Navigating a Cultural Maze

Navigating consumer markets in developing countries is like walking the hot tin roof. One false move and you're in soup. The key to getting the walk right is knowing to respond to 'cost' and 'localisation' pressures. Pressures exerted on business models when they operate outside of their parent location (read, in global markets). The former, I feel is far easier than the latter.

Especially if the market in question is India. Its far easier to craft a low cost business model to take on the mass consumer than it is to localise as per regional requirements in India. That's because the diversity is so overwhelming its easy to slip up while operating in a particular region. The variables that contribute to this overwhelming diversity are cultural, sub cultural, religious and linguistic in nature. What's important to note for marketers is that these factors of diversity go to the core of an Indian's identity. Mess up with them, and an Indian will perceive it as an attack on his identity, and so in all probability will retaliate. The retaliation will be justified as it will be seen as an issue of a very identity being challenged, being called into question.

Its no wonder than Google is trying to balance the 'freedom to express' and 'the need to curtail' act, in a cultural hotbed like India. As much as Google allows for free expressions, in India its wizened up and moved to curtail what may be deemed as offensive to cultural and regional sensibilities.

Note WSJ's story on Google in India, 'The incident shows the treacherous terrain Google must navigate as it expands in India, the world's most-populous nation after China and a major growth market for Web searches, online advertising and mobile phone software. As Google broadens its reach, it must increasingly tweak the way it operates to suit new cultures. While authoritarian countries pose well-known challenges, Google is learning that even democracies such as India can be fraught with legal and cultural complications. Its experience here could serve as a precedent for other Web companies.

The nation of 1.2 billion is the world's largest democracy and in principle affords free speech to its citizens. But the country has a volatile mix of religious, ethnic and caste politics and a history of mob violence. So, the government has the authority to curtail speech rights in certain cases. India's Constitution encapsulates that gray zone: Free speech is subject to "reasonable restrictions" for such purposes as maintaining "public order, decency or morality."

For business models to work in India responding to localisation pressures is an imperative. The only time when this may not be required is when the cultural variables that differentiate, ease up or even vanish. Will that happen? Surely it will, though it may take a decade or two. Increasingly its being seen, especially in the metros, that newer generations take lesser to an inherited cultural identity, in comparison to its predecessor. The transition of deriving identity from culture to deriving it from what's globally practiced and accepted may happen over the coming decades.

And when that happens, Business models may not have to respond as much to localisation pressures as to the pressures to go one up on competitors who will come from all corners of the globe. The battle for the consumers in such times will be fought more on how brands differentiate via innovation than on how they align themselves to cultural sensibilities.


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