Friday, 18 May 2012

Consumption of branded soap products among the Kani Tribe of Tamil Nadu, India


Consumption of Branded Soap Products: A Study among the Kani Tribe of Chinna Mylaru Kani Settlement, Tirunelveli District, Tamil Nadu, India

        Shriram Venkataraman, S. Sumathi and P.Govinda Reddy 

Proceedings of First International Conference on Business Anthropology which was held during May 17-20, 2012 at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China, edited by Conference Committee,  Pp.132-144.

Man is a social creature and cannot live in total isolation. “Social”, here, is the process of drawing inspiration, motivation, influence and in turn inspiring, motivating and influencing others belonging to a group. This is of high intensity when the social group is small. However, with globalization, the entire world is in the process of becoming a closely knit social group. Visible streaks of this social process are evident not only in urban settlements but also in rural/tribal settlements. A factor that makes it very evident is the consumption of branded globalized/localized consumer goods, by the Kani tribe of Tamil Nadu, India.  

A research into their culture and lifestyle enlightens one with tremendous data on their consumption of branded products of FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) companies, specifically soaps. This paper allows one to understand and analyze their selection and consumption patterns of branded soaps, influence networks, brand loyalty, consumption style and external factors such as advertisement and availability which influence consumption of certain soaps. This paper also strives to correlate on how culture influences all of this.

It becomes very evident that more than half of the sampled households preferred using Medimix as a brand, followed by Hamam, Lux, Chandrika and Life Buoy soaps. Though surprising, it is evident that washing soap brands such as Vairam and Sarvodaya are also used as toilet soaps by approximately 14 percent of the sampled households. 

There were a few patterns that stood out in this choice of soaps. The most preferred brands, at least the top two, were medicinal soaps. Similarly, Chandrika soap which occupies the fourth position in the choice of soaps is also a medicinal soap. Life Buoy occupying the fifth position can be termed as Health soap. A very clear pattern that emerges out of this choice of soaps is that out of the five brands of soaps preferred by the Kani Tribe, four of them are related to Health and Medicine. The odd one out, might be Lux, premium brand luxury soap. Though some of these consumers claim Lux as helping them reduce acnes and pimples, there is a general thought process that Lux is majorly a non-medicinal soap. However, it becomes necessary to understand how Lux as a premium brand of soap, captures a place for itself in the list of medicinal soaps. It also becomes imperative to understand as to why is their choice of soaps limited to medicinal soaps? Another interesting aspect that needs to be understood is their choice of washing soaps as bathing soaps.  As, an understanding of the non-consumers of toilet soaps was also necessary, a series of interviews with them revealed that they were using herbal remedies instead of soaps.   

However, a very interesting fact that was revealed in the use of Lux as a brand by younger women was that, a section of its young women consumers were married and had infants or very young children at home. The interviews with the shop keepers also revealed that the consumption of Lux soap increased when families witnessed birth of a child.  The interview with the young mothers revealed that Lux was used by them not only as toilet soap, but also to wash their infants clothes when they were being breast fed. They particularly spoke about two very specific attributes that stood out in Lux as a choice for these young mothers, which were its perfume and softness.

When questioned about the use of Vairam/Sarvodaya, brands of washing soaps for personal use as toilet soaps, the older women revealed that they called it “Uppu Soap” meaning Soap with Salt content, for a reason. They reasoned that if the washing soap removed stains from the clothes, they should definitely be able to remove dirt from human body.

Their consumption pattern revealed a very particular attribute that stood out in their use of two varieties of soaps namely Lux and Vairam/Sarvodaya was the reversal of the roles of Toilet Soaps and Washing Soaps. Though present in a few families, it was a very interesting trend that was observed.

An aspect that assumed significance, during interviews, was the level of Loyalty that the Kani consumers of toilet soaps showed towards their preferred brand. During interviews with Shop keepers, it became very evident that Kani tribe was very loyal to the brand that they were consuming. The shop keepers revealed that just in case the brand of soap that a particular Kani consumer preferred was not available, the consumer never chooses an alternative, even if recommended by the shop keeper. He/she preferred to wait for the stock of the particular brand to arrive, rather than choosing another brand. Else, they preferred to go down to the plains to buy the brand of their choice instead of settling for an alternate brand. A very surprising fact that was revealed when presented with a case of non-availability of their preferred brand of soap was that, they were even ready to bathe without their preferred brand (in times of non-availability) rather than settle down for an alternate brand.

The interviews with the consumers revealed that there was a very strong pattern of not compromising their choices, if they had already settled for a brand or were satisfied with a particular brand of soap. When questioned on whether they were open or would ever try or test another brand just to experiment with it, most answered they would, however with a claim that they would get back to their brand after experimenting with the newer brand. An interesting fact, that came across was that if they were convinced to experiment with a new brand, they would give it a chance (at the most two times), before which they should be convinced with it to be used more often, else they would revert back to their earlier brand. However, convincing them to even experiment a new brand requires influence through key networks. 

There are several factors that play a major role in influencing the Kani to select a particular brand of soap, which was again revealed through in-depth interviews and focus group discussion sessions conducted with them. The factors that mostly influence the Kani can be better understood from a historical point of view

In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s there were religious missionaries who selected some of the Kani children to be educated in schools in towns away from the Kani settlement, these children have since gone on to be employed in towns and cities away from the Kani settlement, and were exposed to increasing urbanization. Thus being exposed to branded soaps was natural. Further, advertisements and their non-Kani friends’ network also played a role. When these Kanis visited their native place, the Chinna Mylaru Kani settlement, they in turn brought these soaps back as gifts and also for their use, which in turn has influenced their kin back home.

Similarly, after 1991 (post liberalization in India), they were offered jobs in Government sectors, specifically in the forest departments, which ensured that they sometimes were transferred to different areas (both on promotion and as a rule in the Government departments ensuring staff mobility). This again influenced their exposure to branded soaps. Further, advertisements and their non-Kani friends’ network also played a role. The members of the Kani tribe who have had this exposure seem to have influenced their kin back home at the Chinna Mylaru Kani settlement. Also, the Tiger reserves/forest departments where they are employed as forest guards, night watchers even in their own area (Mundanthurai Tiger reserve), also employs non-Kani staff. These non-Kani colleagues of the Kani have also played an influential role in their choice of consumer products, soaps being one of them.

Further, they act as research assistants to several researchers from India and abroad in their research of the forest areas. Their relationship with these researchers and their use of consumer products also has influenced the choice of soaps.

The Karaiyar and Servalar dams, which have become major tourist spots in the Tirunelveli district, have attracted thousands of tourists to these areas. The Chinna Mylaru Kani settlement is at close proximity to these areas and thus the influence of tourists is natural. Further, the waterfalls in this region, is a famous pilgrimage/tourist destination. It also houses facilities for bathing. The Kanis’ observation of different brands of soaps used by the pilgrims and the tourists in these areas, are influential factors for choice of soaps.

Their increased level of importance to education has pushed them to attend schools, where even non-Kanis study. Further, the teachers are also non-Kanis. The Kani students have hostels in these residential schools, which again increases their exposure to certain soap brands, that they come back and tell their parents and other kin. The school in this Kani area has non-Kani teachers who stress the value of cleanliness and use of soap brands such as Hamam/Medimix. Similarly, the bi-weekly or sometimes the monthly visit of the doctors of the Primary Health centers, through their mobile hospital initiative, to these schools, have also increased the awareness of using medicinal soaps. The doctors and teachers seem to influence them the most on using medicinal soaps such as Medimix, Hamam and Chandrika; very specifically Medimix and Hamam. Distribution of free samples of these soaps has also played a major role in this regard.

A very interesting aspect that was evident in the influential factors of the Kani was that they pay high levels of respect to education and experts. They rely on their children who are being educated and exposed to urbanization to let them know things happening in the outside world. The discussions with the older generation revealed a reverse influential process, where the older generation was no longer influencing the younger generation, but, the younger generation was influencing the older generation. Discussions with the older generation revealed that they are willing to test and experiment with anything that their youngsters recommend.

The influence of media should definitely not be downplayed, though they do not have electricity provided by the government, they do have some facilities to generate electricity through solar power, though this is not stable or does not come for a longer period of time. They do have television sets, provided free of cost by the earlier Tamil Nadu government as a part of the vote bank politics. However, lack of electricity ensures that their TV watching habits are very less, at least by the older generation. However, the younger generation watches movies coming down to the plains. They watch advertisements with a keen interest. Battery operated radios are commonly used and the advertisements are heard with an interest. Local newspapers and magazines are bought by some of them and are read with an interest. They do accept that they are influenced by the advertisements, though, they discuss them with their own peer groups (women with women, older men with older men and youngsters with their peer group), and they do not buy everything they see. Sometimes, they wait for one of their peers to experiment with it, and wait for recommendations to try, before they invest on it.

A very strong undercurrent that was very evident is that, they all know that they are a community of doctors, who practice Ayurveda/ Siddha medicine. Therefore, this sense of medicine prevails in their selection of soaps too. They make it evident that they pay more attention to the medicinal qualities in soap and see if the soap is health soap before they purchase it. In case, one of their children has a skin problem, their sense of medicine prevails and immediately, they also get recommended by their peer group to try an ayurvedic/medicinal soap to cure the problem. If it works, they stick on to the soap. Even the use of Lux as washing soap, reveals that the softness of the soap does not cause irritation in the clothes of the infant, thus causing rashes in the new born/infant. Everything gets connected back to their sense of medicine. Finally, it’s their undercurrent culture of belief in medicine that influences their decision in selection of soaps.

Urban and Rural markets definitely require more of an ethnographic study, in order to understand them better. Consumer environments need not exist only in Urban and rural markets, micro markets such as tribal markets are also important areas for such consumer based studies. Ethnographic market studies of homogenous micro areas need to be conducted more often not from a corporate point of view but more from a social sciences point of view, in order to gauge the choices of tribes in this era of globalization, because, urbanization of these indigenous populations is occurring at a higher rate. The customs and behavior, in short their culture directs them to choose and consume certain products more than others. Their choice is dictated by their culture. Understanding, their consumer choices and their behavior from a multi-dimensional point of view is necessary, specifically in India, where such research is not very common. The paper is a step towards motivating, such research in micro level consumer markets/environments.  



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