Multinationals get back to basics
In India, rural women are employed to sell household products in villages under a micro-franchising scheme.
The plethora of sophisticated marketing tools deployed in more developed countries have little or no relevance in so called 'media dark regions'.
On August 24, 2015, for the first time, more than one billion people used Facebook in a single day.
It's easy to think that the Internet has engulfed the world and communities across the globe are perpetually mesmerised by smartphones. Yet, the reality is very different. More than four billion people - or over half the world's population - still don't have access to the Internet, reports ITU, a United Nations agency.
Most of the offline communities are in developing countries, such as the African nation of Eritrea, where less than one per cent of the population has used the Internet in the past 12 months, according to World Bank figures. That said, these poorer consumers - sometimes referred to as the 'Base of the Pyramid' - represent the future of multinational companies and where, it has been argued, a potential fortune lies.
The plethora of sophisticated marketing tools deployed in more developed countries have little or no relevance in so called 'media dark regions' where there may not even be TV, radio or newspapers, combined with high levels of illiteracy.
Therefore, major brands seeking fresh territory need to find more basic methods of communication. It might come as a surprise to many that the tactics of highly sophisticated companies, such as Unilever, are rudimentary, to say the least.
In India, for example, with a rural population of 800 million (bigger than Europe), tens of thousands of "foot soldier" women are employed to walk into the countryside and sell household products under a micro-franchising scheme called Project Shakti (Shakti meaning strength).
Nowadays, when the growth of companies has often put more and more distance between organisations and their customers, Project Shakti is a great example of marketing going back to basics - face-to-face contact, personal relationships and word of mouth - as opposed to word of mouse.
It is this lesser known story about the expansion of multinational companies which was the subject of my MA dissertation. Research was conducted in nine villages in Maharashtra after a more than two-month search to locate the Shakti women deep in the Indian countryside.
Rural women, who might otherwise be found picking crops, and who've had minimal exposure to the world beyond their village boundaries, have become entrusted with finding the future customers and profits of a multinational giant.
One of the Shakti women I met had dropped out of school at the age of 10, under pressure to look after the home. Another had five children and recently lost her husband after being married at 15. She could just about read and write. The Shakti Ammas (mothers) may walk, hop on a bicycle or catch a ride on a motorbike - selling products such as shampoo sachets from Rs1 ($0.01) to some of the world's poorest consumers.
The women I spoke to, who were given a mobile phone by Unilever and sometimes a bicycle, earned on average between Rs700 ($10) and Rs2,500 ($38) per month.
Despite being among the world's poorer communities, the research demonstrated that the Shakti women are motivated by more than just money. They take great pride in doing something themselves. One woman told me via a Marathi interpreter that it was the "thought of doing something on my own, being independent. It's a proud feeling even though there is not much income through HUL," referring to Hindustan Unilever, Unilever's Indian subsidiary.
Many of these Shakti women may live in relatively basic conditions and have "no idea" about digital and social, but the sheer fact of where they live and who they know have made them a formidable, rural sales force.
And don't assume the Shakti Ammas aren't aware of the significance of their roles. One said: "I know my job is significant. If I don't go into the field, who will sell if I don't?"
Unilever, which has extended Project Shakti to other developing markets, including Sri Lanka and Pakistan, is not the only heavyweight brand employing very basic tactics to crack emerging markets as developed markets become saturated for many products.
In South Africa, Nestle products are sold on foot and if a consumer wants to buy a Coca Cola in Nigeria, it may come from a vendor in a canoe. Does it work? Yes, it does. According to Unilever, there are 70,000 Shakti women distributing products in 165,000 villages throughout India (there are over 600,000 villages in India housing 70 per cent of the population). The initiative is said to form five per cent of Unilever's overall revenue in the Indian market. Other sources put the figure considerably higher.
So, when the developed world talks of sophisticated communication strategies involving digital technology, it has little or no resonance in India's villages, either among the Shakti women or the customers they serve, especially given the high levels of rural illiteracy.
What counts is familiarity and contacts. When contact is face to face and personal relationships are intimately established, some may argue that it leaves digital far behind.
It could also be posited that the word of mouth so prevalent in Indian villages performs exactly the same role as the social media in more developed societies. All that differs is the means of information transmission. One is manual - face to face or sometimes via the mobile phones provided by Hindustan Unilever - while the other is catapulted through cyberspace. Marketing, it seems, has come full circle.
- The writer has worked in media and communications in different parts of the world for more than 20 years, the last eight of which based in Dubai. Views expressed by him are his own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.