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If life gives you lemons…

“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!!” goes a popular saying. Very well put, I think.

But, dwelling on lemons for a bit: it’s funny how a great citrus like that has come to mean ‘good for nothing’. “It’s a lemon!” yells my friend Vasanti when her cellphone won’t work. Lemon tree very pretty, goes the song, but the lemon fruit is impossible to eat.

Why am I going on about lemons? It’s because I’ve been kicking this idea about in my head, which is driving me crazy. It all started, this afternoon, at a world-famous ad agency where I’m ‘interning’ for the next couple of weeks as part of my personal development at Save the Children. The internship is to learn how the for-profit world develops campaigns, so that I can bring back principles and ideas to our EVERYONE campaign.

Here’s the story:  ‘Low value, low loyalty’ customer segments – i.e. groups of people who don’t know your brand/product and who can’t pay either – are known as ‘lemons’. The online agency manual says that the one thing you wouldn’t do is to invest in lemons! They will eat up your investmets, and are the hardest to win over. “Don’t do it”, they said.

First, I thought: Really?? Let me apply that to families who have never heard of handwashing before a meal in China, for example. Let’s say they are very very poor (can’t pay/buy soap) and don’t believe that handwashing is any good. Would that be the one group I would NOT work with? As opposed to people who believe that handwashing is a good thing but cannot afford it, OR those who can afford it, but don’t buy into the benefits of handwashing for example?

That’s the one group that I would most definitley tackle head-on, I think. Because in addition to getting to the ‘most marginalised’ it would help sell the idea to those who can afford it and didn’t know, as well as those who didn’t know and now, knowing the benefits, realise that they should definitely pay for soap. So: I’m very sorry fancy online agency manual, but your advice would need rewriting for our problem in China!

But: wait a minute! An hour after a long ride back from the agency, there’s another point of view forming in my head. It fits with an observation about the size of windows in India. Fariha has heard this analogy from me a couple of times.  India is hot for most of the year, and people have traditionally built tiny windows to let in as little heat as possible. As a consequence, the sunlight doesn’t come in either and that, in my opinion, isn’t a healthy thing at all.

Anyway, the point is, if you look at all the buildings being newly built across our metros, and even in smaller towns and villages, suddenly, their windows are laaarge. How did this happen? I think it’s not because we Indians suddenly woke up and said sunlight matters, but because of something entirely different. Everyone wants to live in a house just like the new houses in Delhi, which are Euorpoean in design – and also happen to have large windows! So suddenly, a sarpanch in a village in East UP, builds a fancy new house with large windowns that let in masses of sunlight!

What do we learn? That copying someone cooler is a HUGE phenomenon. And it leaves you (the copycat) open to taking advice on all sorts of matters. In fact, it can cause you to change your opinion, to flip it entirely. I hear that the famous Amway and Tupperware business models for example work on this very ‘coolcat, copycat’ principle. I guess teenagers – and the rest of us who are either naive or brave enough to openly declare ourselves as copycats – know exactly what I mean.

So, who is right? The agency – with years and years and years of experience about how to expand market share, or me, with my good heart and limited purse strings?

Should we be investing in lemons? Or should we be making ‘lemonade’ in China, by making sure that those who do wash their hands before a meal are seen to be cooler than those who don’t? We could still be impacting the ‘lemons’ that way, and yet, spending our resources as wisely as we possibly could.

I think that I know now what to think on the subject of lemons. What about you?

P.S. By the way: the agency online manual does have something to say about the group that not only handwashes, but can and always has invested in soap as an essential part of their lives: we should nurture and strengthen that relationship, because they have the power to lead the change for all the other segments.  Does that sound familiar?

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