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Ideas Commentary2019-12-17

The year that was & the year that will be

Sonali Malaviya

To say this year has been a rollercoaster ride and passed by in a flash would be an understatement. But I for one am not complaining. It has been a year of twists and turns, and a fair bit of unpredictability.

Going into 2019, the outlook was positive. Let’s call it the pre-election glow. Later in the year, Moody’s Investors Service revised India’s GDP growth forecast downwards to 5.6% for 2019 from 7.4% in 2018, and conversations about India’s economic slowdown began to take centre stage. Moody’s attributed the deceleration to an investment-led slowdown that has broadened into consumption, driven by financial stress among rural households and weak job creation. However, not all is doom and gloom. Economic activity is likely to pick up again in 2020 and 2021, though the pace may still be slower than in the recent past. 

Closer to home, advertising and media are also feeling the pain of deceleration. With consumer spending slowing down, marketing activity is suffering from the aftershocks. The automotive industry has suffered its worst-ever slowdown in decades. According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers’ data, passenger vehicle sales plunged by 24% and commercial vehicle sales were down by 62% in September. Telecommunications companies are heavily burdened by regulatory and financial pressures, which may once again impact the larger economy, business and employment outlook in India.

However, the tenacious and resilient consumer in India keeps rising. Once insular, knowledge and exposure to the world today are intuitive, powered by India’s digital and data revolution. Easy access to both data and devices has opened floodgates of information. And if literacy was a barrier, it no longer is. People across strata, town classes and income levels today have easy access to an affordable smart device, data at almost no cost and information available in their language in a video format - be it news, entertainment or education. This wave of digital growth is largely fueled by semi-urban and rural India, with half of India’s internet users coming from rural India in 2019, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India and Nielsen

However, when it comes to how India consumes content and prefers to be entertained, television still remains in the driver’s seat. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s regulations have rejigged the preference spectrum somewhat, with consumers making more discerning and informed choices about what content they consume and where they consume it from. It has opened doors to other platforms, with walled gardens emerging as a clear preference within metros, again fueled to a great degree by extended data and bandwidth creation. While over-the-top media devices (OTTs) are enabling catch-up television, 2020 is poised to be the year of original content not just from the likes of Netflix and Amazon, but homegrown OTT players too.

This growth in on-demand content is also giving rise to the world of subscriptions. Entertainment has always been a big part of how India unwinds - be it Bollywood, cricket or music - as long as it is consumable on the couch. Now that there is the availability of a seamless and uninterrupted content consumption experience, people are making that informed choice. Not too long ago, there was skepticism on whether India would pay for content. Then came YouTube Premium, YouTube Music, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon and other content on-demand subscription platforms with seriously compelling propositions. Numbers today prove that the debate is now history. The frantic race to acquire the most consumers is on and once again, it will be consumers who win. However, this win will depend on who has more original, interesting content and is able to tell a more compelling story. 2020 promises to be a more entertaining year for sure, even if it is too early for consolidation.

As far as media spending goes, the first half of the year saw twin boosters in the form of the Indian Premier League and Cricket World Cup, as well as the elections adding to the frenzy. Advertisers flocked towards the impact bandwagon and the industry was on an upswing. However, the second half was where the slowdown kicked in and the lackluster festival period validated it. Typically, it is next to impossible to get quality advertising inventory last minute during the festive period - this year not so. Premium inventory across media was widely available and in some cases, went un-utilized. However, things seem to be picking up slowly and the last two months have shown signs of resurgence.

Content creation and integration within stories, such as in movies or soap operas, as a part of marketers’ communication narrative, has been something brands have been working with for a while now. But original, authentic storytelling at the heart of key brand messaging has only now started coming into its own. There were some brilliant sparks in the past and the Google Search's 'Reunion' advertisement will always remain right up there for me.

Today’s consumer demands this kind of genuine storytelling before they commit their time and attention, which today, is at an all-time low with clutter at an all-time high. To make a difference, brands must be authentic, engaging and captivating - that is when the ‘consumers at the heart of content’ theme started taking shape a few years ago.

As such, the reins have been handed right back to the hands of consumers. The rise of short-format video content is another interesting trend that is catching on far and wide. While advertising messages are not going away, engaging content makes consumers a part of the brand story, which has been some time coming. Not too long ago, getting users to create and socialize content required incentivization and even then, it would not get one too far. Fast-forward to now, influencer marketing has become a discipline, an expertise and a fully sustained ecosystem, with practice experts, and influencers with specializations and incomes that would make one gasp. Creators are the lifeline of content and marketing today. Platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and more recently TikTok, have transformed numerous content consumers to creators. Now what remains to be seen is how marketers can integrate and showcase the stories of this new era of creators towards a win-win situation for both parties.

All in all, 2019 has been a mixed bag. But 2020 promises to be sunnier. With the hope of stability on the political and macroeconomic front, the industry should start to witness an upturn. A slower marketplace has given marketers and brands a chance to be more deliberate, more thoughtful in their communication, and focus more on effectiveness. The focus behind creative and media synergies, more genuine and authentic content, responsible advertising, and inviting along consumers to be a part of brand journeys, are all exciting developments - all part of crafting a much more inclusive communication narrative. Isn’t that what communication is all about anyway?

This article was originally published by Exchange4Media.