NAW Interview with Dheeraj Sinha

Dheeraj Sinha

Dheeraj Sinha is the author of two books on Indian consumer market. His latest release is India Reloaded – Inside the Resurgent Indian Consumer Market published by Westland in India and Palgrave, internationally. His previous book, ‘Consumer India – Inside the Indian Mind and Wallet’, published globally by John Wiley & Sons, is a recommended read at Wharton Business School’s course on emerging markets.

Dheeraj leads the strategic planning function for Grey (WPP Group) in India, South & South East Asia. Previously, he led planning for Bates (WPP Group) in Asia, across thirteen countries. He has worked in advertising for over 16 years across McCann Erickson, Euro RSCG, Bates and now Grey.


NAW- Tell us about your book, India Reloaded. How did you get the idea for it? How did you research for it?

India Reloaded is located in the change that India has gone through in the last two decades. There is a good amount of literary work available on the historical aspect of India. There also exits a large body of work that codes the economic liberalization of India and its emergence thereafter. However, very little has been written about the India that’s emerged in the last two decades. In fact, we are still living with many assumptions about India, assumptions which were formed a few decades ago but haven’t stood the test of time. India Reloaded is an attempt to capture this hyper, idiosyncratic, dynamic new India. An India that belies the Slumdog-Millionaire archetype.

At some level, I was disturbed by the broadstroke assumptions about India and its consumption culture. India Reloaded is an attempt to bring forth a nuanced and real understanding of how India is changing. The book comes from a belief that people consume politics, entertainment, products and services through similar windows of motivation. Therefore, India Reloaded looks at consumption through the frame of changing culture in India. What does the success of YoYo Honey Singh’s chaar bottle vodka and Sunny Leone’s baby doll songs say about the puncturing of pretense in the Indian culture? Why we need to celebrate our unity more than our diversity – as we see a rise of a unified national popular culture. Why the poor in India are driven more by aspiration than affordaibility. How spiritualism and consumption go hand in hand in India? These are some of the questions that India Reloaded seeks to provoke, and hopefully nudge the readers towards some answers.

A large part of the research for India Reloaded has been my ongoing work in the space of changing consumption culture in India. It comes from being out there, observing people, their changing behaviour, successes and failures in the market, in politics and the public space. The cultural observations are then mapped against available data to check the veracity of the hypotheses. I have also extensively used Bollywood as a mirror to the changing mores of the society.


NAW- In your book, you bust some of the myths about marketing. We specially like the example of the Tata Nano. Do you think the Nano would have been a success if it hadn’t been branded as simply a cheaper car?

I woudn’t say that Nano is a victim of faulty branding. As I have said in the book, Nano isn’t a failure of product design or marketing strategy. Nano is a failure of how we think about mass markets – through the lens of affordability, not aspiration. The problem is with our point of view – we look down on the lives of the aspiring class from our well-heeled and successful positions. From here, it appears logical that people who can’t afford a certain product should be happy to own a stripped-down version. It seems natural that a two-wheeler rider would jump at the prospect of owning something that looks like a car if its affordable, even though it doesn’t fully match up to his specifications. The issue is that businesses are thinking stripped-down and downgrades while thinking of the mass consumer. The mass consumer on the other hand is seeking an upgrade. In the case of Nano, the target consumer aspired to own a car that he had dreamt of, growing up around the Ambassador. He wanted to buy aspiration but we were selling him affordability. The idea here is not to deride the strategy or the inspiration behind the Tata Nano. When the project was taking shape, we were all excited about it. But it didn’t go the way everyone expected it to go. Nano is an important lesson for our way of thinking, we must learn from it.


NAW- Do you think firms should focus on service aspect before embarking on aggressive marketing. Take the case of indigenous cell phone market in India, for instance. People who can afford higher end phones don’t go for a Micromax or Lava because of poor after sales service even though it may come at half the price. 

Yes, I strongly feel that pre- and after-sales service is a monster that most companies in India are yet to tame. The first round of consumption curve in India has been about putting more number of products into the hands of millions of Indians. So the big news has been the increasing penetration of mobile phones, DTH services, washing machines and so on. As the Indian consumer enters the next phase of the consumption curve, she will put a premium on the service and its quality. Great service, can be a big differentiator for manufacturers who are currently engaged in the one-up-man-ship of product features.












NAW- With India Reloaded, you have explained management concepts in a layman’s language. Were you conscious of the fact that it needed to be simple in order to get a wider acceptance?

It’s unfortunate that the world of business and marketing is saturated with jargons and a language that’s self-referential. Much of this langauge is over-used (if not abused) and has lost its meaning. I feel that jargons are used to hide behind a lack of real knowledge, understanding and clarity. If your thinking is clarified, your language can be very simple. I believe in – saying it like it is; by hiding behind jargons, we compromise on the clarity of communication. That’s the reason, I have tried to use a simple language to make my points. I feel simplicity is the key to radical clarity. The added advantage of not using jargons is that the book is accessible to anyone who wants to understand the evolution of India through the eyes of its consumption culture. Hopefully, the book and its ideas are able to reach a wider audience, beyond business and marketing.


NAW- You have come down heavily on jugaad but one of the finest examples of jugaad succeeding is the Indian space programme. They couldn’t get the GSLV to operate and used strap on boosters for the PSLV for heavier satellites and it worked remarkably well. What options does an Indian have if he doesn’t have enough money for high end services? Isn’t jugaad a blessing in disguise then?

I think jugaad is essentially a coping mechanism, when you don’t have the right solution or enough resources, jugaad comes to your rescue. It might even be an acceptable practice in dire circumstances. But I worry about actively pursuing jugaad in management practices, as a principle of innovation, in service protocols or in execution of government initiatives. Jugaad in such places will lead to a culture of coping, it will lead to quick fixes, suboptimal solutions and even encourage corruption. As a principle, jugaad is an enemy of excellence, it can’t become our mantra for progress. For instance, I am sure that to get to the next level in our space program, we will need a real innovation, another act of ‘clever substitution’ may not be enough.


NAW- Tell us about your day job. How do you make time for writing?

I look after strategy for our clients at Grey in India, South and South East Asia markets. This means constantly being aware of how the culture is changing in these countries; how people’s motivations are evolving and how we can create meaningful brands in these markets. My job does involve a fair bit of travel and cross-market co-ordination. But in many ways it’s the energy of my day job which inspires my thinking and writing. For me, the two are intrinsically connected. Most of my theories come from on-ground practical experiences and most of what I write, I try to use in my work. The only small detail is that I have to find time for writing – which typically happens at nights, early mornings, weekends, in flights and so on. It does mean a sacrifice of personal and family time. But if a story has to be told, it has to be told.


NAW- Can you tell us about your upcoming works?

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