Not that different than the car market

While reading a Jalopnik article reflecting on the Indian car market, it struck me that the Indian car market is really not that different from the market for essential technologies. The author, Jason Torchinsky, a car blogger and first-time visitor to India, hit on a number of points about customer preferences, branding, and distribution in the car industry that really resonate with Essmart’s approach to technology dissemination. Interestingly, though, many of these points have historically been ignored by development-focused organizations.

Below are some of points Jason noticed about the Indian car industry from his visit with Mahindra, and how I feel they parallel Essmart’s work:

So, while India is an exclellent [sic] argument for the use of SUVs, it also manages to simultaneously make the opposing argument that no one really needs an SUV. This happens because for many of the situations you’d think you’d need an SUV (hauling huge things, rough terrain driving, etc.) people all over the place are doing with tiny hatchbacks and miniature 25 HP vans and trucks.

It’s amazing what people can manage to do with mini vans (not a minivan, but a miniature van). SUVs are overkill. We feel the same about our product catalogue. People don’t need a really expensive, large solar home lighting system; they can manage to get nearly all the same functionality from a much smaller product. And many essential technologies are just that – products that can get someone all the functionality they need but at a more reasonable price point or in a more reasonable sized box.

Indians are, collectively, some of the biggest savers of money in the world, so before they buy something like a car they research the hell out of it.

This is something we notice at Essmart quite a bit. Even though most of our shop owners and end users don’t have technical backgrounds, they often ask very technical questions about all the products in our catalogue. Wattage? Battery life? Flow rate? They want to know exactly what they’re getting. As a result, our sales executives need to be very knowledgeable, and they have to help instill this confidence in our shop owners.

… they can also be quite status-conscious, all the way across the economic spectrum. That’s why, I was told, the Tata Nano hasn’t met with the sales success it should have: they made too big a deal out of how cheap it was. … while there are possibly millions of Indians who could really use such an inexpensive car, none of them really wants anyone to know that they could really use such an inexpensive car. No matter how poor you may be, it seems that you’ll always want to seem like you’re not quite that poor.

In reflecting on the car industry, I actually think Jason has hit on one of the most critical reasons why technology-for-development initiatives across the globe have failed: branding. Non-profits and NGOs in international development are so focused on helping people that they nearly always brand their products as products that help the poor. Unfortunately, this is exactly what people don’t want. If you had the choice to buy a product that is a step up the social ladder or a product that cements your status as being poor, which would you choose? At Essmart, we’re focusing quite a bit on the branding of our product catalogue. For example, a low-cost solar lantern is cutting edge technology that just happens to be low-cost because how efficient LEDs are.

Lastly, Jason commented on car maintenance. He noticed that the majority of car repairs happen in small repair shops:

So anything, say, Mahindra sells needs to be at least somewhat repairable by these little shops. That means if they’re releasing some new engine technology they have to educate these smaller mechanics to know how to work on it effecively. This is also important because many people in smaller villages and towns rely on the mechanic for car purchasing advice.

Maintenance is an important part of Essmart’s model, but I actually think this quote has some more important commentary on marketing. Local retail shops are the lynchpin of Essmart’s operations because the majority of people depend on them to access information on new products. Our sales executives do their part in convincing households to purchase our products, but the word of the local shop owner is much more persuasive than our own.

So there you have it: essential technology dissemination is actually not that different than the Indian car industry. Rather, there’s quite a few lessons that the tech-for-development space can learn if we want to disseminate technologies sustainably or at scale.

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Essmart’s mission statement is to bring essential, life-improving products to all people, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

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