Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

A Day Out in Soldier Bazaar

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

A neighbourhood where TV is mostly background noise and word-of-mouth the advertising medium of choice.
Photo: A beautiful, century-old stately home belonging to the Alavi family in Soldier Bazaar.
Photo: A beautiful, century-old stately home belonging to the Alavi family in Soldier Bazaar.

We bought this house in 1914, says Muneera Alavi. Her family has lived in this white stately house with its beautiful garden for over a century. A five-minute drive from the house is a stand where over 50 rickshaws are parked in a row; the drivers live with their families in the colony behind. 

This is Soldier Bazaar, a neighbourhood in Karachi East. It derives its name from the British era when soldiers and army personnel were quartered here. This once upmarket neighbourhood had leaders and influential families living here. They were affluent and contributed towards setting up their places of worship, allowing diverse communities to live together in harmony. However, with time, Soldier Bazaar has become home to a larger contingent of lower middle-income families, who today influence its purchase patterns. 

A profusion of Iranian edibles is on display in most of the grocery related shops. “This jam tastes good and its quantity is more than Mitchells,” says the owner of a local dairy, holding up a bottle of Iranian peach jam. “I use it at home too; my kids like it and it is better value for money.” 

Brands not made popular by mainstream or social media dot the shops. Taaza bread from Butt Foods and Grainy Bread from Abrar & Sons line the countertops, while Dawn Bread and Brady’s Bread are stored unobtrusively on the side. Although the former two are priced similarly, each slice is significantly larger than their better known counterparts, underscoring the need for value for money in this neighbourhood. There are similar ‘value for money’ alternatives for most brands – Sun Dip condiments instead of Dipitt and a range of Mezan beverages that eerily resemble their more expensive, branded versions. Tiktok, Croky and Tringo have packets of chips for five rupees, compared to the Rs10 packet of Lays.

The pricing of these products is in keeping with the demographic profile of most of the residents. “There are 15 of us living together in a three-room house,” says one of the rickshaw walas living in the colony. “My two brothers and I earn about Rs 50,000 to 60,000 a month. We all have kids and our mother to look after.” Their third brother works at a gas station. Despite the financial challenges, he proudly informs me that all the children go to a private school.

In this neighbourhood, word-of-mouth marketing is the most effective. It is the price point and the recommendations proffered by the shop keepers that sway the buying decision more persuasively than any splashy advertising. 

Nevertheless, mainstream media’s marketing is not without effect. Every kiryana store stocks sachets of expensive brands — and although some residents may not be able to afford a one-kilo bag of Brite washing powder, its advertisements have permeated sufficiently to give it an aspirational value for the purchase of its sachets.

In homes that boast several TVs, most residents denied watching TV regularly. Despite this, news and sports channels – especially during major events such as the ICC T20 World Cup – run in the background of daily life. Frequent ads with catchy tunes do manage to catch the eyes and ears of the people around, even if their attention is engaged elsewhere. Lipton’s tea advertisements had the highest brand recall when asked if they could name a TVC off the top of their heads. Yet, while none of the households I spoke to had been swayed to purchase Lipton products recently, a lady admitted to having a craving for zeera biscuits with her tea, after repeatedly watching Sajal Aly pop one in her mouth while chatting with her real-life hubby Ahad Mir. Her daughter-in-law, it turns out, has now added zeera biscuits to the grocery list. For the better to do, shopping is dispersed across the city. Some do their monthly groceries from major chain stores such as Naheed, Imtiaz, Chase or Carrefour and their clothing-related buying are usually brands. 

Instagram has emerged as a major influencer for young people in their teens and twenties. Most named Khaadi and Ego when asked about the ads that they had seen online. Purchases of branded clothes were made in-person at stores or malls, although some of the youngsters confessed to having persuaded a parent to make at least one clothing purchase online. Here, again, word-of-mouth reviews by friends and families had more sway than customer comments. 

On the entertainment front, most preferred streaming services or YouTube to cable TV. YouTube appears to have made the greater impact; it is viewed across age groups for music, informational videos or cooking tips – and some residents said they preferred watching dramas on YouTube rather than TV. 

According to the owner of Himalaya Computers, one of the several neighbourhood internet providers, “although every semi-affluent household in the Garden/Soldier Bazaar neighbourhood had cable TV, internet penetration was about 60% before the lockdown. But when most schools started online classes, internet penetration increased to 90%.” 

This turn of events, may not be quite so surprising, given that the rickshaw wala I spoke to, had opted to send his kids to a private school, especially as a shared low-end smart device with a small internet package makes this very possible. This, of course, has enabled digital marketing campaigns to pervade humble households. 

“There are eight to 10 internet providers that service the locality,” says the owner of Himalaya Computers.” StormFiber was not very successful; Himalaya Computers has about 30-35% of the market share and the next big player is PCN.”

PCN (Pak Cable Network) offers internet cable along with TV. Its unique selling proposition is an abundance of Islamic channels. PNC also airs targeted advertisements that are specific to Karachi, or in some cases, more pertinent to the Garden area. 

The footprint of print media was nearly non-existent. Residents who had bought houses in the last few years had not bothered to start a subscription to either a newspaper or a magazine. Even in homes where newspapers had been delivered for decades, the recall for a brand name or an advertisement did not go beyond “some bank” although the older generations did notice government campaigns such as that of Ehsaas.

Regardless of socio-economic group or demographics, digital is beginning to make an impact. However, the one form of advertising that reigns supreme across classes and communities is the recommendations of those they rust — nothing beats the goodwill earned through a satisfied customer. 

Fatima S. Attarwala is an analyst at Dawn’s Business & Finance.