Contributed by Marshall Ward, Managing Director of Blue Marlin, Sydney

Brand design is sure to play a lead role in the battle for global companies to stake their claim in emerging markets. Marshall Ward uncovers the challenges that await marketers in their quest to pioneer the new frontier.

Marshall Ward

Much has been written about the importance of emerging markets in the future success of today’s FMCG giants. Indeed, references to the developing world seem obligatory for multinationals’ at result presentations these days. A quick glance at the statistics shows why.

Asia is home to over 60 per cent of the world’s population and is rapidly growing all the time. Economic stability is spreading through the region and with it affluence, urbanisation and consumerism. All those billions of people to entice; all that latent demand to stoke and satisfy – it is easy to understand marketers salivating at the prospect.

The savvy operators already acknowledge that simply transferring Western brands and marketing techniques won’t work. The somewhat colonial approach that expects the Asian populace to lap up foreign brands “just because” is not just lazy; it is doomed. Success requires a fundamental revaluation of what you do and how you do it; it requires a journey that will take you into uncomfortable territory, physically and emotionally, and it requires a commitment to understand and adapt.

Take India – goodness knows enough companies would like to. In the depths of the global recession in the last quarter of 2008, India’s GDP growth merely slowed to 5.3 per cent. In Q2 2010 GDP rose by 8.6 per cent. Compared with static economies in Europe and the US, India is a jewel in the world’s crown. But the retail environment bears little resemblance to trading conditions in other regions.

Supermarkets account for less than 20 per cent of retail; the overwhelming majority of transactions take place in what India calls unorganised trade. The term is not designed to be disparaging, merely accurate.


“Brand recognition isn’t a battle in India; it is all out war because of the cluttered retail environment in which most transactions take place.”


The average Indian retail outlet is a small, cramped, dimly lit, family-owned shop rammed to the rafters with products, of which some, but by no means all, are on display. An assiduous merchant mans the shop and his entire raison d’être is to maximise return per square metre. So you can forget category management; skin cream, shampoo, detergents, and sauces live cheek by jowl. The merchant arranges his stock by what offers the fastest rate of sale, by manufacturer or brand, pack size and pack type.

Did we mention that there are no prices on display, or that a counter separates the shopper from the merchandise? Consumers rarely get to see a brand’s packaging in all its glory, let alone smell the product or read the wonderfully crafted stories on back of pack. And there’s no such thing as price-comparison shopping because the merchant hands the shopper her product of choice before telling her the price, thus all but obliging her to buy it. Imagine the humiliation involved in having to hand something back to ask for a cheaper alternative (and if you can’t imagine it, you are not yet in the Indian shopper’s mindset).

Each time a consumer asks for a product or brand the same pattern repeats: the merchant gets it, hands it over and then states the price. Over 10 million of these transactions take place every day. There are no reliable statistics on how many of them involve a branded request, but anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggests that most don’t. When consumers make an unbranded request, they put themselves squarely in the hands of the merchant, who is likely to choose whatever offers the most profit, is closest to hand or he needs to shift. He might pick the brand he thinks is best or the one the buyer regularly buys. The merchant then can be your worst enemy or your best friend.

That’s one side of the story. Here’s another.

India currently has the largest illiterate population of any nation on earth, so those beautifully written back of pack stories are going to fall wide of the mark, not that many consumers are going to be exposed to them at the point of purchase. Understandably colour, shape, pack format and graphics have a huge role to play. Again the rules of the game are different in graphics. For example, in developed markets skincare ingredients, such as honey, are often visually referenced on pack in an oblique way – as a droplet of gleaming gold say. Indian consumers are happier seeing it in context and spelt out visually.

That desire for overt representation is not based on a lack of sophistication, it is a cultural difference. And one you had better get used to if you want to succeed. Skin lightening is a huge market in India and, believe me, consumers want to know exactly what they are getting so the packaging has to scream “this will make you paler”. That makes non-Indian designers deeply uncomfortable, but it is what the market dictates.

As is making the logo bigger. It is not patronising; it is vital. Yes, you are SHOUTING, but that’s because you need to in order to be heard. Brand recognition isn’t a battle in India; it is all out war because of the cluttered retail environment in which most transactions take place. Iconography is a powerful weapon that must be put to good use, so do make the logo bigger and be proud of it.

Everything about operating in emerging markets like India is different from marketing in the first world and the only way to get a handle on it is to truly immerse yourself. Marketers and brand consultants need to take time to get under the skin of the country they are trying to break into and to let it get under their skins too.

Chuck out your preconceived notions of best practice consumer marketing. Put down your prejudices and your fears. Roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. It is the only way.

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