Blog Action Day 2015 #raiseyourvoice


I started participating in Blog Action Day a few years ago, and over the years have found that it’s something I enjoy being a part of. I started because it gave me something to write about when I didn’t have much to write about otherwise. I take it as a bigger responsibility now, for some reason.

Blog Action Day 2015 was officially on October 16th, but I wanted to add my voice nevertheless (better late than never and all that). The theme for the year is #raiseyourvoice, in support of people who raise their voice despite being threatened with violence or censorship.

I wanted to call out the many brave writers and journalists in India who have given their lives and their careers in an environment that is growing increasingly hostile to free speech. Especially over the last few years or so, things seem to have taken a turn for the worse. 2013 was a particularly bad year and saw the death of 8 journalists in the country according to the Press Freedom Index, where India currently ranks 140th out of 180 – an embarrassing position for the world’s largest democracy. Kashmir and Chhattisgarh are particularly bad states for journalists, though curbs on freedom happen across the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists puts the number of murdered journalists since 1992 at 37, though it is likely there are more. This year, in the last 4 months alone, 3 journalists have been killed, including Hemant Yadav 2 weeks ago.

Earlier this year, a large number of India’s writers also returned awards given to them by the government, in protest against curbs on freedom of expression.

I’m hardly as brave as any of them, and can only hope that the government, politicians and the power nexus realise the damage they are doing to the future of the country by eliminating or throttling its present.

English PEN is unsurprisingly a Blog Action Day partner for the year, because ‘it sums up the work PEN has been doing for almost 100 years.’ And important work it is.

An e-book from @kaviguppta & me: Disruption in the Developing World


Over the last decade or so, technology has changed all of us, some more so than others, and crucially, some parts of the world much quicker than others. Access to technology is a core part of this, with the steadily lower cost of production putting technology into the hands of those who never had this privilege. This has changed behaviours, relationships – and governments.

Last year, I  started a weekly newsletter called the Other Valleys to chronicle some of the inspiring creative and technology projects emerging from far-flung corners of the world that were not as familiar to the Western tech press as Silicon Valley might be. Kavi Guppta, who writes for Forbes amongst other things, thought this was a good idea too, and we got chatting online. That’s where the seeds of this project were sown: what are some of the best ideas that all of us, and people in public roles especially, should be paying more attention to? If we were part of a government in Asia, Africa or Latin America, most of whom are grappling with huge societal challenges, what kinds of tools might just help make life easier? Kavi and I decided to put some time and energy into exploring these ideas in a slightly more detailed manner.

‘Disruption in the Developing World’ is a short e-book that is the result of our collaboration. We’d like it to create awareness of some of the brilliant activities already underway across the world, and create debate about what might be able to be done better. If it then leads to even one person changing something somewhere to make life better for a group of people, we’d consider our time well spent.

You can download the e-book here for a recommended donation of $2 (or more – hopefully you will think it is worth it); money that will go to organisations engaged in Nepal relief efforts. If you can, please spread the word to your friends and colleagues on Twitter and LinkedIn too – much appreciated.

Capitalist Good: Brands for a better system

In February, I submitted this essay to the Admap Prize 2013. The shortlist was announced last week, and sadly I didn’t make it. Still, that means I can happily publish my essay here for the loyal readers of my blog (!). I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It gave me the opportunity to explore and link a number of things I’d been thinking of and helped me fall upon some very interesting research from across the globe. 

Milton Friedman

Experience moulds personal beliefs in a way textbooks really can’t.

Like many others before me and probably many more hence, as a teenager with somewhat socialist tendencies I used to naively think that it was the moral obligation of corporations to work for social good. After all, who could say that doing good for society was a bad thing?

Years later I read Milton Friedman, and I don’t think any sentence burned in my memory more than “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

I realised it was the crystallisation of my own experience. I started my career doing field research on poor communities in India before I moved to the corporate world – a move necessitated for me by the fact that charitable work, as enlightening as it was, simply didn’t pay enough. The for-profit world gave me what the non-profit world couldn’t at the time: a financial backbone – the backbone that was defined by Friedman in that statement.

Antonio Argandoña, an Economics professor at IESE Business School, mentioned in 2005 that what Friedman said was aligned with a simple classical economics theory, the efficiency principle, which says that people and institutions always try to minimize the resources used to achieve a goal in order to achieve maximum efficiency. The purpose of economic institutions, he says, is therefore ‘to contribute to the system’s maximum efficiency’ and therefore anything that distracts them from that goal is undesirable, including a plea to do right by society. Friedman’s words had a solid economic (if capitalist) grounding, irrespective of the philosophical opinions that anyone else might choose to air (including my younger self).

However, there are two things to remember with regard to what Friedman said that relate to the crux of this essay, the brand’s primary objective of maximizing profit. The first is that since Friedman propounded his theory the world has become a very different place. His words still accurately describe the key objective of business – to increase its profits – but the context is completely different, so the route to achieving that objective is no longer the same. Second is the importance of systems thinking in any discussion of brands and corporate social responsibility (CSR) today – “the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole”, as Wikipedia defines it. Systems thinking as an area of scientific study harks back to the time of the World Wars, but as a theory linked to CSR has only become popular over the last five years.

In a 2006 McKinsey study, many executives in fact disagreed with Friedman’s thesis as they viewed CSR as a way for them to manage risk as well as the multiple socio-political challenges facing their businesses, including climate change, healthcare and human rights concerns – issues which arguably weren’t as big when Friedman wrote his text. Heads of businesses are now viewing CSR from a systems thinking perspective themselves.

A changing world order

In 1970, we lived in the era of manufacturing. Trade unions held enormous influence over corporate executives, to the extent that Friedman openly stated in his well-known New York Times Magazine piece that year that he was more or less aligned with Adam Smith’s way of thinking with regard to the demand for business to have a ‘social responsibility’: those who “affected to trade for public good” were doing so out of undemocratic compulsion. But today we’re living in the age of the customer, as Forrester Research describes it in a recent report on the 21st century brand-building experience, where responding to people’s concerns is key to success.

To illustrate, the latest results from Havas’ Meaningful Brands Index shows that almost 85% of people across the world expect brands to contribute to individual and community wellbeing, an even larger proportion than in 2010 when the study was last done.

Let’s take one area of CSR, sustainability, for the sake of brevity (though as Faris Yakob notes in his paper ‘Good for Business’, there are multiple benefits to ethical business practice, including employee retention, brand value, increased efficiency and access to capital, amongst others). Ongoing research by MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group proves the positive impact of corporate investment in sustainability initiatives: they have been tracking the impact of sustainability on corporate profits since 2010 and saw a 23% year-on-year increase in 2012 in the number of respondents claiming profit from these programmes.

Examples of brands adopting sustainability as a profit-oriented business model include Unilever, whose CEO Paul Polman mentioned in January that the company’s share prices have effectively doubled in the four years since they first announced their Sustainable Living Plan, and Marks & Spencer, whose CEO Marc Bolland last year announced that Plan A, their strategy to do business in a more ethical and sustainable manner, yielded £185m in net benefits over the last five years, which were then  reinvested into the business.

It is worth noting in this context the role of the shareholder. As Charles Handy (2002) puts it, shareholders are more like investors because all they care about is a return on their money. But focussing on the interests of shareholders as one stakeholder group at the expense of others (consumers, governments, NGOs, suppliers, employees and debtors) could be detrimental to the business in the long run because of the inter-connectedness of the world in which we live today. Economic, social and political events in one part of the world can have significant impact on a business in another – think of the 2008 financial crisis or even the Arab Spring, where North American businesses are said to have felt the most impact due to increased fuel prices pushing up operation and production costs, according to a report following the political unrest by professional services firm Grant Thornton.

As the number of educated and financially well-off consumers grows across the globe, it is also possible that they represent a small (and growing) proportion of shareholders themselves. And as shareholders, they have a right to comment on the direction of the business. As with the role of CSR, the role of the shareholder is also morphing.

Over the past decade or so, as the profits of large corporates have ballooned out of proportion to their expenses, people have started questioning their role as customers in contributing to their growth. They have more access to technology and are more aware of the impact of the brands they purchase in some other part of their country or the world. People now understand the role of a business in the larger societal system.

If a business is to respond to customer demands, then integrating social behaviour into its brand strategy, as Faris Yakob states, simply becomes business sense rather than a CSR mechanism.

Breakthrough capitalism and systems thinking

It isn’t a coincidence that the popularity and financial success of socially responsible brands (such as Innocent and Method) is coming at a time that we’re seeing an explosion of entrepreneurs, and especially social entrepreneurs, across the world. This phenomenon is evidence of Joseph Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ in action.

Schumpeter first spoke about ‘creative destruction’ in 1942 with regard to Marx’s advocacy of socialism, saying that socialism in some form would, as Marx declared, become dominant, but not in the way Marx envisioned. Schumpeter’s theory was that the success of capitalism would lead to the capitalist democratic majority imposing restrictions on entrepreneurship because it threatened to undermine the traditional capitalist structure. Dissatisfied with this situation, the more liberal capitalists would then evolve into socialists. This turn of events, Schumpeter said, would naturally come about when education became accessible to larger numbers of people and created more intellectuals in society – which is the case today (as indicated by the recent growth of online learning ventures like the Khan Academy, Codecademy and Skillshare).

The spurt in the growth of start-ups and venture capitalists over the last few years proves Schumpeter’s point; he was hailed as a visionary by policy analysts in Washington D.C over a decade ago.  A Wired article from 2002 recalls a paper presented by former U.S Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and his ex-deputy Bradford DeLong, who observed that “the economy of the future is likely to be ‘Schumpeterian,'” with creative destruction the norm and innovation the main driver of wealth.”

Creative destruction is being used as the base for a new theory being explored in the UK that is also looking at the case for brands enhancing social and economic conditions as part of their business agenda. It is called ‘breakthrough capitalism’ and tracks the symptoms of the systemic breakdown of society (the 2011 UK riots and the Eurozone crisis for example) to the growth of a new economic order that is seeing an increase in the number of individuals and organisations that hope to tackle the imbalance in the distribution of wealth (organisations like the US-based Ashoka Innovators for the Public and Acumen Fund, and the UK’s Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship and SustainAbility, for example).

Breakthrough capitalism has its roots in systems thinking. It posits that companies who reap financial benefit in the future will be those that act early on the current disequilibrium, to cater to the sustainable future that will not only be necessary but demanded by society.

Case in point: Nike, whose most recent corporate strategy report saw CEO Mark Parker admitting that ‘rising energy costs, increasingly scarce natural resources and demands for equal access to economic opportunities’ could cause their profits to shrink. Sustainability is therefore now a key business objective for the company, along with innovation. A Guardian story on the Nike report puts it beautifully: ‘Nike’s corporate story, is, in some way, a reflection of capitalism’s own. Few companies have ridden the globalisation wave higher or faster.’

It is in this landscape that one of the action points for businesses and governments at the Breakthrough Capitalism Forum in London last year included ending the quarterly earnings system of reporting, a viewpoint echoed by Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman before their latest earnings report at the beginning of this year: “We’re not going into the three-month rat-races. We’re not working for our shareholders. We’re working for the consumer, we are focused and the shareholder gets rewarded.”

Project Shakti
From Unilever’s case study on Project Shakti

Another excellent example of CSR in a systems thinking context is Unilever’s Project Shakti in India. As of 2010, through Project Shakti, Unilever has trained and supported over 45,000 female entrepreneurs who sell the brand’s products across more than 100,000 villages and 3 million households a month, simultaneously giving them a livelihood. These are areas that would have otherwise been very difficult for the company to reach through their traditional distribution network. The programme hopes to grow to cover 75,000 women by 2015, and in 2011 expanded to bring rural males into the programme as well. Its success has seen it being replicated in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam; in markets where the programme exists they enjoy market share that is significantly higher than non-Shakti markets.

A better capitalism

It is clear that the time for ‘a better capitalism’, as Sir Richard Branson refers to it, has come. He is an ardent advocate of this philosophy; last year he founded the B-Team (‘a Plan B for capitalism’) – a group of business leaders whose goal is to make capitalism a more long-term and socially responsible philosophy.


In fact what was previously seen as more of a social objective now has a legal framework: B-Corps or ‘benefit corporations’ have been signed into law by 12 US states (with 14 more working on it), thanks to the efforts of the non-profit B-Lab, as a way of giving businesses “greater freedom to pursue strategies which they believe benefit society as a whole rather than having to concentrate on maximising profits for the next financial quarter” (The Economist, January 4, 2012). Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy, Plum Organics and Method are some of the more well-known brands to have got Certified B-Corp status from B-Lab, meaning they meet a high standard of overall social and environmental performance. They are amongst almost 700 companies in 24 countries with this designation.

After many years of discussion about the ethics of business, it is now truly possible to achieve profits in a responsible manner. What is needed now is an actionable plan to make this a bigger part of brand activity. Going back to sustainability as an example, the MIT/BCG research shows that sustainability-driven innovations can drive profits best when they are done in conjunction with other business model changes. Nestlé, for example, was able to achieve cost savings when they discovered that they could generate steam by burning discarded coffee grounds and use that instead of natural gas when they needed steam in their factories (typically part of the manufacturing process). About 60% of the steam they now use comes from these coffee grounds. Another positive by-product of this process is that they have been able to divert 1.24 million tons of coffee grounds away from landfills.

In order for business-wide changes like this to actually happen, top management needs to buy in to this process. A brand to emulate in this regard is 150-year-old industrial packaging goods company Greif, where the Chief Sustainability Officer sits on the executive strategy team and reports directly to the CEO.

David Ogilvy is known to have said that the aim of advertising is ‘to sell – or else’. That hard line today needs to be interpreted from a completely different angle: the aim of advertising is still to sell, but we need to sell to a better, more connected society that demands more of the brands they love. That is a much more difficult proposition than simply to sell for profit, and requires planners that understand the changing nature of society and business, and who appreciate the role of social good in growing their clients’ brands.

As the bridge between consumers and the brand, we should also remember that it is our duty as agencies to introduce and keep the social-as-profit issue on the table during discussions with clients. Big brands like Nike, Unilever and Marks & Spencer now know the serious impact of social good on the bottom line, but all brands, at every level, should be thinking about this. If we consistently challenge everyone involved to explore this theme, together we can produce better, more significant work as an industry.

It isn’t a question of whether brands CAN maximize profit and be a force for social good at the same time anymore, it’s simply a question of how and when they do it.


Argandoña, Antonio. Firm, Market Economy and Social Responsibility, Working Paper 600. IESE Business School – University of Navarra, July 2005.

Balch, Oliver. “Nike reveals a new, innovative game plan for sustainability”, Guardian Sustainable Business blog, 4 May 2012.


Carroll, Archie B. and Kareem. M. Shabana. The Business Case for Corporate Social Responsibility: A Review of Concepts, Research and Practice. In The International Journal of Management Reviews (2010): 85-105. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2370.2009.00275.x

de Dios, Sara. Meaningful marketing: A brand utopian world. Admap, April 2012.

Elkington, John. The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier. Oxford: Routledge, 2012.

Elman, Adam and Mike Barry. The key lessons from the Plan A business case. Marks & Spencer, 2012.

Friedman, Milton. The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits. The New York Times Magazine. September 13, 1970.

Hainmueller, Jens and Michael Hiscox. Buying Green? Field Experimental Tests of Consumer Support for Environmentalism. MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2012-14, May 18, 2012.

Handy, C. What’s a business for? Harvard Business Review, 80(12), 49-56. 2002.

Havas Media. Meaningful Brands Factsheet.

Hernandez-Murillo, Ruben and Christopher J. Martinek. Corporate Social Responsibility can be Profitable. The Regional Economist, April 2009.

Hindustan Unilever. Project Shakti Case Study.

Ioannou, Ioannis and George Serafeim. The Impact of Corporate Social Responsibility on Investment Recommendations, Working Paper 11-017. Harvard Business School, August 2010.

Kiron, David, Nina Kruschwitz, Knut Haanaes, Martin Reeves and Eugene Goh. The Innovation Bottom Line: How companies that see sustainability as both a necessity and an opportunity, and change their business models in response, are finding success. MIT Sloan Management Review Research Report, Winter 2013.

Knowledge@Wharton Today. North American Businesses Hurt Most by Arab Spring. January 4, 2012.

Mohr, Lois. A, Deborah J. Webb and Katherine E. Harris. Do Consumers Expect Companies to be Socially Responsible? The Impact of Corporate Social Responsibility on Buying Behaviour. In The Journal of Consumer Affairs 35.1 (2001): 45-72. 

Reinhardt, Forest L. and Robert N. Stavins. Corporate social responsibility, business strategy, and the environment. In Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 26.2 (2010): 164-181.

Rose, Frank. “The Father of Creative Destruction”, Wired, March 2002.

Schumpeter, Joseph. A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, (Second Edition, 1947). Oxford: Routledge, 1994.

Smith, Richard E. Defining Corporate Social Responsibility: A Systems Approach for Socially Responsible Capitalism. University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, July 1, 2011.

Stokes, Tracy, Luca S. Paderni, David M. Cooperstein and Alex Hayes. Invest in the Brand Building Experience. Forrester Research, November 5, 2012.

The Economist, “B-Corps: Firms with benefits”, January 4, 2012.

The McKinsey global survey of business executives: Business and society. The McKinsey Quarterly. 2, 33-39, 2006

Volans. Breakthrough Capitalism Program, Progress Report 1, August 2012.

Wikipedia. Systems thinking.

Yakob, Faris. Good for Business – The Business Case for Social Brand Behavior.

Zabarenko, Deborah. Executive Perspective: CEO Paul Polman from Unilever on “ending the three-month rat race”, Thomson Reuters blog, 3 January 2013.

[Cross-posted at the PHD UK blog]

Digital India: What’s Going On Now

Here are a bunch of things happening in India that have been brought to my attention lately.

In the corporate and entertainment categories:

Gojiyo: A site created by Godrej, one of India’s largest consumer goods companies, that claims to be ‘the world’s first browser-based integrated virtual experience’ – basically an independent Second Life site for Godrej. I have issues with virtual worlds because I really don’t think they are particularly useful – and I’m wondering how exactly this would be useful to a Godrej consumer. I wonder why brands insist on building sites just to tick the ‘digital’ and ‘social’ boxes.

Educost: A tool from Aviva Insurance that helps parents calculate the lifetime costs of educating their child. Ticks the ‘useful’ box, but I don’t like the fact that they require you to mandatorily enter your name and mobile phone number. Data capture makes no sense if you turn people away before they can even experience what you’re trying to offer them.

Mirchiplex: A movie rating and review service for Indian films that is currently in closed beta. Readers of my blog will be granted access if they click through to the site from over here, and then proceed to log in via Facebook Connect.

In the more exciting democracy and innovation arenas:

Fight Terror: A community effort to crowdsource information about terrorism in India.Soumya Dev, who started the site, hopes to kickstart a community of citizen journalists who can highlight the need for peace. It is similar to Vote Report India, which Gaurav Mishra co-founded during India’s elections last year, and both are examples of how the internet is changing India, a fact Bruce Sterling highlighted during his talk at SXSW 2010.

IIM Ahmedabad’s iAccelerator programme: This is easily one of the more exciting things I’ve seen come out of India recently. An initiative of the Centre of Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship at IIM-A, one of India’s top business schools (if not THE top), the iAccelerator programme is an incubator for mobile and tech start-ups in India. Anyone from across the country with an intelligent entrepreneurial idea can apply for funding. The focus is on start-ups in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, but anyone is welcome to apply because they provide living and working space in these cities if required. After a 10-day induction programme at the institute, entrepreneurs get 3 months to develop their idea into a business, and also get help sourcing customers and investors. The programme also has a number of mentors from relevant industries. I particularly like what Karam Lakshman, the Program Manager, had to say about what makes iAccelerator interesting: “The best thing I can say is that we’ve got zero in the way of red-tape even though we’re technically a government organization. That and we read every single application that comes in.”

The deadline for this year’s applications to iAccelerator is April 10th.

One Billion Minds: This is another site that encourages innovation and social entrepreneurship. It aims to connect students from the top universities of the country with companies and charities looking for out-of-the-box solutions to problems in business, technology and social innovation. These range from finding a way to build a house in under $1000 and developing a teaching aid for children for $1 to developing a technology idea that can change the way people live in rural India. It works in a simple way: clients submit a challenge and the site’s members submit innovator pitches. The community views, discusses and rates them, and the best ones are invited to submit a more detailed response.

For a long time, I’ve thought that there really isn’t a site that allows India’s brightest young minds to work towards the development of the country in a simple manner like this. What I’d like to see is One Billion Minds going to the top universities of the country to tell students about the opportunities provided by the site, and plenty of submissions.

I can tell you one thing: Bruce Sterling was right. There’s a lot changing on the subcontinent.

Mobile in India – Jumping Ahead to the Future

This is a re-post from BBH Labs, where I co-wrote this post with Chandrashekhar L from BBH India and Ben Malbon from BBH Labs.

Image credit: Dipanker Dutta (cc) via Flickr

Brands in India are still struggling with advertising on the internet, even as mobile services steadily explore new territory.

Both mobile and the internet comprise what is popularly known as ‘digital’, yet unlike in Western markets such as the UK or the US, the former is much more powerful and prevalent than the latter. The reason for this is primarily the drop in the cost of mobile usage over recent years, versus the increasing cost of broadband usage. As this blogger says:

“What the Indian telcos should do is adopt a model that was instrumental in driving mobile usage in India. Drop the price points so that even the average person (living on Rs. 100 per day), would find Internet usage compelling, useful, and not frustrating. If they were to adopt a mass usage policy and not price their broadband products based on margins, I believe that in 5 years, India could have at least 100 million broadband users (via DSL, cable modem, Mobile 3G, wiMax, etc.).”

The mobile industry in India is witnessing rapid changes, with voice and messaging charges dropping drastically. Tata Docomo started the concept of “pay per second” not too long ago, which was replicated within a fortnight by all other major players like Vodafone, Reliance and Airtel. Less than a week ago, Reliance (the largest CDMA player) introduced the option of choosing between 1 paise per sms (a measly 0.02 cents) or 1 rupee for unlimited SMS per day (2 cents per day).

The interesting paradox is that while basic call and text charges have dropped to unbelievably low prices, GPRS costs have yet to come down. Therefore, the trend suggests that the evolved value-added services (VAS) will definitely grow at a much lower pace, as those costs aren’t coming down as steeply: accessing services on the phone still costs a lot in India, even though phone tariffs are amongst the lowest in the world.

As more and more people in the country jump on the mobile phone bandwagon, from small villages to large metros, innovation is growing apace. Consider, for example, the new business deal between DirecPay, a bank-neutral payment aggregator service from Times of Money (part of the Times Group, India’s largest media conglomerate) and PayMate, a wireless transactions company. The deal will provide an extended mobile payment facility to merchants who sign up, and with the current rate of penetration of the mobile device in the country at 35% (the number of GSM users alone is at 335.5 million currently), it is likely to bring even more consumers into the considered set of e-commerce users, as Avijit Nanda, the President of Times of Money says.

Image credit: Ken Banks (cc) & via Flickr

Mobile phones in India are also extremely powerful social and commercial tools. Nokia handsets are the instruments of choice of the majority of the population in the country (the company owns about 65% of the market share).
Where educational iPhone apps are less than 1000 in number (737 in November 2008) and certainly not as popular as gaming and entertainment apps in the Western world, in South Asia, Nokia has understood the market and is investing in Mera Nokia, a tool that provides farmers with useful crop-related information, Nokia Life, which offers agriculture, education and entertainment service apps specifically targeted at the market in smaller urban and rural areas, Nokia Tej, a mobile order management system, and Nokia Point and Find, a context-aware service that recognizes objects through barcodes and GPS. (Nokia has embarked on the last two as part of the Progress Project, in partnership with Lonely Planet). Airtel (another popular Indian mobile operator) and Thomson Reuters also offer services similar to Mera Nokia.

If the market offers a completely different set of challenges, the only way to counter them is to understand how to leverage the instrument that is clearly succeeding. We imagine something along the lines of the Blyk model would work well here: where advertisers subsidize the cost of mobile usage via targeted advertisements. It may even be possible to build a two-tiered offering like Spotify has for it’s Premium and regular (free) offerings. What Hugo Barra, a Product Manager at Google says is particularly resonant in this respect:

“People will not want to pay for services that they can get for free, and the services will be free because there is a massive opportunity for advertisers to come onto the mobile platform. This is still untapped. Thanks to the proliferation of location information, specific advertising, and I mean non-intrusive advertising can easily come onto the mobile.”

Another opportunity that can be tapped into is the growth of social networks in the country. India is now only behind the US in Twitter usage, and it is 5th in the world in Facebook usage. An interesting model would be to explore a hybrid that combines the extensive usage of mobiles and social networking.

The big players are already realizing the opportunities for promoting social networking services. For instance, Aircel Telecom launched the biggest advertising burst in the telecom category (before Tata Docomo) by showcasing Facebook on mobile while Airtel has launched a campaign of 4 TVCs promoting the use of Twitter. Here is some of the creative from those two campaigns:

According to a 2009 Trendspotting report, online ad spend is only 3% of the total ad spend in India, compared to 8-20% in developed markets. But advertisers are evolving in their use of the online medium by going beyond banner and keyword advertising to creating campaigns that leverage social networks and connectivity, while the use of the mobile phone for advertising is still very rudimentary (mostly used for text-based promotional offers). The increasing use of the internet and especially social networks on the mobile would automatically mean that the online advertising approach gets extended to the small mobile screen as well: 63 million Indians already access internet on mobile as compared to 45 million on the PC (Source: IRS and TRAI estimates).

What’s fascinating – and perhaps instructive – for those involved with making sense of all this in Western markets such as Europe and North America, is how telcos and marketers in India seem to simply be jumping over some of the phases and issues the typical North American marketer might face. Despite the fact that in many ways the technologies at their disposal are less sophisticated than in Western markets, they seem further ahead in terms of mobile utility, mobile commerce & micro-payments, and in many cases more adventurous as far as advertiser-funded mobile platforms are concerned.

We have much to learn.

Making The News More Social

ndtv social

Indian news channel NDTV has launched an interesting website that aims to make themselves more social. Called NDTV Social, it has groups for every news anchor on the channel, and their popular news programmes, and readers can, Facebook-style, become fans of either or both and initiate discussions with the news anchors, many of whom are very popular in India and have their own Twitter accounts. It is integrated with Facebook, Twitter and Google. There doesn’t seem to be much of a take-up at the moment – the community seems fairly small. But I think it is an interesting model to look at. Facebook fan pages do the same thing to a large extent, but this website allows NDTV to become the media owner, rather than a third party site like Facebook. It’s certainly a new model – I can’t think of any other news site that offers this kind of interaction. I’m not sure if it will be successful, but it certainly looks like NDTV is, at the very least, evolving with the changing times. 

[HT: WATBlog]

Considering Charter Cities

I’ll keep my eyes peeled for news of charter cities, having read this interview in Freakonomics with Paul Romer, who ‘recently resigned his tenured teaching position at Stanford to devote his full energies to the challenge.’ Charter cities are basically ‘special zones within developing countries with better rules and institutions’. I’ve long believed in some sort of privatization of public services in developing countries (not easy I know – privatization still needs to somehow ensure universal access to primary education, for starters, which is tricky), and I think the concept of charter cities in many ways is an extension of what I’ve been thinking of. It’s a very tricky concept, however: one commenter has pointed out that in practice, this will not work in the global South because of its attendant problems of land deficiency in high-demand areas: the poor are forced to give up their land, rendering them homeless, and attempts at compensation rarely work. 

One comment, by someone called Chris, was particularly insightful I thought:

Seems to me this is basically what Federalism is, was and should be. According to the US Constitution states and cities have a large degree of autonomy. Thus various political systems become laboratories. This would be strengthened in this country if the Federal government’s power were curbed. Other nations should also adopt a similar system.

Great sentiment, but again, in practice, it just does not work. A case in point in a country like India which does have a federal (in addition to a unitary) form of government, is the state of Bihar, which is really a failed state.

There are other considerations too: the aesthetics of urban planning, and investment and returns (who funds it and what do they get in return) – Romer discusses very interesting but difficult situations for funding:

In poorer countries that don’t have the same kind of credibility with international investors, a more interesting but controversial possibility is that two or more countries might sign a treaty specifying the charter for a new city and allocate between them responsibilities for administering different parts of the treaty.

Oh, the can of worms that can be opened when multiple countries enter into an agreement like that!

It is a tremendous challenge indeed. As I said, I’ll be watching with interest.

India Rising

Some interesting stuff related to India I spotted on the interwebs lately, one a BusinessWeek article that tracks the massive increase in the already huge number of people in rural India that are accessing the web via mobile (such as through services like Nokia’s MeraNokia) and the consequent competition amongst service-providers and vendors. Service-based mobiles are empowering farmers and fishermen by giving them valuable access to information related to the weather and crop pricing (among other things), slowly lifting them out of the poverty that they have been accustomed to for years, and they form a huge percentage of the market that is taking to mobiles in a big way. There is also a mention of how India will need to shift to low-rate unlimited data plans, which was responsible for a huge market shift in the US in 2007. An excerpt:

The rush to get into services cannot be explained by the need to make money, says Gupta, but to increase sales of core offerings. According to Simon Beresford-Wylie, CEO, Nokia-Siemens Networks, the “business of pipes”, i.e., plain vanilla products, will exceed $1.2 trillion (Rs 60 lakh crore) this year globally. The current estimate of $100 billion (Rs 5 lakh crore) in mobile services annually is a drop in this ocean but it is not a number to be scoffed at, particularly since India is expected to lead the services revolution.

Second, a summary of key internet statistics from Trendsspotting

Trendsspotting Handbook of Online India

View more documents from Taly Weiss.

Microsoft India’s new marketing initiatives, Ford Ka asks you to Go Find It and thoughts on the first Monocle Weekly

Happy New Year to all! This post is going to be a bit long, not because I’m going to recap the last year, don’t worry (!!), but because I’ve been meaning to blog for ages and didn’t get down to it till now, so there are a lot of things I’m going to mention…

First, I was informed that Microsoft India has launched Win with Search to make the process of searching for things more fun, where you have the opportunity to win free talktime when you play. It may not be a big thing to win free talktime here in the Western world, but if you’re a student on a pay-as-you-go (pre-paid) scheme in India, then I can see this being attractive. If you have some time on your hands, then you can also try this game. To promote Windows Live in the country, they’ve also launched the Windows and Me campaign. I particularly enjoyed watching the arranged marriage video on the site’s main page – I think it’s pretty funny and an accurate summary of how the arranged marriage deal works in the country!
Next, Ford has launched a new campaign for the new Ford Ka, where you can download a 3D application for your Nokia phone (if its a model from the last 2 years) – or a Windows Mobile camera phone – and then point your phone at the 3D marker to see things in a new light. More at Go Find It. Essentially, the campaign aims to target young people who like digital technology, like the car itself – which apparently uses a lot of it. I can’t vouch for it since I obviously haven’t driven the car, but it seems an interesting vehicle to look at if I were in the market for one. The campaign itself has some intriguing elements, like a film guide to street art around Shoreditch
Moving on, I listened to the first Monocle podcast the other day and can recommend it. The introductory programme had a range of speakers including Alain de Botton speaking about the forecast for 2009. Some of the things that were mentioned included the return of craft in CD covers (something I’ve been thinking about for a while), the aging of society in Japan, the fact that people are going to spend more time thinking about what they spend their money on, that delivering values will be of prime importance for brands (like Stumptown Coffee, a small American coffee brand that invests in things like bringing the people who grow their coffee beans in places like Africa, to the U.S, on internships. Their consumers buy that value when they buy their coffee from Stumptown, in effect). Fiona Wilson, Monocle’s Asia Bureau Chief, mentioned something that I wouldn’t have believed to be true if I’d randomly heard it: iTunes does not dominate the market in Japan (Hallelujah!). She also mentioned one brand I really like – Uniqlo, and said that despite the economic downturn, they are continuously shifting millions of pairs of jeans because of the superior retail experience they offer – which is something that Western retail environments need to work on. Further, it seems people in Korea are approaching life from a craft-based perspective. When I read about Anthropologie’s craft workshops, I thought the trend had spread to the West pretty quickly!! On a more serious note, it links back to what was mentioned in the Monocle podcast – the importance of adding value in what you deliver.
OK, that’s it for now. Bring on 2009.