Growing up in Bahrain, I spent many hours watching TV. During my teen years, my favourite channel was Aramco, which served up an amazing variety of American shows. One show I eagerly watched was Perfect Strangers. Recently, quite by chance, I discovered that children in Pakistan used to love the show as well. The premise of the show revolved around two friends living together; an American and an immigrant from a fictitious Eastern European state, whose name was Balki.
Balki would keep us enthralled with his antics.
He was not born in a metropolis, nor was he well-acquainted with modern US life and at least once during the show, he would utter his trademark line: “Get out of the city!” This was his version of the American expression: “Get out of here!” Whenever he said this, I would go into fits of laughter. Yet, this seemingly innocuous phrase is in fact a wise piece of advice for marketers in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world.
Marketers need to get out of the city. Why, you may ask? The answer is simple and based on common sense; because that is where your market is. Pakistan is still a primarily rural country and any sound marketer will know that unlike our metropolitan cities, our semi-urban and rural areas are not saturated. Data from Gallup over the past few years has shown that those are the areas that are experiencing growth in purchasing power and rapid changes in lifestyles. FMCGs such as Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser have both said that growth in market share will come from the rural areas. Using the blue ocean strategy, Pakistan’s top 10 cities have become red oceans, while the rural areas are blue oceans with less competition from brands and more potential. This means that marketers are dealing with a new type of customer that is very different from the urban one. This new customer requires new thinking, mindsets and strategies.
Working in rural markets brings challenges in the shape of language, lack of electricity and a limited number of communication platforms; challenges that cannot be dealt with when sitting in Karachi or Lahore. Marketers need to go out into the field (literally) and visit these areas of growth potential and see for themselves the ground realities. As Balki would probably say, the best way to solve a problem is to go see it.
Stepping into the rural areas can also create or enhance one of marketing’s most important tools: empathy. You cannot or should not be selling to someone you look down upon. Rural life and customs may be different, but they are neither backward nor bland. If marketers have empathy and respect for their rural audience, they will be able to create communication that is neither patronising nor condescending.
However, physically getting out of the city is not enough. Marketers need to get out of the city mindset and accept rural consumers as important and valuable, and that communicating to them will demand a change in the way it is currently done, if only because the mediums, be they radio, TV (when available) and print, have different content formats to what they present in the cities. Concepts and marketing collateral will have to be reworked or changed altogether and communicated in local languages.
Technology, especially the internet, can be a powerful tool in rural markets, but will require urban marketers to shed the notion that usage depends on literacy. People who work in the rural areas will vouch for how quickly rural communities are adopting new technologies, be they smartphones or social media.
Stepping into the rural areas can also create or enhance one of marketing’s most important tools: empathy. You cannot or should not be selling to someone you look down upon. Rural life and customs may be different, but they are neither backward nor bland. If marketers have empathy and respect for their rural audience, they will be able to create communication that is neither patronising nor condescending. Field visits enable brand and agency teams to gather insights first-hand and more importantly, appreciate the rural consumer.
Once empathy is in place, it is possible to actually think about doing more than just selling a product or making a profit. Brands looking to create a footprint in rural areas can collaborate with organisations working to empower rural communities, especially rural women. Already, there is an increase in FMCG rural-led empowerment programmes, including efforts by Unilever and RB – and there is much room for more efforts.
By changing their mindsets and strategies and physically reaching out to these markets, marketers can bridge the gap between themselves and their potential rural audiences. By deploying tools such as empathy and technology, we can look forward to a day when our advertisements will be less urban-centric and less aspirational, but rather more inspirational and grounded in culture and respect.
Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan.