Niti Bhan and Dave Tait, having just returned from exploratory research in Africa to understand the mindset and consumer behavior at the bottom of the pyramid, share their insights for designers hoping to serve this population. This research was part of a larger study conducted by Experientia, an Italy-based international experience design consultancy.
"Design has a social function and its true purpose is to improve people's lives."
--Nokia Design Manifesto
This theme shows up, in one form or another, on most of the application essays made to design schools. Young designers aspire to improve people's lives by creating products that matter. They dream of Eames, timeless designs and creating products that get called 'Classic.' But the real world soon starts putting commercial demands on the designer's time and talent, and the dream gets slowly wrapped up in dust, to be tucked away, as focus shifts to styling trendy products that catch the fickle consumer's eye. Planned obsolescence influence the very consumerism and market forces that now demand 'New!'
Times change however, and today an opportunity to rediscover the timeless value of good design exists. As markets saturate across North America, Europe and Japan, global brands turn to the emerging market opportunities available in developing economies. Also known as 'the next billion consumers' or the 'bottom of the pyramid' (BoP), they have become the new target for design and innovation as rising incomes and growing economies make these aspiring consumers an attractive prospect. However, having been ignored until now, they are not as conditioned by mainstream global marketing.
Tasked with the challenge of designing for the 'next billion' or the 'poor' who live in a world so different from that outside your studio, where do you start?
There have been many products that grasped the public's imagination but failed to meet their goals, even as design was touted as a world-saving tool. Altruism has its place, but perhaps not in the practice of design; 'doing good' casts a rosy glow over the decision-making process. Compromises get made as cost becomes the design's criteria, not simply a constraint. Assumptions that filter our insights go unquestioned as the users' undeniable and unmet 'needs' are unmistakable. Good design that embodies value can get confused with charity.
Often, we are so intent on improving their lives that we forget that the poor are people too. They're simply very different but equally demanding consumers whose expectations must be understood and respected if we're truly to succeed.
A different mindset
Recent observations in the field on the BoP consumer's lifestyle and buyer behavior in Africa led us to conclude that their product choices and decision-making criteria are based on an entirely different set of values than those that influence the design of most consumer products today. A combination of factors such as local culture and history, as well the daily experience of coping with a life of adversity, lead to a different mindset when it comes to purchasing patterns.
Uncertainty and chaos are a given in the informal economy that supports the majority at the bottom of the pyramid. Most do not have a regular job with a predictable salary, but manage to earn money through a variety of sources like selling crops or vegetables, hawking cigarettes and cold drinks or menial labor on daily wages. Income is more often than not irregular and unpredictable, and life becomes a balancing act on the edge between survival and disaster.
The first priority then is to meet the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. If there is change to spare, an impulse buy could be a newspaper or a soft drink for a treat. Every decision to spend beyond the basics is considered an investment that requires careful planning and research. Word of mouth is the most trusted medium, since it's someone else's real life experience--not simply a faceless marketing message splashed on a colorful billboard or blared on a radio.
So a 'wait and see' attitude rather than 'try and buy' becomes the norm. The product or service must be seen to stand the test of time and performance. The BoP consumer cannot afford to experiment with the 'new and improved' over the 'tried and the true'. Brands that are chosen either have known benefits or are trusted in order to minimize risk.
Ensuring a return on their investment
Many products currently available are not designed to meet the expectations of the poor; few brands have yet to establish themselves in these emerging consumer markets. But there are exceptions. Toyota, for example, has built such a reputation for durability, low cost of ownership and endurance (surviving the harsh conditions of Africa), that owning one, no matter how old, is considered an intelligent choice. Twenty year old 'bakkies' can still be seen on the backroads of rural South Africa--they are easy to maintain and repair by any roadside mechanic, and even the oldest models have a reasonable resale value.
Tata Motors' years of experience in the similarly harsh conditions of India's rural backroads have allowed it to quickly enter and establish itself as a rival in the African market. Tata trucks have the reputation of being virtually indestructible and 'can be repaired with a hammer.' Just as uncertainty of income increases aversion to risk, choosing brands that have proven themselves through performance and commitment offer the greatest returns on investment.
Yet 'return on an investment' in a brand need not simply be a longer-lasting product; it includes the commitment to the needs of the local community that a brand is willing to make. Tata have just announced an innovative community-based initiative to extend its dealerships in rural Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa that have lower requirements for eligibility, so that profits can be made from the third truck sold each month.
Nokia is another global brand that has demonstrated its commitment in these emerging consumer markets. Not only are their products consistently easy to use, they offer models that demonstrate a deep understanding of local needs--whether it's a shared phone or one that offers text messaging in Amharic.
Design must embody relevant values
Since low income consumers and shallow budgets go hand in hand, lowering cost is increasingly seen as the most important criteria for entering this market. Price often becomes the primary driver for design, rather than simply a constraint. This may lead to compromises made in quality and materials, or other valued attributes such as ease of use and product life.
For example this paraffin stove (above), aimed at the low income customer, considers durability as much of a highlight as safety or economy, rather than a given criteria for a 'durable' product. The packaging states, "Our stove, unlike many others in the marketplace, is built to last for years rather than for 3 to 4 months," implying that there is a lack of quality prevalent in the BoP marketplace.
The poor recognize the value of a well-made product that is within their reach, overlooking the obviously-affordable if it costs more to replace or repair the product than the short-term savings it offers. This willingness to spend more--or their desire for 'value for money'--may be misconstrued as simply 'brand consciousness'. But a big name brand may not always be sufficient to make the product attractive. Clear benefits and functional innovations allow for rationalizing a big-ticket purchase over styling or aesthetic improvements.
This LPG powered refrigerator (above) is available in small towns across rural South Africa where electricity is not a utility taken for granted. Note that neither is the urban convenience of the corner shop. Perishables must be purchased in reasonable quantities, as shopping is a time consuming and expensive process requiring long distance travel to nearest town. The decision to make such a large investment in this product is easier when the benefits are obvious--you can save both time and money by owning one of these. Life is made easier.
This is an example of a situation where it becomes critical to question assumptions made when 'creating value' through design or identifying 'unmet needs.' A talking refrigerator that offers ice water, crushed ice or an embedded television set maybe wholly inappropriate for this segment, assuming as it does a regular power supply or the ability to pay a monthly electric bill. LPG on the other hand, is a prepaid source of energy, purchased when funds are available.
There is a significant difference in the mindset and lifestyle of someone who has a regular and predictable source of income--albeit a limited one--and the majority of those at the bottom of the pyramid who must live on uncertain budgets. Design of services and business models, not just products, must take this inability to predict an income stream and its influence on buying behaviour and product usage into account.
Other assumptions regarding such basics as availability of running water, harshness of environmental conditions, duration of time the product will be used before replacement and the number of users who share the product are among those that need to be questioned when designing for the BoP market.
Commitment leads to trust
The failure to understand the mindset of the BoP consumer could result in marketing strategies and business models that contradict their values. Their needs must be met in a manner that resonates with their lifestyle and self-perception.
For example, Proctor & Gamble's PUR water sachet, an innovative product that provides safe drinking water by simply mixing it with a bucket of contaminated water, was a commercial failure during pilot tests in Guatemala, Pakistan and Morocco. Although it met a clearly-observed need, the poor just weren't buying it. Margaret Hansen, Associate Professor at European business school, INSEAD, writes: "Simple in theory, but finding the right formula is often more difficult. Local barriers to entry are often tricky to overcome in 'bottom of the pyramid' markets. Certainly, P&G discovered that traditional marketing methods did not work; consumers were suspicious of new products that required them to change the way they managed their lives."
Since the market, the mindset and the people's lifestyle and challenges are so very different from any consumer market studied until now, this is a great unknown. Simply adapting techniques and tools from your existing successful markets won't do; you must build from scratch and refresh all your assumptions. Starting from a clean slate means designing products and strategies that are relevant, thoughtful and emphasize the values important to your new customer.
Committing to serve this emerging consumer market means offering services that are designed to fit within existing social networks and behaviors, rather than expecting your prospective customer to conform to your processes and systems. Because they have been overlooked and ignored for so long, BoP customers are not part of the mainstream global consumer culture. We need to reach out and connect by finding out what matters to them, not just adapt the same global shiny messages that often seem like they're beamed in from an alien planet.
If you're at all interested in the "fortune at the bottom of the pyramid," being an effective designer means getting serious about this market, changing your approach, and questioning your assumptions.
Niti Bhan and Dave Tait are multidisciplinary design thinkers who started Perspective 2.0, an Emerging Futures Lab to pursue their interests in understanding the people at the bottom of the pyramid before digging for the fortune. They work with anyone willing to give them the money to wander through slums and sit in a village to look around and see. They want products, services and business models designed for the next billion or two customers to be meaningful and relevant, not just filling the gap of unmet needs. Design can improve and enhance lives; if only we'll stop to question our assumptions and simply listen for a while.