Monday, June 19, 2006

Free gift inside

Heres a good set of business culture posts on India. As I browsed through them, I remembered another thing that until a few years back, was a sureshot way to sell a product. To sell a product, offer something "free" alongside - was an unsaid marketing dictum.

Many years back, our house had an unenviable collection of soap boxes. Those plastic boxes in which one can keep soap in the bathroom. We had so many that even two odd decades down the line, some of them exist for holding trinkets, batteries and what not. At one point, my mother was fed up of the soap boxes. They used to be offered "free" with soap (or other things) - any new soap that had a promo usually featured a free soapbox if you purchased two (or three) - and we used to try out any new soap brand - regardless of the marketeers telling us to "stick to one soap". I am not sure whether our checking out new soap brands was driven by soap boxes, but giving things "free" was a big thing in Indian sales until a few years ago. It is used even now, but the impact of the "free" label in pushing up sales is questionable today.

There were freebies in everything. "Det" washing powder offered free buckets in the 70s. Soapboxes were the item of choice in the 80s. There were so many items that had "free" marked on them that companies began calling it "gift" inside - to differentiate themselves from the clutter. The theory being, partly correctly, that the Indian consumer typically has a tendency to like anything "free". Even today, saree shops, jewellers give a "free" pouch/wallet with their purchases - never mind that consumers pay for it in the price itself. Some customers actually ask, "Kuchch free nahi hai kya?" (Is there nothing free).

Freebies in India are offered for encouraging new tryouts (as in the case of trial packs). They are used to push a non moving product with a moving product of the same company. They are used to push the non moving product of a different company. They are meaningless - like a low quality steel tumbler, a thin steel spoon or a cardboard cutout. They are useful at times - Bata for instance offers a shoespoon free with every pair of shoes (beyond one shoespoon, its utility decreases). Many retailers give out a cheapo keychain. Some give away wall calendars. It has been taken to absurd extents - 20 grams free in a kilo pack for instance - or a reusable container free (duh! - that would be the bottle itself) or a plastic carrybag.

Today, it does not carry so much meaning - but in those days, getting something "free" was a big achievement - considering our economy and businesses were so tightly controlled - free very nearly meant freedom and it was about pushing the rupee farther.

Today brand awareness is greater than "free", but getting something "free" still has a small say in a few purchases - so deeply ingrained it is in our psyche. Will it work today? Well, depends on if the customer thinks, if its "paisa vasool".

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