A 'paisa vasool' treatise

By : Srivatsa Krishna
Last Updated: Thu, Oct 04, 2012 19:41 hrs

To the untrained eye from the outside, India and China are great puzzles. Vast, populous, fractious, complex and full of paradoxes. As I have always said, if something is true of India, it’s almost certain that its opposite is also true. The $10 Trillion Dollar Prize is an insightful, brilliant journey into the viscera of the modern consumer in both countries, unravelling in the process the rich tapestry that embellishes both these countries. The Boston Consulting Group surveyed 24,000 consumers as part of a global survey and dived into rich proprietary research that forms the backbone of the book. (That is also the reason one will find some consultant-style bullet points and slides, and the latter in black and white make the otherwise pithy narrative look a little odd and often distract from the main message.) In sum, it is not just a great book on consumer insights – packed with compelling data, evidence and anecdotes – but, surprisingly, it also emerges as a terrific India-China book, with hidden gems and insights into the two countries in a comparative way.

Indian and Chinese consumers will spend $10 trillion in 2020, triple of what they did in 2010: this explains the unusual and captivating title. The stories and the narrative are absorbing. For example, how LG adapted by making its microwaves amenable to cooking idlis, which are so popular in the south, or fish, a staple in West Bengal. Likewise, televisions were tweaked to have extra volume and brightness so that they could be viewed in noisy environs of India. The book also profiles – surprise, surprise – the female consumer in both countries and comes to the conclusion that while Chinese women want the trifecta of “ a happy home, rising, secure income and good health”, Indian women want a successful career and like to accumulate possessions — their top two desires!

It is generally believed that India lags its larger neighbour, China, by about a decade, a legacy of its later opening-up to globalisation and more gradual economic reforms. The comparison is made more instructive, as is the case with luxury cars. In this segment, China is already the world’s largest market, after an enormous growth spurt in the early 2000s that took the likes of Audi and BMW by surprise. These manufacturers were slow to respond, but learnt their lesson — they are now investing heavily in India, in anticipation of the same take-off, making one wonder whether what is sauce for the goose could be sauce for the gander too.

The other interesting parts of the book talk about how to target the “next but one billion”, the 665 million people who are living below the poverty line but, taken together, form an enormous consumer block, provided companies are able to find attractive products and solutions to suit their needs, which are very different from those of the upper middle-class consumers.

What makes the book extremely readable is its clever juxtaposing of stories and statistics, which in countries like India and China, especially in the latter, are very hard to find in any reliable manner. The one chapter that perhaps could have been more critical is the one on risks. While touching upon it, the authors are much more glowing and less critical compared to what life in real-world India and China suggests. For example, adherence to British common law in India is more in terms of procedures and less in terms of substance — and contracts are extremely hard to enforce. Enron discovered this to its horror, despite a guarantee from a sovereign government and a counter guarantee from the Union federal government in India! Thus, non-commercial factors often determine commercial success and failure in India, a factor not brought out as well as one would have liked.

In sum, the book is a “paisa vasool”, or value for money, a term it repeatedly refers to, and one which could redefine the way corporations around the world think about consumers in India and in China.

The reviewer is an IAS officer.
These views are personal.

Captivating the Newly Affluent in China and India
Michael Silverstein, Abheek Singh, Carol Liao, David Michael
HBS Press, Rs 799

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