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BW Businessworld

Alienating Or Aspirational?

Clients wish to capitalise on the ingrained belief that international products are better, especially in the area of technology, cosmetics and fashion, writes Ashu Sabharwal

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In the 1990s, if a multinational client wanted to research the efficacy of its international advertisement in India, it would be tersely informed that the ad needed to be converted into an animatic or storyboard with Indian characters before it could be put to test. Yes, even in those days, if we told the consumers to imagine Indian characters without foreign settings and characters, they couldn’t! Even when this was tried at the client’s insistence, the respondents would just say, “But this is not for India.’’ Alienating it was!

By using the ‘gori’ (white women) in recent times, are we making whiteness aspirational? Or are we wishing to create eye candies? This trend seems to have caught on after Bollywood started casting foreigners (white women) in dance sequences and made them a part of our films. Consider the names that have been creating a buzz in ads and movies — Katrina Kaif, Jacqueline Fernandes, Lulia Vantur, Sunny Leone. Black hair, rose and peach skin and light eyes have suddenly became aspirational! Or so we think! No one asked for them even in Bollywood but they are there all the same. And we see the same trend in Indian ads. I wonder how many people have Jacqueline as their favourite heroine. And interestingly, for the men, the choice still remains purely desi! North Indian heroines are really loved in Tollywood (Telugu film industry)! And while this is happening in India, the Indian stars are also making their debuts in Hollywood. So, what is really foreign? Is it the obsession with fair skin which is making advertisers go for the ‘gora’ or is there a need to be seen as international or up-market/premium? Or it is simply a way to cut through the clutter if one can’t afford a celebrity?

For top-notch international brands, especially fashion brands such as Versace, YSL or Armani, which are targeted more at the global Indian, the move is well meaning and stands unquestioned.

But what about the ordinary Indian who has not travelled internationally, or even if he has, is clearly Indian in mind and soul? Are we stoking their aspirations? Are we coaxing them to behave modern or live the international way or use internationally popular brands by the use of the gori? It is a known fact that we subconsciously associate Caucasian races with modernity, advancement and superiority. Clients wish to capitalise on the ingrained belief that international or foreign products are better especially in the area of technology, fashion, cosmetics and apparel .

To launch international brands and then announce “Now in India” was considered apt by consumers. Many brands use the same advertisement across the globe to position their brand uniformly. This strategy is based on the principle that when consumer insights and the creative expression of those insights are relevant across markets, there is no reason why brands cannot use similar executions across markets. For static media like magazines and hoardings, research has shown that these advertisements have been received well by consumers — those images do create the premium feel. On TV, where we wish to emote with our target audience, the use of foreign models does create a premium imagery, but when it comes to a creating a feeling of warmth and bonding with the consumer, these ads tend to fall short against brands that, in spite of being international, have decided to go Indian in appeal. It generates a feeling that the brand will have service centres and will be around in case the technology does create issues.

Apple’s iPhone tends to cut ice across markets. The trick here was to not use models in their ads — just the image of being the world’s best. iPhone has managed to create aspirations with even the youth in tier-2 cities. And without foreign models!

But for the case in hand, the supermarket Trolley & Cart — if it were a Walmart coming to India and said shop like the world does, it may well be accepted to create news value and create a desire to see how the international store may look. But if one is looking to to provide and sustain a feeling of being not so premium, using foreign models may alienate many middle-class users, especially in the grocery category. If one is targeting the middle class, then the Indian face generally helps connect better. And if that client uses research, he will soon realise that.

The writer is a market researcher who founded Qualisys in 1997. She spends a lot of time with consumers in focus groups and in their homes observing and interviewing them

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-11-2015)