Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Luxe Attack for India

More on emerging trends in India (By the way, I read an interview with the Channel V CEO who stated that the Get Gorgeous show from my last post was an example of a blogumentary and user-generated content. Who knew!)

Anyway, so apparently there's some sort of Daily Candy clone e-newsletter in India called Trendy. For those who don't know Daily Candy, it's a daily e-newsletter that provides information on fashion, beauty, food and other stuff tailored to the specific city you live in. Over at the Jezebel website, the Daily Candy newsletter is regularly skewered for it's derivative Sex and the City inspired relentless consumerism and the message that all women have to do to be fabulous is buy a pair of expensive shoes or knock back overpriced martinis.

Our homegrown version is also adept at recommending mediocre restaurants that serve a smorgasbord of faux Thai-Chinese-Lebanese-whatnot food with cocktails that have astonishing mark-ups (how much do you think a shot of vodka and canned fruit juice cost?), spa treatments that will cost the equivalent of six months' rent and "beauty treatments" that are addressed more to your inner insecurities than anything on the outside.

It's the latter that prompted this post, as well as the fact that I've been reflecting on the magnitude and trend in India's economic growth and the discussion I had yesterday with Em about the consumerist surge in India and China that will grow exponentially the next few years.

Here's a post from the Trendy Bombay beauty section about the La Prairie Pure Gold serum, that is an emulsion of 24 karat gold particles that purportedly lifts, firms, resurfaces the skin, making it look younger. This one ounce bottle has a price tag of $525, or Rs. 27,000 in Indian rupees. It's available at La Prairie counters at the Shoppers Stop chain in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai.

Let's discuss the absurdity of the product for a minute, and here's a perfectly succinct argument that comes from a comment on a post on the La Prairie serum on the Luxist website:

24K gold can do do nothing for you in this aplication. Gold is a nonreactive substance which provides no chemical or other benefit - the precise reason why it is used for jewelry. It is there merely for exclusivity and marketing for those who are cost indifferent enough to pay for it. This is like adding gold dust to champange[sic] to make it taste better. It might sparkle but it won't taste like much.

This would be blatantly obvious to anyone with even the most elementary knowledge of properties of metals and characteristics of skin. But the marketing departments at these skincare companies think nothing of trying to insult the intelligence of ordinary women with such ridiculous concoctions.

So who exactly are these cost indifferent enough people who are keeping La Prairie counters in India in business, a brand where almost every product is priced several times higher than any competing product in the market? And these counters are not located in exclusive beauty stores in 5 star hotel shopping arcades (the usual home of overpriced merchandise in India), but in Shoppers' Stop, a chain that aims roughly at the upper-middle class to fairly affluent people in India.

Let me guess. Well first are the usual suspects. The wives of top tier businessmen and Indian and expat wives for top management executives in Indian and multinational firms. Women who themselves are successful business-owners and professionals earning very high salaries and not averse to spending it. Mistresses and girlfriends of the rich and profligate. But then, it is possible that there is another category of spenders, the ones who have been responsible for revolutionizing the business of luxury goods and fashion in the US and Japan (don't know enough about the European scenario to comment).

These are middle-class women, single or married who may earn their own money or be supported by an allowance by their husbands. These women have aspirations to a life of luxury, and who have been sold an image of a fabulous city girl life Sex and the City style that they can acquire by proxy by wearing the right shoes, carrying the right bags, eating at the right restaurants (whatever ladies-who-lunch spot is trendy right now), drinking the right drink.

These are just the kind of women who are responsible for Japan becoming the number one luxury goods market in the world. As my Japanese-American physiotherapist told me, he was shocked that the women in a buying frenzy in the Louis Vuitton store in Ginza, Tokyo looked like young, middle-class women who clearly were sacrificing a large chunk of their income to own a piece of what to them was an exclusive luxury item.

Japan is an extreme case though, a country that accounts for nearly half of all Louis Vuitton products sold worldwide. But it is true that luxe products are increasingly marketed to middle-class audiences, and the big luxe conglomerates are hoping that even a fraction of the Japanese success story can be duplicated in India and China.

Now when I first started reading reports about the development of the luxury fashion and beauty market in India and investments made by the big players, I was quite dismissive. I had always believed and still believe to an extent that Indians are will always prioritize price over marketing hype. That is, if they are able to find an equivalent un-branded product at a lesser price than the branded product, they would always go for the unbranded one. This was true of sneakers (Nike's presence and advertising actually benefitted local manufacturers) and cornflakes (as Kelloggs advertised Mohan Meakins rejoiced). And this I thought would also be true of luxury goods.

But now I think I need to revise my thoughts on the matter. For one luxury products are unlike sneakers and cornflakes. They rely on selling an entire lifestyle package where the product is not merely a silly cream with useless gold particles, but a veritable fountain of youth that is also luxurious and opulent.

And second and more importantly, middle class women seem more and more willing to save up and lavish money on Holy Grail products that they feel would bring a slice of luxury into their lives. And if the second is true, and there are more and more such middle class women in India, then perhaps the outlook for luxury goods in India is way more optimistic than I thought. Because a multi-national luxury conglomerate cannot rely on the super-rich alone for revenues.

The Indian market does share one crucial similarity with the Japanese market. In Japan, the prohibitive cost of renting or ownership as well as people getting married later and later in life has created an entire generation of young men and women who live with their families well into their 20s and 30s. These people, rather derogatorily called "parasite singles" ("parasaito shinguru" in Japanese, seriously!) do not have to pay for rent and food and thus have a substantial chunk of disposable income for discretionary spending.

In India, apart from the expensive renting and homeowning situation, social norms also dictate that men and women stay with their families till they get married. There are though an increasing number of young men and women who move to other cities for work and live on their own - however the living with parents category is a fairly large proportion of the total employed youth.

I've already been reading a fair bit about the growing spendthrifty habits of the young with disposable income. I saw some of this on my recent visit to India - all anecdotal evidence. A cousin's friend operating several successful businesses in a small town in Bengal, but blowing away most of his income in restaurants, drinks at bars, and luxury purchases. A cousin who shops frequently at Shopper's Stop where two outfits can cost the equivalent of her month's salary (she has to rely on parents to cover the deficit between earning and spending). Another cousin who doesn't save even a single rupee of his income even though he stays at home and his meals are all provided for.

All this is good news for conglomerates that manufacture discretionary spending goods with lots of brand differentiation. If I was an investor, I'd be looking to develop a high-end clothing and accessories brand in India with Western collaboration right now (incredibly, that's what decidedly middle-range handbag manufacturer Hidesign managed to pursuade Louis Vuitton to do).

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I'll See Your "Like, Like, Like" And Raise You A "Ruh-lly Na"

I think I may have finally discovered the Indian equivalent of Valley Girl-speak. For those unfamiliar with this most delicious of American pop-culture phenomena, here's a veritable dissertation on the matter (is there anything Wiki won't think of!)

You see, Channel V India decided to go all Tyra on our asses and come up with "India's next hottest face" (ha ha, no shit dude - a most unfortunate use of "hottest"). The problems with the show are myriad - primarily the fact that it doesn't benefit from an Indian Janice Dickinson-like diva or a ghar-k-murghi version of Tyra to spice things up (speaking of Tyra, the woman is not at all photogenic, because she's actually stunningly beautiful in person).

What fascinates me though is the way the girls on the show speak. It is a highly affected sing-song accent, interjected with the occasional Hindi word like na and achchha and marked by an excessive use of really, pronounced "ruh-lly". I've heard a fairly watered down version of this by girls in some of the more snotty public schools and colleges in Delhi (mostly South Delhi), but this just takes the douchebaggery to another level.

There are a few incidents that immediately spring to mind when I hear this accent, and one of them has little to do with the matter of accents per se, but when has that stopped me from rambling away and telling you a good story.

Once upon a time, I was invited to the apartment of two Indian students for a party. One of the boys, a bona fide South Bombay type had a lot of his South Bombay friends who were based in LA turn up for the party. The other boy had invited me and many others, including one Jat boy from the deepest badlands of Haryana (a character if there ever is one).

So we all liquored up, danced and chatted away, and were generally having a good time (some were having an even better time, and a few couples who had hooked up at the party were using the two bedrooms for some heavy petting action). I was hanging out with my friend Gerry when suddenly I heard a loud commotion and saw Jat boy make a mad dash for the door, followed by South Bombay boy threatening to kill him and a couple of other boys as well. I went outside and saw that the chase was unsuccessful - Jat boy was way too fast for them and almost jumped out of the second floor stairwell on the road and then drove away.

When I went back in the apartment, I saw a girl sobbing away being consoled by her friends and a guy I presumed was her boyfriend. The host was livid and no one seemed to be in a mood to explain things. I was sleeping over (because my ride home was too drunk to drive) so later at night I asked the host what happened. He said that the Jat boy had molested the girl and hence everyone had been so outraged. I was disappointed to hear that as I knew Jat boy well, and wacky though he was, I couldn't imagine him molesting someone.

The next day I met Jat boy and demanded he explain his side of the story to me. This is what he told me and I believe him because the man's never lied about even the shittiest, craziest stuff he's done.

Apparently it all started when the designated DJ started playing the song "Lady Marmalade" and the refrain "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)" came up. Now Jat boy had a habit of singing along with songs and soon enough he kept repeating the line over and over. A girl was standing next to him while her boyfriend chatted with a friend a few feet away. This conversation ensued.

Jat boy: Do you know what this line means?

Girl: Will you sleep with me tonight. But I would never sleep with someone like you.

Jat boy: Why? It seems that you might.

At this point, girl got livid and slapped Jat boy hard across the face. Jat boy, reeling from the stinging blow planted a retaliatory slap on her cheek. This got her sobbing, caught her boyfriend's attention who promptly started issuing dire threats to Jat boy and the rest is history.

Now the only reason why this finds mention in a post about Indian accents is because I could clearly see that the South Bombay boys and girls were repulsed by Jat boy's thick Haryanvi drawl. It was almost as if the boy had confirmed their worst stereotypes about him and about those that spoke in that fashion through this incident. The host was furious and the matter of the Jat boy's background had come up repeatedly. The contempt was palpable.

Ironically, Jat boy grew up in an affluent Delhi neighbourhood and had all the right credentials to belong to the very classist Indian clique of the right school, right college and right residence. But for some reason (mostly stubborn pride I think) he had retained aspects of a rustic accent and could break out into full-on dialect when speaking with a fellow Haryanvi. He was eccentric but academically bright, however, this never seemed to register with the Indians who met him because they just couldn't get beyond his Jat-ness and that drawl. It's all very snotty and presumptious, but that's what the accent and class dynamics in India are.

So am I allowed to revel in my schadenfreude that when these Made in India Valley Girls (and Boys) arrive in Los Angeles, they discover to their horror that most non-South Asians cannot distinguish between an upper class posh Indian public school accent and an accent heavily tinged with the flavour of whatever regional language a person grew up speaking. Unless it's an anglophile Indian with a cultivated English accent in which case they'd be asked repeatedly if they grew up in England. But the class connotations of any specific accent vanish overnight, and everyone starts with a clean slate.

Which means that you - born in a fancy house in South Bombay or South Delhi, who went to an expensive public school that Daddy ponied up for, got into an uppity college and condescended all who spoke without your accent or in any language other than English - you, in the eyes of the average Joe are nothing but a brown FOB. And so am I (and I have none of the advantages of your upbringing). And unlike Euro-FOBs (including the Eurotrash among them), a brown FOB isn't very coveted. Apart from the odd yoga and Indian food junkie, I haven't seen too many people express a desire for Indian men and women, unlike say East Asian women or Italian men.

How very sad. Remind me to go Nelson Muntz on the next posher(poser) than thou girl I see in India who thinks she's the shit because she speaks with a public school accent and ruh-lly ruh-lly rolls her ruh-llys. Ha Ha!!