To the casual observer, it would appear that in today’s India the future seems to be playing on a screen near you. The digital revolution has truly taken the country by storm. And it’s a massive wave that’s promising to transform not just the lifestyles of millions but even the very fabric of society.
The surprising thing, though, is not that change has taken place, but the pace at which it has happened. With its largely socialist, closed and controlled economy, India continued to be unaffected by consumerism and communication for a long time after independence. But all that changed in a hurry after the liberalisation of the economy in 1991.
Not only did new brands, new technology and new thinking flood the country, it also opened up the latent potential of the people to seize the opportunities that the world had to offer. In effect, while the developed markets had lived with modern technology and lifestyles for many decades, India leapfrogged onto that stage overnight.
Specifically in the sphere of marketing and communication, India went from home-grown brands to MNC ones, from one official, terrestrial broadcaster to a multitude of cable and satellite channels, from old world mediums like cinema and radio to new age ones like computers and mobiles. All in the space of a little over a decade.
Today, the youth is obsessed with the digital world. Their playgrounds include a variety of screens and the buzzwords are Internet, mobile, social media and e-commerce. They are perpetually chatting, texting, blogging, tweeting, updating and downloading content. And, seemingly, already in the future.
Ostensibly, this should be a marketer’s delight. The young, educated, urban set, in sync with global lifestyles and values, and forming almost 60 per cent of the population, could make for the most perfect, homogenous sample. And their 24/7 presence on digital platforms could make it all the more easier to address and track messages.
But in India, nothing is what it seems. As the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen put it, “whatever you say about India, the opposite is equally true”. So the mere popularity of the digital medium does not make it the dominant one. As the transition to a modern, technology-driven society was so rapid, the remnants of the older system continue to exist and be of relevance.
Marketers can therefore continue to reach out to their audiences through mediums such as print, radio, cinema, television and outdoor. In fact, almost as effectively as new age mediums like the Internet, mobile and social media. In a way, that makes the debate over whether digital is more effective than traditional media rather sterile and academic.
The more important thing is to remember that marketing and communication is, for all practical purposes, the art of persuasion. And the business of reaching out to the largest number of people in order to convince and convert them to one’s brands. In that endeavour, it doesn’t really matter which medium is better. The fact that it can be done in multiple ways should be cause enough for celebration.
In effect, traditional communication and digital media can be even more effective when they are used in conjunction rather than individually. That’s because they are both equally, and incredibly, valuable in creating passionate relationships for audiences with their brands.
So, rather than debating the relative merits of traditional and digital media, the issue that India should really be debating is ‘How do we link the powerful world of broadcasting to the incredibly efficient and effective delivery of digital?’ That would indeed usher in the real future of communication.
Subbu Subramanyeswar is National Planning Director at Lowe Lintas, India