Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014

A mosaic of Indian families

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Posted: February 2, 2014 2:16 am

The business potential that India’s incredible heterogeneous family compositions provide seems to have bypassed most industries. Not in Harvard Business School or in London School of Economics or INSEAD France will you learn of this societal complexity. This is the real mosaic of India. Family living arrangements drive the consumer’s purchase behaviour and impact the consumer’s mindshare on a brand.

Traditionally, joint families with numerous generations have lived under one shelter, enjoying meals together from one kitchen. The men have blood ties while women join after marriage. Sisters vacate this family club after marriage. The same living system has continued generation after generation, but it’s diversifying now, especially in cities.

Like a new bud opening, the 1991 economic reforms brought in tremendous change. The joint family doesn’t exist so inclusively anywhere in the world. Because it’s so obvious for Indians, industry doesn’t care to dwell on its significance. Global company expatriate bosses who are operating here have no clue to understand this multi-coloured social fabric. From the perspective of social transformation and business opportunity, let’s look at 10 living compositions that are clearly identifiable now.

1. An unmarried couple living together indulges each other with special purchases to keep romance alive. But they have no connubial rights that Indian law recognises. Sharing the same bed, they may attract disapproving frowns from close relatives or not be protected by law, but theirs is a breakthrough situation that finds new social acceptance in varying degrees. When a conservative parent of the live-in couple comes to visit, the couple separate for some time. The parent looking for the child’s approval pretends to know nothing. Sometimes if a live-in relationship fails, the girl may malign the boy by filing a case of cheating or rape, but whether the court will uphold it is another matter.

2. When a woman has to leave home for a job in another city, she feels she has entered the liberty zone in her lifespan. Having temporarily escaped the family control subjugation of marriage, she experiments with everything new, spends on herself, yet never overspends her earning.

3. For boys pampered at home, they learn to fend for themselves by cooking, cleaning, washing plus going to office when living alone,. Small packs of FMCG products, white goods that ease chores, electronics that quicken work are all popular with them.

4. A young married couple where only the man is working, he gets indulgent. To enjoy his newfound happiness, he impresses his bride with goodies and trips. In this romantic stage without children, the wife wallows in this attention and spends liberally.

5. A nuclear family with children where only the husband earns, the wife controls the household. She prioritises spend according to the children’s requirement. Being dependent, she is conscientious about the budget and does not splurge.

6. When both husband and wife are working, there’s total independence in spending. Feeling guilty for not spending quality time with children, the wife overspends to please her kids. So lots of unnecessary gadgets enter the home. This happens with DINKs (double income no kids) too. In both cases, there are many instances of extramarital affairs by both sexes in urban areas. Sometimes both know it but keep silent because of the children. The women openly share their distress, brave choice or affair with very close friends. Nevertheless, divorce is increasing. I’ve seen marriages break after a year and remarriage happening just as nonchalantly. This was indeed rare in Indian society.

7. An extended nuclear family is when a parent of husband or wife comes to stay. Suddenly, the wife has to shop differently, catering to the choice of three generations for all purchases from food to household linen.

8. Traditional joint families practise bulk buying for one kitchen. Each earning member contributes to running the home, whether for the common kitchen, repairs or festive spending. Housewives in joint families have revealed to me that every couple’s bedroom may have a refrigerator ostensibly for the children’s milk, but that’s where they may keep special things not shared with the full family. In this context, if a working woman enters the family, problems can get created. There’s a possibility her husband may split to live separately with his working wife. From the automobile showroom I’ve heard that if a joint family member decides to buy a car, he first verifies everything accompanied by his friend. But the final purchase is theatrical. The whole family of 7 to 22 people goes to the showroom for finalisation. The salesman has to pay attention to everybody. If the salesman prioritises between influencer vs buyer, the sale can just go for a toss.

9. The neo-joint family is traditional in every respect except that the house gets divided with each brother having a separate kitchen. The entire neo-joint family periodically gets together to share a meal from their parents’ kitchen. There are subtle social and family permissible points important here. A well-to-do person once told me that when he wanted to buy a costly Mercedes, he was socially hampered because his elder brother drove a Maruti. So he had to first negotiate with their mother to convince his elder brother to buy a sophisticated car. Only then could he buy the Mercedes.

10. I once heard in a Tier-III town that retired couples living on their own are closely chased by bankers. That’s because they talk in dollars. Their children, mostly in the IT sector, live abroad and send money regularly for their elderly parents to live and spend well.

These 10 different family compositions reveal the heterogeneous mindset for living and purchase. It impacts all industries. But I’m not sure businesses and their human resource divisions in India pay enough attention to or evaluate such multi-social elements while recruiting or while selling products or services. This is the heterogeneous reflection of family composition in India. What an advantage for business!

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at http://www.shiningconsulting.com

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