Over the last few years, most companies have understood that succeeding in India's rural markets will be a key imperative to secure their long-term growth prospects. But, what certainly is a market of immense potential is also one of the least understood. Doing business in rural markets is often considered challenging due to several factors - lack of infrastructure, unstable demand and improper supply chains. However, all that is changing at a rapid pace. India's rural markets are now more accessible and better connected. The profile of the rural consumer is changing and along with it, their buying behaviour. Rural consumers who have little or no internet access may use time-tested, established but more time-consuming processes to travel through the purchase journey. Also, given the fact they are less familiar with brands, rural consumers take much longer than their urban counterparts to decide that they trust a brand.
For high-involvement categories, they typically spend a few months gathering information, seeking advice from various sources to learn as much as possible about product features and brand differences. This is especially true in consumer durables and automotive purchases and in categories critical to people's livelihoods.
Hence, to gain wallet share in this difficult-to-grasp market, companies need an understanding of how to shift from a "push" strategy to a "pull" strategy as they risk losing customers during the purchase journey unless they can satisfy their needs and desires at each milestone of the journey. Accenture's research terms these milestones as 'trust points', because these constitute critical moments where companies can build trust with the customer - or destroy it.
The first trust point in rural consumer's purchase journey is need recognition - though the rural consumers' social milieu is changing, they will not embark on the purchase journey until they are convinced that they have a need and buying a product or service could satisfy that need.
The second trust point is awareness - a stage at which companies need to get their brands into consumers' initial awareness set. At this stage, it becomes critical to determine the right marketing mix, depending on the product portfolio as well as the geographic and customer specificities. For example, marketing of new products or categories, which are relatively underpenetrated in rural markets, is best done through below-the-line activities - demonstrating the product in the villagehaat or mela, for instance.
The third trust point is consideration - a stage where rural consumers examine the options in their awareness set and narrow down to offerings that best meet the identified need. Companies' goal at this stage is to ensure that their product survives the transition from the awareness to the consideration set. A highly critical milestone in the purchase journey; companies can grab the attention of rural consumers by tailoring the value proposition to meet their unique needs and requirements.
The fourth milestone or trust point is validation - consumers seek inputs from trusted family members and friends as well as other influencers. According to Accenture's survey, 90 per cent of respondents said they consider their friends and family members key influencers for high-involvement purchases, confirming the significance of the influencer's role. There is also growing significance of sector-specific experts - mechanics for automobiles, electricians for consumer durables - who are often consulted by rural consumers and their opinions are valued because of their vast knowledge and practical experience. It, therefore, becomes critical for organisations to identify the right influencers and design innovative engagement programmes to target them.
The next trust point in the rural consumer's journey is the act of purchase. It is important for companies to take notice of the early signals that today's rural consumer wants a more superior shopping experience, the kind that their urban counterparts have access to. Almost 83 per cent of rural consumers claimed that they go to shopping malls in nearby cities to make their big-ticket purchases. In the future, store format - location, size and layout - will be critical for attracting rural consumers.
It may not always be feasible for companies to have a large number of branded stores in rural areas but opening just a few flagship stores may go a long way to inspire trust and build brand recognition. Companies will also need to think of ways to improve the customer experience at the physical stores. Specifically, store personnel will need to be trained to review and absorb product knowledge and customers' needs so they can provide higher levels of service. Instilling confidence in online purchasing also becomes critical, given that many rural consumers lack confidence in buying over the Internet, are unsure about available modes of payment, doubt the quality of products, and regret that most companies do not offer doorstep delivery to villages.
Now that the purchase is finally done with, the journey doesn't end here. Today, the quality of the post-purchase experience determines the likelihood of repeat purchases, as rural consumers are constantly evaluating the product's performance and the company's attitude toward them during delivery of after-sales service.
Accenture's research indicates that many rural consumers still shy away from logging a formal complaint with a company if they have a negative post-purchase experience as they feel helpless and unsure of whom to complain to. Only 54 per cent of survey respondents said they register a formal complaint if they encounter a problem with the product to the dealer or retailer from whom they had purchased the product. Thus, as rural consumers are hesitant to approach companies, it becomes increasingly vital for companies to proactively reach out to the consumers to seek post purchase feedback and resolve complaints to avoid negative word-of-mouth.
Advocacy is the last and final trust point in the purchase journey where companies need to nurture consumer advocates by promptly addressing problems to pre-empt negative word of mouth.