Monday, June 20, 2016

Vartalaap - In Conversation with Mr Sridhar Lakshmanan || CEO & Founder || ecoLogin Travels & Treks || Interviewed by Harsha Daga & Piyush Jain || IIM Shillong || February 2016 edition

An alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad and also a Duke of Edinburgh award holder, he has previously worked with United Nations Development Programme, Mahindra Satyam and Philips amongst others. He started working in a remote community of 1000 people in Malaiyur between Madurai and Dindugal. He has Undertaken programmes on distribution Energy efficient stoves and LED lights to tribal communities in Javadhu hills.. Sridhar aims to endlessly strive to strike a balance between commercial and social development interests and also between the academic and practical issues for the stakeholders in all his endeavours.

Markathon: What are a few key factors that a rural marketer needs to pay heed to in order to be successful?

I personally feel that the context plays a very important role in different situations. Even though you might be speaking the same language say Hindi, or say any other language, understanding the context of the customers and their background is very important. Sometimes even though you may speak the same language, I feel many a times what he tries to say or what you understand is very differently interpreted and unless you are very sure or share a very similar context you may completely misread the whole stuff. One should be accurately aware of the context from which one comes from and the context in which you are trying to provide service.

Markathon: Sir given your varied experience both in big companies and in NGOs how different is marketing in the urban vs the rural?

These are two different questions. When we take an NGO they are not really catering to a market cause for example NGO face a lot of difficulty in understanding who their customer is or what their market is because money is paid by someone and they are supposed to serve someone else. So they have this inherent confusion whether they should do a great job for the donor or for the recipients. And most of the times it is the donor as he is the one who pays the money and that is why the people who are supposed to be serviced get a raw deal. This is a classical problem in any NGO sector.
If you take an urban and a rural divide I think marketing is completely different in the two. In my previous organization I used to part of some marketing campaigns and in both the context, the function was completely different. There was one campaign wherein there used to be someone amongst us called the Green Swamy Ji who would be dressed in green robe and all that and when approached by locals with problems related to crops and farming, a solution would be provided in the style of a mantra which basically promoted the brand. Other campaigns were like contests in the form of who can eat the most number of ‘idlis’.  Whereas we all know what shape marketing is taking in the urban set-up. Hence there is a lot of difference in the two

Markathon: What catches the attention of the targets most? Emotion based or fact based promotion strategy?

Emotion works much better than fact based in the rural area. Also if it is fact based then it has to be very direct. The strategy and the nuances of the product has to be taken into consideration and portrayed to the target.

Markathon: We see a lot of startups coming up these days, what is your suggestion to them when it comes to targeting the right audience; rural, urban or both?.

You should first decide what is your comfort area and in which area will you be able to convey your message better. There cannot be a theoretical distinction.

Markathon: Given the increased penetration of internet, is it time that rural sector be exposed to digital marketing?

Digital marketing in rural area is still a far cry as the penetration is not very efficient yet. What is yet to be seen is how mobile commerce and ecommerce will explore the opportunity of entering the rural market.

Markathon: Sir, according to you what are some essential points you need to keep in mind to increase consumer satisfaction as tourists look for maximum comfort and convenience whereas eco-tourism implies keeping the natural environment intact?

Fundamentally you should look at your client’s view point and then try to do something. On the other hand you can look at it from the view point of the environment and then come up with your business model. With regards to comfort and other facilities you will have to pick and choose your clientele which will vary according to them. And according to your clientele there are a lot of very sophisticated options available. For example, like in Jaipur or South Africa, they do a very phenomenal job of something as basic as camping. It also involves a lot of direct costs to the environment but also some hidden costs. Another very important criteria is how do you regulate the demand with respect to the low carrying capacity of such natural options. So I believe that it has to be a holistic approach and cannot be separated from each other.

Markathon: How do you think are corporates reacting to CSR mandates? Are they being sensitized to the communities or are they just eyeing this as a marketing opportunity?

I would say that they are eyeing it as a marketing opportunity as no one wants to share their hard earned money unless they really ought to.
I myself have experienced a lot of situations where people have blatantly approached me to use my organization and position to get workarounds related to CSR activities without being involved in any of it. Having said that, there are also various NGOs who are genuinely working and they were doing this even prior to CSR being made mandatory. And then there

is a third set of people who just view this as an obligation and don’t have a professional approach to it as they consider it as a random spending. Whereas, CSR is much more beyond spending. There has to be a purpose behind it.  Everybody thinks that building toilets, building schools will do but there is more to it as we are handling a lot of people during the process and just paying more wages and I don’t think everybody’s intention is good and the cost to the environment is never accounted for. I personally feel that CSR still miles ahead and unless we crease a social infrastructure it is very likely to fall flat and there will be a lot of blame games.

Markathon: What advice would you give to budding managers who have interest in marketing but want to explore the opportunities in the social welfare domain?

One can’t have both. You will have to choose between one or the other. There is no clear connection between them unless we are looking at some community based enterprise. And in order to do that you should be willing to do a lot more of ground work and willing to accept a lot of salary cuts. So you make an informed decision of what you seek and then move forward. Otherwise you will create a lot of problems both for yourself and for the enterprise you are in.

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