is as simple as researchers/ marketers blindly trying to apply urban research methods in a rural or urban slum setting. Reason being that the design of the research is often skewed towards the urban / affluent setting or “top 20% of the market”. The Researchers fail to understand the nuances/ intricacies of the consumers who live in a completely different eco-system as compared to their urban counterparts.

The approach

Given that BoP ecosystem is lot more inclusive and the informal community structures tend to extend beyond families, it is critical to have a research design that leverages these structures.The biggest fallacy that the researchers often make is that they design data collection approaches assuming community structures to be like the ones in the urban areas. Such approaches tend to fail or give misleading insights that can potentially lead to expensive mistakes.

Often straight line questioning does not work with rural audience as the consumers tend to appease the researchers. Interestingly, complex projective techniques also do not work since most of the time researchers tend to adapt urban techniques for rural settings. There is a need to develop or customize projective techniques for rural audience after understanding their ecosystem. For example, a direct personification technique may not work in a BoP setting as the respondents typically find it difficult to suddenly imagine a brand or product as a human being. However, using association technique after doing mapping exercise might work quite well.

It is strongly advised to researchers to first understand the ecosystem and its drivers in the rural settings and then devise a methodology that would give the optimal output. The tendency to blindly customize the urban approach for BoP markets often misfires and leaves the agency and client in lurch.We believe that the strategic research in BoP settings cannot be done without having the means to triangulate the data/ information.

Potential tools

There are now ethnographic tools available that can help the researcher unravel the mysteries of BoP markets and generate insights that can have a lasting impact.Some easy and obvious solutions that can help significantly improve the quality of insights in rural research, are:

  • Critical to pre-test the research instrument at least 2-3 times in a hitherto unknown rural market.
  • The researchers as far as possible should travel to at leasta sample of representative research locations, if not all, to get a firm hold on the pulse of the market
  • Training of moderators, interviewers is critical and they should be chosen as far as possible from the local market. I will reiterate here, it is critical to conduct thorough training sessions and the follow those up with mock calls to ensure comprehensive understanding of the research instruments.
  • Proposed scales for the study should be tested to check whether they are being understood or not. Suitable alternatives should be used in case the scales are found to be not working.
  • Avoid sole reliance on focus group discussions in your research design since often group discussions get attended by the upper caste or affluent villagers. The real BoP consumers within the villages usually get missed out. Therefore, it is important to include a few observations/ in-home visits in the research designs for validation.
  • Include a few opinion leaders in the sample to get their perspective. It is even better to start the research with formal interactions with the opinion leader to form initial hypotheses and then test those with the actual target audience.
  • Use colloquial terms while researching BoP consumers. Try including innovative games, folk songs in the discussions.
  • Given our strong oral tradition, it is often a good idea to use audio recorded songs/ scripts as a supporting tool along with the visual stimulus.

These are some of the approaches that can make BoP research more meaningful and result in insights that can help organizations in launching breakthrough and impactful products/ services/ interventions resulting in transformation of lives in these areas.

Gaurav G Verma, Founder-Managing Director of Mango Bus




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Gaurav Verma

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