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The Case of the Kumbh or the Mela

Quick, name one place on earth where there is an annual congregation of over 100 million people, both women and me, living in media dark areas, driven by faith and with money in their pocket. No prizes for guessing the Kumbh Mela.

With such a potent combination, no wonder that marketers are attracted to the Kumbh like bees to nectar laden fruit.

Enough has also been written about successful marketing at the Kumbh Mela. The essential formula seems to be for brands to drive a combination of visibility and consumer experience, by thinking big, thinking innovative, thinking local and most importantly, being useful.

So, how is 2016 going to be any different?

The imaginative among us may think of a live feed on Periscope, health bands on Sadhus, an album of emotions on Instagram, and a unique Kumbh emoticon on Facebook.

Even if we believe that things cannot go that far, here are three predictions from the brave forecaster.

Firstly, this Kumbh would be the youngest ever, with more young people under the age of twenty-five thronging the streets after the traditional ‘puja and snaan’.  For the India observer, this demographic is no surprise, but the uptick in their ‘faith tourism’ surely is. Blame it on the zeitgeist of the moment – an increasing ambition, uncertainty in the economy, lack of jobs and the concomitant restlessness – make it certain that the average small town young guy is going to snake his way into the Kumbh this year. Bharat Mata Ki Jai!

Secondly, this Kumbh would be the most data-driven ever. With more smartphones and more apps than ever before, expect technology (not just mobility) to make its presence felt at the Kumbh. As rural and small town consumers get more comfortable dealing with data, this could well be the Kumbh of the gigabyte driven by free Wi-Fi.

Thirdly, expect Patanjali (and other such local challengers!) to get more aggressive, pushing the traditional FMCG and Telcos aside. This also would be no surprise given the faith-based propositions that many regional and local brands seem to be riding on. And when the Baba himself makes a visit to the stall, expect more euphoria and mayhem. Who said that religion and capitalism do not mix?

And then there is the matter of the fourteenth akhada for the transgender, with people already taking sides on the divisive issue.

If the Kumbh is a microcosm of India, what does this tell us about our country?

As they say, for everything in India, the opposite is equally true! Many ethnographers have deduced that change in India is slow, continuous and morphing. Rama Bijapurkar writes that change in India is about ‘transformation from within’. She describes it as signs of a “tight fist loosening”, and “critical mass generated by a large body of people changing a little bit”. She warns us to look out for creeping trends rather than mega trends.

One such creeping trend is of a more educated, more tech savvy, more ambitious and yet somehow more parochial generation. This is a generation consuming a diet of polarized media, in an insular (social media) bubble of like-minded people, looking for experiences that feed the blinkered worldview.

Given this creeping trend, how will marketers leverage the Kumbh of 2016? Will they just be mere vultures making ‘good business’ intruding themselves in this huge congregation? Or will they try to shape the future, reaching out to people in a meaningful way and making a positive impact to their lives?

Another way to look at the same is to see whether brands will leverage the Kumbh or the Mela?

The Kumbh represents a confluence of cultures, a symbol of spiritual arousal, the confluence of nature and humanity, and a realization of the duality of darkness and light. In other words, Kumbh is the source of awakened energy. Equally, it is also a ‘mela’; an event that is sharply focused on entertainment, essentials, food and exciting novelties, all available at a discount for the experience hungry consumer.

Early signs from the government and organizing bodies are encouraging. Plastic has been banned in the Mela zone. Biofuel vehicles would be run to check pollution. Organize waste disposal units have been installed. Why, even the vermillion to anoint the various deities is supposedly organic!

If only marketers get inspired by these signals, and decide to do something good for humanity. After all, is that not what the assembly was all about?

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