India’s Hidden Middle Class and the MNC Conundrum

The Economist writes a rather breathless take on a theme very popular just over a decade ago – the Great Indian Middle Class so longingly hoped and wished for still hadn’t emerged to satisfy the consumption habits preferred by the global multinational brands. Where were they, the article shrilly asked, unquestioningly promoting China’s middle class as an MNC success and overlooking all the challenges documented theretofore.

There’s an undeniable consumer boom visible across India, I’ve seen it and documented it myself. The difference this time around is that its a “hidden middle” – hidden from the lenses that MNCs use to identify their preferred customer for iPhones and IKEA, pizza and burgers. Having worked for both an MNC – All India advertising for Hewlett-Packard India in 1996, and an advertising agency – McCann Erickson 1994-1996 during the first decade of market liberalization, I discover I’ve so much to say to this Economist nonsense that I’ll bullet point my thoughts below to grasp some order from the ramble.

  • One of the first things I’d noticed in the March 2017 trip was that the style and flavour of the markets we’d used to frequent had changed. There was indeed a consumer majority now but it wasn’t the global elite preferred by MNCs. Where once malls were full of western style wear, and one could identify a woman’s economic and social strata by her fashion choices, these lines had blurred and democratized so much so that the market itself had changed.
  • Aspirational purchasing meant that pricing had to suit the pocket of the ambitious though the clothes were local versions of global styles. Everyone in the city wore western wear, though obviously of Indian cut and make. What I saw happening was what India has always done for centuries – absorb the foreign influence and make it uniquely her own. Its been two decades and the time is about right for the unique Indian middle class to emerge.
  • This hidden middle harks back to the original concept of middle classes – perhaps a factory worker who is now paid enough to maintain a motorcycle, an ATM card, and all the mod cons in his one room home. Or, the now grown up children, educated in English, taking over the discarded jobs of the former English educated elite in the call centers and the banking halls, the plethora of hospitality outlets and airlines, to bring a sheen of polish that hitherto never existed for their parents’ generation.
  • This middle class prefers their spicy Indian food, dolled up in a fast food outlet, looking like a Big Mac but tasting like home. This middle class will add paneer to their pizza and cumin to their soda water. You won’t see them at all if you’re hawking your pineapple on your ham.
  • This middle is 300 million strong I’d agree with the Indian executives mentioned in the Economist article. They can sense it but they can’t deliver it up in the manner that the research reports and multinationals require. That’s why there’s a huge missing middle, the same reason why Africa’s consumers are invisible for the most part, they don’t look like the Consumer nor fit the segmentation attributes.
  • One quick example that ports across cultures and countries is the taxi hailing app divide – there’s a local variant, Ola, that’s 1/3 to 1/5 the price of the global giant, Uber. The Ola driver accepts a variety of payment mechanisms including cash. He said to us that Uber was more popular in the better parts of town and considered an upper class product, while Ola was for everyone, even his own wife. This kind of brand segmentation exists up and down the spectrum of goods and services, rooted as it is in elements of India’s heritage and culture. And the mass majority brands will always take the lion’s share of consumers away from any imported brand. Unilever is quoted in the Economist article but the company had been known as Hindustan Lever for decades before hand and has faced its own struggles with indigenous upstarts like Nirma.

And, I suspect, that global multinationals, barring a few who’ve been around forever and a day, may never really crack the Indian market, just like they haven’t really done what they’d set out to do in China either. An ideal moment, on the other hand, to rethink the consumption driven growth frenzy required of these brands.

NB: The shopkeeper’s sign claims to sell both wholesale and retail.

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