Understanding India

Uday Dandavate, of Sonic Rim, just sent me this powerful email that I have permission to share in full. A senior of mine, he graduated from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad some years before I joined. Specialising in understanding consumers across the world, Sonic Rim does international contextual research in 18 countries around the world and counting.


As you know, “Designing” for a global marketplace is not a matter of choice any more. It has become an imperative. The need to understand and innovate for the global marketplace is not limited to multinational corporations alone. With increasing exposure to the images, sounds, foods and information from around the world there is an enhanced yearning amongst people to seek experiences that have an eclectic flavor. Every mind has become a sponge that absorbs variety of cultural expressions from around the world, in effect a global marketplace is being formed inside every mind.

Thomas Friedman says we live in a ‘Flat world’. While there has been a lot of discussion about the economic implications of the flattening of the world, there is as dire a need to discuss and prepare for the impact of the flattening of the world  on creativity,innovation and design.

There is an upsurge of interest amongst future focused organizations worldwide to fathom the implications of the emergence of India and China as important players in the world economy. As the two emerging economies shed their past and develop greater confidence, competence, and infrastructure, they are bound to influence the style and substance of international trade, manufacturing, and marketing. The creative sector must also draw upon new opportunities for doing business with and for drawing inspiration from the two countries.

From the attention it is receiving from the media and from the FDI, China appears to be ahead of India in integrating its economy with the global economy. Chinese authorities have managed fast growth and attracted FDI through controlled liberalization of the economy and smart management of the “Brand China.” On the other hand. India is faced with the responsibility of managing progress within the democratic system of governance.

Indian political rulers cannot force changes in India’s economic structure unless the majority of her population sees the benefits of any economic, cultural, and/or social transformation making a clear difference in their lives. While it is true that in India, a nation of a billion people, there is a significant middle class that is raving to harvest emerging opportunities in the global and liberalized economy, and wants to benefit from technological advancements, there is also a much larger population that feels sidelined from development.

It is this population that asserts itself through the ballot every five years to give a reality check to the political leadership. They too would be willing to participate in the process of globalization, but only with those who demonstrate sensitivity to unique cultural, social, economic, and psychological factors that characterize the Indian heartland.

In India, the early adopters of modern lifestyles do not go to vote; those who live in the villages and small towns and in the poorer communities of metropolitan cities do. And therefore, no matter how attractive the prospect of fast market reforms may seem to the proponents of liberalization, India will evolve at its own pace. Though the pace of change in India seems slower than in China, it is more participatory and, therefore, likely to be more sustainable.

Those who wish to invest in the evolving economy of modern India need to make efforts to understand the Indian mindset, especially the majority of people who live in small towns and villages far removed from the major metropolitan cities. While metropolitan cities are fast becoming the showcases of the western lifestyle and an eager market for products made in developing countries, the majority still retains a strong connection to its tradition.

It is only through direct connection with this India that the true potential of the Indian marketplace will be revealed. The majority of Indians resonate better with messages and images that reference their values and surroundings. The metaphors Indians draw upon to make sense of their experiences are often different from the metaphors people from other cultures draw upon. India has 22 official languages and 1,600 dialects, and the majority of Indians—even those who speak English—think in their native language or dialect.

Through increasing exposure to international events, brands, and media, Indian people are beginning to gain familiarity with foreign concepts and imagery. Some of them do yearn for a connection to the western culture. However, the fact remains that deep inside, the Indian mind does not want to and cannot completely dissociate itself from its nature, and any effort to resonate with the imagination of Indians must involve building a bridge that connects the heart of India to the rest of the world.

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