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THERE’S AN INVISIBLE FORCE COMING AT YOUR CATEGORY. ARE YOU READY?

By Hamsini Shivakumar

At one point, a couple of months ago, predicting the future post Covid, had become a parlour game among marketing, advertising and insights professionals, with everyone having their own theories about what could happen.

I found the arguments usually framed around two stances or positions. The first was ‘human needs are unchanging, and soon we will go back to the way things were’. The other was ‘since the pandemic has forced changes in consumers’ way of thinking and behaving, we won’t go back to the old normal that prevailed earlier. It will be a new normal.’

Those who didn’t want to take extreme and definitive positions, said … well it all depends … on so many unknown factors including how long the pandemic and its after effects lasts, including vaccine availability and distribution.

All of these debates, beg a different question, viz normally, how do shifts occur that can change the trajectory of a category, the direction in which it is headed in terms of growth – based on the needs/desires and habits of consumers as well as the legitimacy of that desire fulfilment.

With more than ten years of experience and study – of foresight methodologies such as Scenario Planning and Megatrends and of socio-cultural change via Semiotics, I have found that in India, there are two ways in which shifts occur and how businesses/brands respond to these shifts.

The first is the Visible Force that brings about shifts. Right now, in India we can see two such Visible Forces … these are Big Tech and Government Policy. Big Tech includes the big players such as Amazon, Flipkart, Google, Facebook as well as all of those hundreds of tech start-ups funded by Indian and International investors. They are all the visible face of the same force in action. Government Policy can be seen in the push for Electric Vehicles/EVs. Visible Forces being…well, visible, are known and action plans are usually put in place to deal with them – the action choices boiling down to: Ignore, watch – wait and see, resist or join in.

The second is the Invisible Force of ‘below the radar collective efforts.’ By this, I am referring to a large set of small brands and players working in localized spaces of their interest or passion. Individually, each is too small to make any difference to the category or industry. But collectively, they slowly begin to reshape consumers’ understanding and expectations from the category. And one or two of them, both determined and lucky entrepreneurs of great ambition can also turn out to become a driving force who initiate or drive a ‘movement’ of change.

In 2009, we had done some Scenarios work for a global FMCG company where we had seen the rise of consumer concerns on polluted environments and its effect on health and said that ‘natural’ solutions will grow in importance as a safe alternative. What we could not anticipate was the rise of Patanjali as a force for a shift in favour of Ayurvedic/natural products by 2015-16. But that could happen, precisely because the conditions were conducive for the rise of a Patanjali.

Right now, we are seeing further shifts taking place in the “Naturals” Space. The discourse around climate change is no longer just confined to debates and discussions. It has translated into eco-friendly products and solutions in the Indian market. There are players and offerings in a wide range of product categories and spaces, from beauty to feminine hygiene to wipes to household cleaners to NGOs to specialized retail. Almost all of them, make their presence felt on E-Comm.

What used to be N-H-A (Natural-Herbal-Ayurveda) even 5-7 years ago, is shifting to N-E-H-A (Natural-Eco-friendly-Herbal-Ayurveda).

Anticipatory thinking re. how the meaning of “Natural” in beauty, health, nutrition, hygiene, feminine/intimate hygiene could be getting altered by the effects of “Invisible Forces”, the cumulative effects of hundreds of small brands operating in the ‘eco-friendly’ space, is best done, in my experience, through using the frameworks of Semiotics and Semiotic Thinking.

Relying on consumers to give you answers on potentially altered meaning is least useful. Brainstorming and blue sky thinking in a one-day workshop session, on pathways of change can be helpful. But only after a rigorous study of representation, meaning making and potential shifts of meaning with attendant effects on category positioning spaces.

2021 could be the year to explore how that visible giant force – Climate Change and Ecology and the invisible force of eco-friendly players and brands come together and potentially impact your “Naturals” Brand/Category positioning.