A few years back, when Lalu Yadav came up with the idea of introducing kullhars (earthen cups) for dispensing tea and coffee, most people took it as one of his Quixotic ideas.
Some sections were abhorred at the thought of having tea from an unclean ‘mud’ cup. They would rather have it from a paper or plastic cup even though they knew that an earthen cup will be much more environment friendly and will cause lesser pollution besides providing business for the poor potters.
They chose to pay a bigger environmental price in favor of perceived sophistication.
Consider this case from another perspective; do these people object to porcelain in the same way they did to those kullhars? After all, porcelain is also made of clay, but will anyone call it mud? The difference comes because the experience provided by a porcelain cup is vastly superior to that of the humble kullhar. We will talk about it in a moment.
When we talk of sustainability, we are talking about practices and products which cater to the needs to the people for a prolonged period without exhausting our resources. However a side effect of this quest is what we may term as a mutant of Marketing myopia, that is; we just notice the needs but tend to ignore the desires of the customers. In the economic failures of jute/ paper bags, recycled paper, ban on plastic and on the other hand, the success of the neighborhood raddiwalas; lies this marketing myopia.Just creating an environmentally sustainable product is not enough, although it may be agreed that customers need it, but do they necessarily want it? Can you sell a ‘green’ jute bag to a buyer by just harping on how environmentally safe it is?
Moreover, in a nation like ours, obsessed with prices, how many buyers will be persuaded to let go of the ever handy and free polythene bag and switch to costlier jute bags?
Let it be known, that most environmentally sustainable products are economically not sustainable. The most evident reason is that, while the ‘non-green’ items are being mass produced, the ‘green’ once have simply been unable to ramp up their economies of scale (most are still handmade/ cottage produced).
If you cannot compete on pricing, what other options do you have in order to stay relevant? This is where we take the analogy of a kulhar and a porcelain cup. Get out of this illusion that a customer can be made to switch from a paper cup to kulhar, the ‘green’ option is just not tempting enough. While there is a need, there is no desire on the part of the customer to make the switch. So you are pricey and undesirable. This will be a marketer’s biggest nightmare. What do we do now?
In my humble opinion, if you cannot become a Dell, go the Apple way. If the classical desire to need (or vice versa) switch needs to be made, then as the marketer, you need to innovate.
And this innovation must not be a top-bottom approach where one makes a product and then expects the customer to accept it. It has to be the opposite. The producer should understand what the customer wants, push even harder to know what the customer may desire but is unable to express; and then start creating the product. Customer delight is a rare phenomenon; it happens in those moments when, from the same clay, you create the vases of porcelain which are so beautiful that they are often considered as a piece of art.