This was published in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of the All India Management Association (AIMA), published by Business Standard.
It is adapted from lectures at the Indian Institute of Management, the Film & Television Institute of India and the National Institute of Design.
By Anand Kurian
My thirteen year old daughter, Nomisha, is just growing into adolescence. And she has discovered friends. Not the kind that she goes to school with – but the kind that appear every day between seven and eight pm. Her evening, for an hour, is peopled by Rachel Green, Ross and Chandler, Joey Tribbiani, Phoebe and Monica. As I watch her grow and live and learn, I realise that they are as much people in her life as her friends in school; they are almost as much part of her life as her immediate family. They are ‘people’ in her life – and these six of her ‘friends’ will have played no small part in her growing up.
This is no paean to Friends, however. This is a recognition that, more and more frequently, those who fill our lives may no longer be quite people – they are what I term as Neo People.
Neo People have always existed, of course. The smouldering, angry ‘Vijay’ was part of my generation’s growing up years – as was ‘Psmith’ from the Wodehouse novels. For the generations that came before us, there were folk tales and mythology; these were rich in characters that seemed as real as one’s neighbours and family. For the current generation and the one that is to come, the Neo People could come from gaming (Super Mario is an example), and from other media as they develop.
Products as Neo People
Of course, it is relatively easy to think of characters such as Rachel, Tulsi Virani or Super Mario as Neo People – they almost seem to be flesh and blood, don’t they? But we must recognise that there are other Neo People in our lives – and it is these others that are more difficult to identify.
Let’s think of a daily newspaper. Now, unlike Rachel Green who, at least, is a human character, a newspaper is clearly a thing – a totally inanimate object. Yet generations of people have woken up, wandered drowsily into the porch, picked up The Hindu and spent a good half-hour with it. It is the half hour that many feel is the best part of their day; the daily news, the cartoons, the headlines, the editorials, all seem to be things they can’t do without. They drink coffee and devour the paper... it is an indispensable part of their morning. If the newspaper doesn’t land on their doorstep one day, they miss it and the day just doesn’t seem to begin right.
So the newspaper is an inanimate object – and yet for many people it certainly qualifies as part of the Neo People in their lives. They cut out clippings that they want to cherish, write letters of protest to the editor when something troubles them and can be quite fiercely protective about the paper at other times.
Of course, I am talking about an older generation. Perhaps, the relationship with the newspaper will grow tenuous for people of a younger age band. But then, it will not be replaced by a person, but by another inanimate object... an Apple laptop, perhaps.
Gopal is an IITian and an old school friend of mine – he is an Apple customer and his relationship with the company runs deep. He advises it on how to improve its products, his tone is almost fatherly then. When he talks about Steve Jobs, you can see he is a devoted acolyte and follower. When he talks about Apple to others, he is its champion and apostle – Apple is clearly part of the Neo People in Gopal’s life.
Depending on the consumers’ psychographic profile, the Neo People in their lives can differ dramatically. Thanush is my cousin and a motorbike fiend, a very different human being from Gopal. Excited to the point of religious frenzy about Harley Davidson’s entry into India, he has already bought himself the mandatory Harley leather jacket, goggles and helmet. There are no prizes for guessing who will be part of the Neo People in Thanush’s life very soon.
Suresh Nambiar is an old friend too and an IITian as well. A first generation entrepreneur, his parents were from the educated, middle-class stock that is fairly common in Kerala. Today, Suresh ranks among India’s wealthy people – and the Neo People in his life are his yacht and his BMW. “I never let my chauffeur drive my BMW,” he smiles. “I do all the driving myself.”
Of course, it is very likely that Suresh’s father, who was a high school headmaster, was inordinately proud of some of his belongings too – I am sure he must have had a particular possession (a Parker pen, maybe?) that he treasured just as much as his son does his BMW. But there is a qualitative difference in their feelings – what has changed is the emotional landscape of Suresh Nambiar’s world.
The emotional landscape
Our forefathers led emotional lives that were extraordinarily rich. They may have lacked creature comforts but perhaps almost in compensation, they seemed to have been at the centre of a vast and intricate web of relationships. If we were to map their emotional life, it would have looked a little like this:
You can see how crowded and packed Senior Nambiar’s emotional life was. Marketers have sometimes wondered why India lacked a ‘brand culture’ in the past. The reason is that brands are about emotions – and there really wasn’t much space left for them in the yesteryear consumer’s life.
Now, contrast this with Suresh Nambiar. He lived in America for a time and then returned to India, his wife remained behind. His only sibling lives in America too. He has sundry relatives in India, but after many years in New York and elsewhere, he now sometimes feels he lives in a very different world from them.
I agree that Suresh Nambiar is not your typical Indian; he is an example of a very different extreme. But Suresh is interesting because he typifies the Indian–American, he could possibly be the shape of things to come.
Meanwhile, in most Indian families, the joint family has gone forever. (Of course, there are a few business families that remain, but, from what the media tells us, they are more disjointed than joint.) In terms of social evolution, the nuclear family is becoming the norm very quickly.
The nuclear family is not under threat (single parent families are not common as yet in India) but a new entrant has made its appearance in the Indian family – privacy. Prosperity has meant a transistion from life in a chawl where everybody shares everybody’s life, to single child families where the teenager shuts himself in the privacy of his room (sharing it only with his laptop, his Xbox and his cell phone). That is a big leap in terms of individual and group behaviour patterns and it has happened in almost a single generation.
Education and an increased awareness of individual rights and individual freedoms have necessarily meant a slow, gradual weakening of traditionally strong tribal roots, cultures and codes. Whether this may be all to the good is irrelevant here; what is relevant is that it does leave an emotional vacuum – and when there is an emotional vacuum, and iconic products are around, consumers will quickly adopt them as their own.
The Neo Family
So, if we were to map the changing emotional landscape of our consumers, it would probably look like this – I call it the Neo Family. Some would call it the family of the future ; I would qualify that by saying that the future is already here, at the very edges of our present.
In this mapping of the Neo Family, there is of course a parent, a spouse and children (there could even be a pet), but in addition there could be a movie star, a TV anchor – and the others in the Neo Family could be a laptop, a newspaper or a cell phone. Does this sound like a science fiction bionic family from outer space? If it does, don’t let it prejudice you from seeing that it is true.
The phone is mobile
I was speaking to some young people recently, they were talking to me about their experiences. In the last few years, they had left their home town, their families, the schools they had grown up in and their best friends. They had moved to a campus in a small town, made new friends; then they had left the campus, the professors and the fellow students they knew – to move to the big metros for work, where they met new colleagues and made fresh acquaintances. Their physical as well as emotional landscapes were constantly shifting and changing.
Ironically, for most of these young people, there had been only one constant in all these years – their Nokia mobile phone.
Am I reading too much of an emotional attachment into this? Consider this. A couple of years ago, Nokia issued an advisory on 26 million of its batteries because they could overheat. Consumers could have directly attributed this to the company’s negligence – they could have seen themselves as being hurt or disfigured by the company’s actions. Yet, not much later, in the Brand Equity survey conducted by The Economic Times, consumers voted Nokia as the most trusted brand in India – it ranked No 1.
The Nokia brand had become part of the Neo Family of the consumer and to paraphrase Marlon Brando in the Godfather, a little facetiously perhaps, ‘You don’t vote against the Family’.
Just as Nokia has found its place in the heart of the mass market, you will find the Blackberry nestling in the niche, upper-end of the market – and it will take a long while for other phones to dislodge it; it has found its own place in the family.
We have grown up believing that the customer wants performance, quality and value (in the book, The Game Changers, you will find P&G Chairman, A. G. Lafley, write eloquently about this). Does the concept of Neo People and the Neo Family take this belief apart? Not at all, but it does go beyond it – customer satisfaction or even customer delight will soon not be enough.
Yes, of course, the customer wants performance and quality and he will demand that in the future too – but in a world that is increasingly flat, these will soon be taken for granted. The difference (in terms of quality and performance) between products will become increasingly narrow. Corporations will take technological leaps from time to time but this will not give them much lead time – the competition will catch up very quickly.
It is the definition of value that is changing – the Neo People concept redefines the value that products bring to customers, today and in the future. And the edge will belong to corporates that bring this value to the products that they market. When they work to include and incorporate this, they will find that their products become part of the Neo People in their consumers’ lives, part and parcel of the Neo Family...
(Anand Kurian is a writer and marketing communications professional. Along with two former deans of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he has developed a new subject 'The Culture of Business' for management students.)