Posts Tagged ‘customer’

An Africa Expert on Beneficiaries maybe the wrong Expert on Customers and Consumers

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LifeStraw, kept hidden in case donor comes to check. Rural western Kenya, June 2012 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

As the African markets increase in opportunity and visibility, the corresponding increase in need for experienced personnel is also felt. Many consumer facing companies hire “old Africa hands”, often former employees of various nonprofits and their projects. The assumption is that knowledge and experience among “poor” Africans implies knowledge and experience of African consumers and markets. This is most visible among social enterprises who struggle with the tension between social benefits and sustainable revenues.

Why is this assumption of expertise a problem?

Beneficiaries are likely to be perceived differently, and are also likely to behave differently than if they were customers in the market for the same product or service. An analysis of attitudes and assumptions had been conducted with a client organization facing this challenge with their top management team back in 2012.

What are the biases and barriers facing both the company and their customer base when a for profit company in a high growth, stable consumer market is managed like a humanitarian NGO experienced in high conflict contexts of extreme adversity?

Here are the findings:

From the company side:

  • Guilt over making profits or revenue
  • Anything goes because anything free has always been gratefully accepted by singing and dancing – impact on product and service design, as well as quality
  • Poor, dumb, savages who don’t understand the good we’re doing
  • Need help, training, aid to buy our product or service
  • Little or no accountability traditional in donor supported charitable initiatives as compared to corporate reports on sales performance and customer retention to give one example.
  • Thus, patronization embedded in the experienced “knowledge” of the population

On the customer base or target audience:

  • Will accept anything gratefully, no marketing required
  • Will say or do anything for freebies – higher mistrust of customer’s ability to choose or decide
  • Will seek to game the system or the market research
  • Thus, treating demanding customers like passive beneficiaries without agency, even while attempting to sell them something.

Type of companies who have already failed due to this problem include social enterprises, social impact organizations, Bottom of the Pyramid marketing, public private partnerships. That is, any organization that relies on third party experts for the voice of the customer or to identify end user needs and aspirations.

Collapsing the sustainable agricultural value chain of commodities with a single tweet

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Tony Addison of UNU-Wider, in Helsinki, just tweeted this photograph, expressing his pleasure at seeing Rwandan coffee at his favourite coffee shop, Roastery.

I retweeted it and within minutes, Josh Kariuki proudly tweeted that his neighbourhood Gachatha coffee, from Nyeri county in Kenya, was being sold far away in Helsinki, Finland, by name.

The next thing you know, the entire sustainable agricultural commodity value chain had collapsed between end customer and the shambas where it was grown. All it took was one tweet.

There’s a lot to be unpacked here, for those of you following along since the days I was in The Netherlands working on the sustainable agricultural value chain development project with the Dutch MFA. One of their deeply held desires had been that the end customer and the farmer should know who each other was, separated as they tended to be, by continents and seas.

The source of our familiar morning coffee is a mystery to most of us, and it changes the way we think about products and their pricing, not to mention the value we place on someone’s hard work, when we come face to face with the source. I appreciate this experience that social media offered me today and wanted to share it with you.

Social enterprises and the target audience for their value propositions

It struck me while browsing through some ‘design for social impact’ product websites recently that while their focus might be on the poor, their communication and messaging was geared towards the Western or top of the pyramid audience.  I’d rather not link to nor name names, select your favourite cookstove/solar lantern/water purifier social enterprise and look at it from the point of view of their intended customers – the erstwhile poor in the developing world.

Their marketing communications tend to look and feel no different from that of the big name charitable organizations – big eyed brown child seeking your help to drink water/study/eat food etc.

Whats the problem, you say, these are well meant start ups and they need all the help we can give them to get these wonderful life changing products out to make that better world for the 99% er 90%, whatever?

The problem comes down to the value propositions that these organizations identify as being critical for their target audience.

“Cooking with cow dung gives Mrs Rajarani terrible hacking coughs everyday, SupercleanCookStove helps ensure her lungs are healthy enough to do all the housework”*

“Kerosene emits enough noxious fumes to equal smoking 2 packs of filthy cigarettes a day, our CleanFreshBriteLite takes over the burden of keeping encroaching darkness away”*

et cetera

Where’s the problem, you continue asking me, these products are well designed modern technology that will help alleviate these side effects?

Agreed, but is the value proposition being made one that resonates with you, dear reader on the broadband internet, browsing their photoshopped website, ready to donate a few extra lamps/stoves/watercoolers or one that will resonate with their intended customer?

Who is the customer? What do they want? What value proposition resonates with them?

And how many entrepreneurs have been frustratedly asking “Why aren’t they putting down good money for this fantastic product of mine?

Because the demand being addressed by these messages is not that of the target audience, who are ultimately the ones for whom these products are made.

Everyday, research shows that the barriers to adoption include:

Improved cookstoves rank poorly on all three dimensions: their benefits are rarely valued highly by customers at the outset, they are expensive, and they require a significant change in lifestyle to be put into use.

Lets start with benefits alone – which is where the topic of identifying the correct value propositions for the target audience comes in. If your messaging and marketing is all about the best selling drill addressing an audience of home improvement contractors but what your actual customers need is a hole in the wall, how will you manage to bridge this gap in communication when you face your customers directly?

By focusing on the value propositions – be they environmental, healthcare related or otherwise – meant for every other stakeholder but the end users aka the customers of the product themselves – organizations may never quite identify nor refine the benefits as they relate to the poor customer, in the context of their lives, and their decision to purchase and use the said products.

To quote an old post about the Tata Group’s approach to low income customers,

Their primary criteria – as a business – for the design and development of this product was to take the concept of the Bottom of the Pyramid as a viable demographic to serve, setting the design criteria and constraints for both the product itself as well as their revenue model and pricing structure accordingly. The fact that it will “do good” or “improve life” is as important but this aspect has not been permitted to overshadow the need for the product to be competitively priced and attractive to the consumer, offering value for their hard earned rupee, even as it prevents their children from suffering from diarrhea.

By taking their BoP customers as seriously as they would any other demographic, they focus on delivering a clearly identified and on target customer value proposition, thus a clearly defined benefit, to the end user. This aspect will show up in their marketing and communications as well.

What strikes me the most is that these are the basics of marketing and strategy, imparted in any MBA program around the world.

*exaggerated to amuse myself

Insights from the South African low income market (BoP) opportunity

Durban, South Africa - Jan 2008

I came across this article from South Africa titled “Why companies should care about the low-income market” which has some excellent insights about this demographic and opportunity space. Also called the ‘BoP or Bottom of the Pyramid’, it is the mass majority segment in the emerging middle class in Sub Sahara today (per recent reports.) I’ve interspersed my observations in between snippets from the article which are in italics:

He notes that large firms are also becoming more secretive about their bottom of the pyramid (BoP) strategies, perhaps a sign that they are beginning to take this market seriously. “We see a very clear trend that companies are no longer asking what the bottom of the pyramid is.”

This is an interesting piece of news – BoP markets are now internationally recognized as a long term growth market opportunity,  the secrecy implying that the strategy is less about CSR (and attendant goodwill via PR ) and more about competition.

 “If you look at the upper-income segment in South Africa, those markets are mature, they are growing at perhaps 1% to 2% per year, whereas your low-income segments are growing at anything between 9% and 15% per year. You ignore such trends at your peril,” Coetzer explains.

Here’s why companies are taking it seriously – those are some significant growth figures, offering the kind of returns on investment that saturated, mature markets cannot.

Another point here is that BoP customers are very rarely formally employed with a regular paycheck.  The BoP market is also mostly cash based and almost 70% of the lower income markets are rural. All of these mean that they have not felt the impact of the global recession (there are exceptions such as migrant worker remittances from the rich world for example).

The article gives an example of tapping into REculture – the informal market’s characteristic behaviours of recycle, reuse, repurpose, resell and repair.

Coetzer explains that bottom of the pyramid strategies do not always just comprise of selling products, but also purchasing from the low-income segment. An example of this is Collect-a-Can, a non-profit but self sustaining recycling business, with steel and tinplate producer ArcelorMittal and beverage can manufacturer Nampak as shareholders. Collect-a-Can pays people cash for collecting used beverage cans and provides tens of thousands of unemployed South Africans with the opportunity to earn a living.

Opportunity spaces

“immediate untapped opportunities are present in the fields of financial services (especially mobile money), home upgrading and repairs (plastering, tiling, electrical installations, insulation, energy‐saving light bulbs, solar panels) as well as the distribution and delivery of goods. ”

An earlier survey […] revealed that the majority of informal entrepreneurs in Cape Town townships are looking to grow their businesses, but are unable to do so because the type of credit, insurance, training and financial services available in the formal market are not adapted to their needs.

Catering for the low-income segment often calls for creative business models and product innovation.

While these unmet needs are the most visible, increasing competition will require a more strategic, customer-centric approach beginning with a greater understanding of this customer demographic.  Opportunity spaces for new products and services that can add value and enhance lives,  not simply plug the gaps of unmet needs. Needs and wants are so many at the BoP that every decision to spend money is a trade off on the risks of a return of maximum value.

“There is huge diversity within the bottom of the pyramid. People have different aspirations, different needs, and one of the biggest mistakes for any company would be to think of it as a single market segment. Not bothering to investigate just how diverse this segment is, is something we see quite often as a classical mistake,” says Coetzer.

 

Further reading

Emerging Markets as a Source of Disruptive Innovation: 5 Case Studies – February 2010
The 5D’s of BoP Marketing: Touchpoints for a holistic, human-centered strategy – January 2009
The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid Begins with Understanding : Targeting the BoP Customer (PDF) – Nov 2008
Design for the Next Billion Customers  – April 2008

Navigating the African market opportunity

We have not been able to ignore the constant stream of media articles this year on the ‘rise of the African lions’ echoing the tigers and dragons of Asia just a few short years ago. The first reports mentioned GDP growth rates and economic potential followed rapidly by statistics on consumption, market opportunities and now, the emergence of a hitherto unnoticed middle class.  Critiques were not far behind, particularly those questioning the implications of the term ‘middle class’ applied to those spending between $2-$4 a day. Read On…