Coming of age: Is the time ripe for iconic youth brands to emerge out of India ?
Edwin was the last person I met for the day, yet another enriching conversation at the end of an exhausting day. I am just finishing this whirlwind of a journey conversing with youth across the width and breadth of this country. The magical energy and chaotic silence give the premonition that a new world is going to get drafted by this young. A new language, a new value system and a new way of being!
Often brands are built at this cusp of change — the need for new anchors to navigate the nervous chaos before they settle into a new way of being. We are a young nation. Lot has been talked about the demographic dividend and an age cohort, which is emerging as the largest influencing and consuming class. Yet we don’t have a youth brand emerging out of this country with the exception of fast track.
We do have many brands which parade themselves as being youthful. Appealing to a large cross section of audience ranging from 15 -40 years. Yet we don’t have a distinctive youth brand that embodies their aspiration and anxieties.
This could be partly explained by the socio-economic and cultural evolution of a society. Consumption economy thrives on two basic principles — at a basic level its about addressing a strongly felt need functionally .At its pinnacle its about expressing ones identity through consumption.
Adolescent is the life stage where identity formation happens. As explained by the Canadian developmental psychologist James Marcia in his seminal work on “identity formation” that exploration, facing crisis and resolution are critical ingredients in forming strong identities. Exploration happens in areas of vocation, religion, gender roles, political beliefs, sexuality and so on. This is an experimental life stage where youth are highly expressive by adorning multiple faces, frequently and radically changing point of views on a continuous basis. The crisis they encounter is conflict with parental and societal beliefs in many areas of exploration. This is a very unique space for brands to plug in giving opportunities to express their varied facets of identity exploration and be with them till a closure happens, often a lifelong journey.
However India of the past never had this opportunity to explore in adolescent. Critical areas of identity formation like vocational choices; gender roles and sexuality were foreclosed in line with parental and societal beliefs.
The path was so well laid by parents and society, so exploration was a short dosage of relief between exams before you confined to the social norms. This is why we used to often hear the statement “I will make money by 40 and will follow my passion later”. Indians experienced adolescent exploration only in their mid thirties. That is the time the individual came into existence with economic freedom and the courage to question the collective conscience. Its natural that brands were rooted in youthfulness and it found a strong market in becoming symbols of this mid life explorations.
Youth of India today is different. Blessed with economic comfort and a more liberal parenting style, this is the first generation that is going through serious exploration and naturally facing conflicts. In my travels across the country from small towns to metros, in conversations and observations, if I can find one thing that unifies India is this phase of exploration. As James Marcia says they are in Moratorium — where they are exploring and facing conflicts with no resolution.
Edwin’s of the world are rejecting the known path — they don’t understand the celebrated notions of “false humility” and hypocritical respects”, they don’t understand the notion of pleasing everybody without pleasing themselves. They are not able to grasp the notion of secure future by sacrificing their passions. They are finding courage to express their sexuality; they don’t understand why we Indians lack a sense of humor and why we don’t have the self-confidence to take criticisms. They don’t understand what is so great about “Jugad”- something that is shoddy and substandard getting celebrated in the name of genuine creativity! The frequent campus protests against the system, the sub culture of stand up comedy, the emerging startup ecosystem is all part of this exploration. An attempt to form a new language, a new identity by rejecting the stereotypes.
They also reject the stereotypes of youth as reckless junkies and rebels without a cause. They are trying to navigate this path by taking people along, often parents — cajoling and convincing them and changing them in the process. Many will succumb to the pressures by taking the blue pill but a few are standing up, they have taken the red pill and they are in the conflict zones. This is the time when brands need to support them by weaving myths that capture their imagination and become the calming balm for their conflicts. Supporting the few will encourage the masses to follow. This is how movements happen and great brands support these human movements while incidentally selling products.
However the rules of brand building will have to differ from how conventionally brands are built.Unlike in the past we should not attempt at preaching and persuading. The few in the conflict zones needs support and endorsement, brands need to be like them, talking with them vs. at them. Myths can`t be manufactured, it needs to emerge from an authentic belief. It can’t stop at communication; brands need to actively participate with the audience by living the promise, the authentically crafted myth. This will be by making products that are in line with the myth, providing platforms for the youth to come and explore this myth and may be even allow them to refine and evolve it.
This is the time potentially iconic youth brands can emerge from this country. Brands that can truly become symbols of “coming of age” of Indian society .For this to happen brands need to show the courage like the youth to explore without knowing the outcome and be in solidarity with them in conflict zones. The fuel is getting generated underground who has the courage to flame it?