A: My primary assignment will be to investigate about 50 organizations/companies that have had success selling products or services in rural India. We are looking specifically at products/services that have no inherent or explicit value – that is, those products that should be the most difficult to market to a population largely living at a subsistence level.
The initiative I work for, Rural Market Insight (RMI), is largely interested in improving adoption of clean energy products like clean-burning cook stoves, solar lighting, water treatment/filtration and treadle pumps for irrigation. Most of the products we will be looking at in the study, then, will be companies that have had some success marketing such products. The one exception is an investigation of the recent entrance of companies like AIG, who are (somehow) successfully selling insurance to this population. This service is an interesting one for us because it presents an abstraction that does not offer immediate value to those who buy it.
After filtering these 50 organizations for various variables we will conduct interviews with their executives and marketing teams, and investigations of their marketing strategies, and, where they are not ad-hoc, we will also look at the research they've done to inform strategy. This presents a great opportunity for us to collect some data on what successful companies are doing to get in touch with this population. Ultimately, we will choose about 5 of the most successful cases and I will write up case studies and develop “best practices” based on those to share with organizations attempting to break into this population.
A second project I will be working on, in a less involved capacity, is in the domain of water, a project my research center is currently embarking on; that is, water treatment services/facilities and water filtration products. Many villages have water treatment plants located near them, and buying a five-gallon jug of water is quite cheap (in the city it's about 50 cents, so I expect it's cheaper there). My group wants to look at how people use, collect and think about water. Why do some people use bottled water and others just tap/rain water? We will be investigating three groups: users, non-users and people who have no exposure to treated water.
Lastly, I am in the process of getting on-board a secondary project with a different research center here doing a new, very innovative and exciting project called Inner Worlds. There is also another website that is less flashy. They are trying to "portray accurately how rural Indians perceive and make meaning of the world around them. Our intention is to provide a deeper understanding of people beyond visible parameters such as the assets they own, and to provide a framework and language for discussing subjective experiences." If you take a look at this website, you'll see some fascinating approaches to understanding the poor rural Indian experience.
I've had the opportunity to meet with the lead researcher of this program, Dr. C Vijayalakshmi, who is a brilliant woman with some revolutionary ideas about getting in touch with rural Indians. I am working on getting out to the village on a few trips with them this summer. I have an interest in the question of self-perceptions of life in poverty and how that affects rural Indians willingness to take on products and services that offer them a "better life." I'm interested in testing if there is a prevalent "this is just my lot in life" attitude, and if this may translate in a general resignation to a life of poverty. In other words, maybe we have to make people think there is hope for a better life before we can even expect them to embrace the life-improving offers of development organizations.
Q: What skills have you developed at SOC that you plan on using in your research and sampling in India?
A: In learning to think strategically in communicating to audiences, I learned to think critically about who it is I am speaking to; how to tap deeply into how they think, what are their emotions, what drives them, what's important to them and what is aversive to them; how to speak their (cognitive or social, not verbal) language; what vehicles or channels are best equipped to get that message out; and ultimately how to measure the impact. All of these skills are omnipresent in all of my work here.
In my primary project, I will be listening to those who engineered successful marketing strategies and I will identify those most insightful, innovative tactics, which have found success in the rural Indian context. This will require a great deal of strategic thinking on my part to decipher which strategies can best be applied to a wide-ranging group of products and services.
In my secondary project investigating water usage, I will first be pulling from the lessons I learned in research methods to effectively recruit a group of relevant individuals; then I will be determining how to best interact with them in order to get at their true emotions, grievances and cultural beliefs about water and the various products/services that exist in the market to provide clean drinking water.
In the Inner Worlds project, I will be pulling from communication and cultural theory to get in touch with the rural Indian experience at the most core level. Courses like Social Marketing and Health Communication have prepared me to synthesize data gleaned from research into effective health messages.
Lastly, my thesis addressed how low-income rural Indians can harness culture, psychology and behavioral economics considerations to create new strategies to improve adoption of clean-burning cook stoves. The independent research I conducted prepared me enormously in working with this specific population and directly in the domain of clean energy products.
Q: What challenges do you see in doing research and sampling in a poor rural area of India versus doing sampling here in America?
A: Surely there is quite a bit of diversity in America--socioeconomically, religious, regional, and racial; however, the considerations in addressing these factors in research are dwarfed by the complexity of doing so in rural India. While I knew this was true before arriving in country, it is just so much more obvious now.
India is truly a myriad of cultural, religious, linguistic, geographic experience. To discuss communicating to "rural India" is paradoxical and I could not have fully realized this until arriving here. Most evidently, the South is simply just an entirely different nation than the North; different cuisine, language, climate, and on and on.
But even within the South, from village to village, there is just so much diversity and it is especially difficult to take into account these differences when you're talking about marketing clean energy products to these various villages.
First, you're dealing with some villages that have been previously exposed to things like solar energy, clean-burning cook stove technology, improved irrigation, etc. Yet, others have no concept of anything outside their traditional products. Next, even the difference between a family making $1 daily versus $2 daily is huge in terms of their ability to adopt new products.
More, the living situations themselves vary greatly in terms of access to water & electricity, in terms of climate, in terms of the level of advancement of agricultural products and practices, in terms of the size of the land that is being cultivated, in terms of house style and size. All of these factors play a huge role in readiness and ability to adopt these products, as well as how the products themselves must function to serve these distinct communities with unique needs tailored to their experiences.
The results from a sample in one village often have no relevance even to the neighboring village. Thus, researching rural Indians requires a cognizance of so many more mitigating factors and hidden variables. Simply, executing and applying research derived from rural India is just exceedingly complex compared to America. Yet, so much more is at stake here.
Q: What do you look forward to the most on this trip?
A: Professionally, I am really looking forward to putting into practice many of the lessons I learned in the classroom and in independent research for my thesis. My work here parallels much of the theory and tools I acquired through the Public Communication program and I am just really excited to apply them cross-culturally to rural India, a blossoming context, full of new opportunities, resources and funding, but where all of these things are often channeled in a misguided fashion.
Personally, I look forward to exploring Chennai and some nearby places outside the city on the weekends. I'd love to get to Kerala on the West coast, Pondicherry, a former French colony, and possibly Sri Lanka, not too far to the South. I want to learn how to cook Indian food. I want to make Indian friends. I want to go to the cinema and check out some Bollywood films. I want to eat A LOT of Indian food.
Q: How did you get the internship?
A: I got this internship completely through independent research I conducted for my thesis. I interviewed the program head and a senior researcher of my research center from India in April to gain more insight into the rural Indian experience. During one of the interviews, the program head recommended I should apply for the position. The rest is history.
Q: What is your advice to fellow grad students on securing internships and traveling abroad?
A: I am a prime example of how many doors will open if you take initiative. I was never the type of person who would just email or call someone asking for advice or just to pick his or her brain. But my thesis gave me that nudge to do so and I completely owe my internship to it. My advice to fellow grad students on securing internships is to just find people who are excited about the same topics and niches that you are and just ask good questions and be attentive. For me, I found the most success talking to academics--they are often the group who love their work and want to discuss it with anyone interested.
My advice for traveling abroad is to, yes, have a sense of vigilance and don't put yourself in bad situations and be "smart" about what you eat, where you stay, who you talk to, but temper that with inhibitions lowered as much as you can comfortably and safely. If you go anywhere outside of the Western world, people just completely let their guard down, they don't worry much about germs and "what will happen if..." and making itineraries and whether they've done everything on their to-do lists, and taking pictures of every beautiful thing you see. They just live, and not only do they get along just fine, but they usually are much happier than we are in the States.
If you allow yourself to just trust that everything will work out, then you will connect with land and the people and you will be able to experience infinite more dimensions to your trip than you would shielding yourself from anything that seems uncomfortable or unsafe. Sure, some precautions are necessary, but throw caution to the wind a bit and your trip will exceed anything you could have hoped for.
Q: Anything else?
A: If you're looking for somewhere to travel on a budget, with a rich culture, with friendly people in a place that you will surely be uncomfortable but in the best way possible, then come to India.