by Michael O'Neill
June 21st, 2013

It is an interesting exercise attempting to decode India and present its challenges to a global audience. With over 700 million voters exercising their franchise and peacefully (more or less) ushering in political change every five years, India remains the world’s largest functioning democracy.

India’s diversity is legendary. With 28 states, 22 official languages and home to every major religion, India is a challenge to understand, even for Indians. From a PR perspective, it is also a bewildering market where global icons stumble and multinational companies are taken aback by civil society upsurges and the volatility of legal action.

Unlike the West, traditional media continue to grow in India. While globally renowned publications like Newsweek have closed down their print run, India Today, India’s leading news magazine, continues to enjoy a readership of 15 million. Even faster growth is taking place among non-English media outlets, in local languages such as Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Gujarati.

The rise of digital media in India has also been impressive. With users exceeding 150 million, India has the world’s third largest internet population. Facebook alone reaches 90% of India’ s internet users and the country has the third largest YouTube user base in the world.

Going beyond the lure of numbers, the India story is embellished with the kind of democratic values cherished by the developed world. The media industry faces little or no censorship. There are overarching governmental laws, but whenever the fundamental right of “freedom of expression” is challenged or violated by any stakeholder, the response from industry associations and civil society is spontaneous.

Activism is on the rise and touches every aspect of civil, political, economic, judicial and governmental society. India’s “Arab Spring” moment was in 2011-12 when the Anna Hazare movement against corruption took to the streets. These national, as well as localised, protest movements are gaining ground by the day.

Global brands, driven by the opportunity that India offers, have often found themselves in the throes of deep crisis. Local communities have voiced their concern for environmental damage; land has been taken away after being allotted by the government; plants have been shut down because of violent protests by workers; civil society has attacked second grade products being sold in India; pharma patents have been challenged; there have even been accusations of tax evasion emanating from shifting interpretation of laws. Companies therefore, need to carefully evaluate business decisions and monitor issues and the environment carefully.

While India is a developing country and has enormous economic and social dichotomies, it is also a country where consumers behave just like those from developed economies. They are discerning and aware — and as a number of international brands have found out, it is not a market for getting rid of outdated products.

Many brands have been unable to penetrate the Indian market, despite deep advertising pockets and PR campaigns, simply because they failed to realise this consumer sophistication. Others have adapted to the demands of the Indian consumer, becoming not only “more Indian” in their offerings but even more alert to changing consumer expectations.

While a majority of Indian consumers may be price sensitive, luxury brands have been surprised to find that they have a huge market in India. Their market is also not just limited to the eight “metros” in India but includes many smaller towns with rich industrial or trade practices.

In India, perseverance pays. As a developing market, India’s policies rapidly change to keep pace with the demands of an emerging economy. This makes for an extremely volatile political and economic situation, which requires a lot of patience and the ability to adapt quickly. Companies looking for a short cut will find their hopes dashed.

Points to remember about India:

Social media is growing but traditional media rules.
India presents an extremely dynamic communications environment. While the efficacy and importance of traditional media is still very strong, there are new media in the form of the internet and mobile which need to be considered and accounted for in every communications approach.

India isn’t just one country.
A unified strategy doesn’t work in India. With a federal-state system that gives large-scale autonomy to states, it becomes as important to have a regional and local strategy as a national one.

Democracy of activism.
Companies entering or operating in India need to assimilate strong reputation credits and maintain a ‘“clean” corporate demeanor.

Don’t underestimate the Indian consumer.
While the US$2 trillion economy of India is still developing, its consumers demonstrate a surprisingly mature response to products and services being offered by multinational corporations. Multinational companies that are unable to read Indian market nuances often collapse under the weight of their own short sightedness.

Shortcuts don’t work.
Policy overturns and economy swings have to be taken in one’s stride. Be prepared to run a marathon and do not expect results overnight in India where the economic fundamentals are strong.

Atul Ahluwalia is managing director, India, at Weber Shandwick

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