“Understanding the consumer is like understanding yourself. The day you think you have done it, is the day you need to start afresh” – Myself
Any adjective I use would understate the effect of what my summer internship actually was; a life altering event. This can only be summarised by means of the four stages of a butterfly’s life cycle.
This phase would start on the day I read out my e-mail, detailing me on my summer internship. These days are marked with profound expectations, lending an invariable bias to whatever the mail has to offer. But it wasn’t enough to counter the emotional burden my e-mail had thrust upon me.
“Developing a digital marketing campaign for Mahindra Finance”
Two key words enough to put off anyone interested in a career in sales: Digital marketing and Finance. I was almost sure that was the end of my internship, right there. It took me a month to finally convince myself that the brand was something that could lend me tremendous value addition, Mahindra GMC being one of the premier internship programs across the country.
I landed in Mumbai sometime near April Fools’ Day and headedstraight for my accommodation at Ghatkopar. Now there is something we ought to know about Mumbai. This city offers us instant emotions, those of high hopes, confidence and awakens all our survival instincts in a jiffy. Ever remember that feeling when you enter Dadar station and see all those people running and getting down the stairs at 3 am in the morning and you wonder: “This city never sleeps”. And when you pay that toll of INR 55 just to enter the Bandra-Worli sea link and gape at the Mumbai seascape and wonder: “This is the city of dreams indeed”. Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, this is brand association working at its best. Ask a vendor at the Dadar station and he will tell you how he sleeps for 3 hours a day, working the rest of the while just to feed 8 hungry stomachs back home. Ask the taxi driver who takes you through the sea-link and listen to how he speaks, in beautiful Mumbai slang, about the traffic that gives him nightmares. “People spend a quarter of their lives stuck in traffic, sir”, remarked one of them to me, when I accused him of excessively persuading me to take the sea-link, just because he wanted to avoid the congestion. This city is just about one thing; survival. You need a flat in South Bombay to talk with admiration about the Mumbai rains. For the majority, it’s just another problem in their lives that are riddled with issues. Well, maybe this was my cynicism speaking, the cynicism that was borne out of that e-mail. But I had a blank slate when I entered office, a bare minimum for being a professional (The need to leave out biases behind). The inaugural sessions spoke in great detail about the various departments at Mahindra and the innumerable ventures this firm had gotten into. Everything did sound impressive and more than a few friendships were forged in these initial few days itself; be it over complaining about the lack of a working Tata Sky at home or over tea and snacks talking about who the next CEO of Mahindra would be (among those who came to deliver us lectures). One thing about networking was not to be intentional about it. If it came out naturally, so be it. The irritants are generally those who interact because they have read somewhere in a self-help novel about the benefits of networking. “Make friendships, not connections” is what I would say to someone who’d ask me for advice. The day had arrived where I had to enter Mahindra Finance; I sent an e-mail to my project guide (Senior Manager, Marketing) asking him for an appointment for a briefing and this made things easier. An articulate man, my guide impressed me on day one. I wasn’t sure whether I did the same but he uttered a few words which captured my attention, and kept it there. “Your project shall involve a lot of primary research, and travelling”. Well, digital marketing and travelling? This was a surprise but a pleasant one at that. I got onto work and started preparing my approach note.
When my guide told me to prepare an approach note, I got onto my MBA mode, opening up MS Excel, adding highlights, tables and preparing a detailed 7 page approach within 4 hours. I was sure he would get surprised pleasantly at the prospect of such an intern. My e-mail to him was replied with a prompt response: “Will meet you at 10 tomorrow to discuss this”. Nothing discernible, but not bad, thought I. The next day as I managed to buy a local train pass and managed to wade through 2 trains to work, I felt like I was living the Mumbai life. I was all charged up for the plaudits I was supposed to receive when he dismissed my report with the simple reply: “I don’t want a timeline. Give me a concise report on your objectives, milestones and approach.” This wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. It took me a full week to prepare the note after almost 8 iterations and I realized how different it was from the initial one I had made. Meanwhile I had also prepared the questionnaire for the primary research and decided on a set of places to visit. My main sample was the rural populace; I needed to visit villages across the country. The pilot was supposed to be in Aurangabad.
A third AC ticket wasn’t a bad start. Reaching Aurangabad early in the morning was a smooth beginning, but the hotel offered did not match the visions I had had in my head the night before. “Get used to austerity”, thought I. The next day I was greeted with a Scorpio waiting outside the hotel. I made a two hour journey to a village nearby; Jalna. Well, apparently there were three magic words I needed to utter to get royal treatment: Mumbai Head Office. The very mention of these words brought me everything from drivers to pakoras but it came with its side-effects; the plethora of questions about vacancies in the H.O. would not just test your patience, it would consume all of your time. Well, the questionnaires though were a disaster. I realized how important an immersion study was. I realized how I had prepared the earlier one keeping in mind the various statistical analyses I needed to perform. This was totally modified according to what the customer wanted to say. We needed to be simple, yet discreet. Scales of 1-5 do not work as a majority shifted towards 5 in spite of complaining about the service. Bharat was different from India; people just won’t say anything bad about the brand. I returned with a bunch of questionnaires I decided to use the next time I had pakoras. Five tweaks later, I had the perfect weapon for a survey. It was time to begin.
With all formalities completed (sending e-mails should be a course in the IIMs!) I started packing for my big month ahead. I was to start with Gujarat (Rajkot and the surroundings) followed by Coimbatore, visit neighbouring villages and cities of Erode, Dindigul, Bhavani, Salem, etc and travel onward to Chennai to visit the competitors. This was to be followed by a journey to West Bengal after which I was to return to Mumbai with four days remaining to complete my presentation. The life of Mumbai was about to take a pause; the weekday rush, the weekend meets with friends, the pride of the cab drivers, Dadar station, late night orders for dinner, Chowpatty chats, Colaba walks- everything took a break. As I landed in Gujarat, the local auto guys conversing in Gujarati brought me to familiar territory (I was raised in Baroda). But as the day went on, the heat multiplied, like popcorn kernels in an oven. The metaphor would have been more apt for describing us instead who were the kernels now popping in this heat. Gujarat was a marketer’s dream; the customers were as aware of a business as the owners themselves. Every person responded meticulously because he/she knew exactly what we meant. It was a breeze till we delved further into the village. As part of my study, I had to conduct qualitative interviews with the children of these farmers, to get their perspectives. With a small hut and no pucca walls, it was remarkable to hear from Virsinh Jadeja’s boy on how Facebook was popular in his village. Apparently, they also had a Whatsapp group where they would communicate. But the father was totally unaware of this. When asked whether his kids use the mobile phone, he replies: “Yes, yes. For their project work.” Well done kids, that was really something you pulled off there.
These people were rich, but their lifestyles did not indicate that. Further ahead we also had discussions with another young guy about his recently purchased Bullet motorcycle and how he felt Mahindra Finance should come on Facebook and give him tips on vehicle purchases. Insights indeed, but as I kept talking with these people, something dawned upon me. Rural India was naked, transparent and free of pretentions. People wanted to grow and they wanted us to help them with it. They were aware of the chasm between their growth patterns and that in the cities but were willing to go that extra mile to bridge that divide. Rural India was a marketer’s dream come true and I was glad this was the first project I ever undertook. At the end of three days which included Gujarati Thalis at customers’ homes (Can it get more authentic!), purchasing Bandhni Saris (Handicrafted saris) for the aunt, talking to farmers in the middle of cotton farms and hotel owners in their backyard with Sugarcane juice for company, I took a leave from this wonderful state after achieving my target sample size. It was time for the South (my mother tongue is Tamil) and I readied myself for the journey.
Reaching Coimbatore on a misty morning, I had no time to waste in my hotel room and I rushed straight for the field. This place was a challenge; none of the executives in my office had come here first and hence I had no contacts. I used the power word: ‘Mumbai H.O’, but it failed to work! I had to take an Auto to work. After a brief talk with the branch manager who was courteous enough to ‘try and allocate’ some person to go along with me to visit customers, I made myself a list of the probable categories of customers I had to meet. “Sales and Marketing is the perfect place to destroy your ego and put you in your right place Sir”, our Marketing professor used to say. It was synonymous to riding on a horse one day and washing its rear the next day. I made a mistake in not informing directly these people about my arrival and instead informed the regional office in Chennai, assuming that they would pass on the information. This was one important lesson everyone in Corporate life should learn the hard way, dissemination of communication was key within any office with four walls.
After labouring through the day completing my quota of urban customers, I visited Erode the next day to interact with Bharat. I was all decked up to handle the cruel Tamilnadu heat when I heard the news of some Cyclone (Insert beautiful female name) descending on this state, thus bringing grey skies and cool showers. Perfect. But it wasn’t all that warm with the customers I met. A list of NPAs (Non-performing assets) were all I had to meet and it started with the Lady with the Dog. This lady hadn’t paid her dues for nine months and when the executive decided to step in and take the keys of the car, she unleashed her dog onto us. We thanked the inventor of the gate as we quickly shut it before it pounced on us. A brilliant start indeed. A politician from a famous party who had recently lost the state elections was next. A gang of goons propped up as our executive started asking him about his dues. The best part about this was that the police would require ‘special privileges’ before taking any action against these guys and us being the ‘Business house’ that we were, this was nothing short of sacrilege. A long day with twenty one customers (Teachers, Housewives, Milkmen, Carpenters, and Jewellers) and 8 irresistible Munjols (Palm fruits) later, I made my way back to Coimbatore, readying for the beautiful trip ahead the next day. It was Coonoor, the Manchester of the South that was next on my radar.
The blue hills or Nilgiris were called so for a reason. It was as if the entire sky turned blue on me as we ascended upwards. The chilly air and stunning scenery welcomed me to the small town of Connoor and I suddenly forgot all the tough days. A sumptuous breakfast at the Taj (my money, in case you’re wondering) and I was all set for the day ahead. Now people might disagree but weather impacts the nature of people. People in hill stations are very warm, hospitable and friendly (five more synonyms would still have understated the fact). I was arranged a list of customers in a jiffy, with a motorcycle at my disposal.
I travelled across winding roads, viewing green tea plantations, as slight droplets of rain started to brush my face. The piquant smell of the Eucalyptus descended on me as I entered the woods listening to joyful cries of the birds that nested there. Customers offered me tea like I was their long lost friend. Mahindra Finance was not just a brand, it made lives here. People started businesses on this money and they would never forget the source that lent them. The executives were close friends with these people; they weren’t customers, they were relations. As with other places, I had the most authentic of meals here and started to go upwards into Kothagiri, filled with fruit orchards and organic vegetable farms. Teenage girls in their yellow and blue uniforms were on their way home and some school boys loitered around to catch a glimpse of a few. They would fold their socks and stand in the corners cockily, with hands in their pockets as these girls went ahead, heads fixated on the ground. A minor glimpse, even if for an instant as small as the firework’s spark would create festivals in their young hearts, those hearts yet unaware of the perils of falling in love. Anyways, I realized I was getting too poetic and focused on talking to more people. The internet penetration was high even here, and I had now stopped getting surprised. It started to pour, and poured cats and dogs when I realized it was impossible for me to go back. Kothagiri had picturesque hotels and I had no problems in choosing one for the night. The target was achieved quickly the next day and I headed back to Coimbatore, weary and missing the cold nights and the warm people from the hills. Chennai was my next stop and it was not just the weather that was hot. I was suddenly used to this roller coaster of happenings now and the rude people didn’t surprise me anymore. Masquerading as a student working on a project, I had to meet the right people and gather information about my competitor’s strategies. Well, one needs to maintain huge levels of patience for this exercise and excellent communication skills. Two days and five successful interviews later, I was headed to Kolkata. It was happening all too fast now.
In my undergraduate institute, I had a huge crush on a Bengali girl. This was the beginning of my fascination towards this state and their sweets just raised my expectations. So when I reached an airport called Dum Dum, my urge to laugh was quelled by some romanticised bias for Bengali names. Elections were on the day I arrived and hence I wasted a precious day; importance of planning not heeded to. I spent the day roaming around, visiting the famous Park Street and Salt Lake City. Park Street has this plethora of food stalls, ranging from the whatnots to the howdunits. After exploring the libraries and coffee shops, I headed for a concert in a famous pub in The Park hotel. I had to say it was a ‘buzzy’ place with a lot of people, generally from the upper echelons of the society’s cream. I made a few friends, most remarkably with a Sales Director of a reputed FMCG firm who had decided to let loose that night. Well, every sales guy has a different story to tell at night and I witnessed it that day, till 4 AM in the morning, crawling from place to place. There were no excuses to be given the next day and I was on time for work, ready to visit a place called Barasat, somewhere near Kolkata. The response was staggering here, one out of twenty were familiar with the internet. I had to ask the same questions in a very different manner here, in order to elicit responses. I realized how a market researcher would need to possess a lot of other skillsets apart from analytical skills to excel in this field. But it was a challenge worth accepting. I got used to the pace and type of questions to ask and suddenly by the end of the day I was using the word “Dhonnobad” (Thank you) more than anything. Satisfied with the responses, I decided to call it a day when the person responsible for taking me around announces that I have a train that night, to Sikkim. Mother of God!
New Jalpaiguri to Gangtok was a five hour journey to be undertaken on the mountainous ranges ascended in Mahindra Scorpios. Suddenly my Instagram account was flooded with likes, after all, who wouldn’t like the picture of hot thukpa in the backdrop of the Teesta river? The weather fluctuated like a pendulum about to break out of the clock; from rainy to sunny to chilly. Shared cabs and girls with incredibly attractive eyes were what captured my attention initially, but later on this was devoted to the extremely high levels of internet penetration. Villages nearby were devoid of regular electricity but wives there used smartphones with Facebook pre-installed. My sample size had reached more than 200 now and the qualitative interviews were also done. I had talked to a lot of people. That night, I sat on the terrace of my hotel in Gangtok, sipped my coffee staring at the silent hills that stood there and contemplated on what the purpose of life was. Nature had consumed me in its lap, in its entirety and the cruel return to Kolkata was not what I wished for. Election results were out the next day and I took a flight back to Bombay, not wanting to leave back those hills, those people and those wonderful foods.
I had four days. Thus started the rigor of waking up on time, catching multiple trains, exchanging irrelevant pleasantries and eating junk that were meant to land up in trash. Mumbai wasn’t the same anymore. Visits to the Palladium mall were as sickening as wading through sewers; materialistic lives and fake gestures got onto my nerves now. It took a while to adjust and resign to the fact that this was home and this was what we fight for, to lead a life of irrelevance, a life where we need to pull others down to rise upwards, a life where we seek desires that are planted into us by others who want to seek other desires with the money we provide them with. But we needed to survive. We needed to fly, to explore, like the butterfly.
I was done with my quantitative analysis using SPSS and came up with really fascinating insights. I had a wonderful guide who always criticised me, asking me to keep improving. This was the sole reason why I improvised, again and again, till I was close to perfection. The minutest of data like the usage of American English was given importance to and after innumerable modifications, it was time for the final presentation. The entire steering committee was present; the CEO, CMO, CFO, HR. 22 pairs of eyes looked at me as I began to explain. I made my slides less data heavy, but every slide had a takeaway. In case of questions, I would refer them to my appendix. This made their task and mine much easier as I was able to make them understand my recommendations, with proper reasoning. The presentation was excellent and there flew plaudits all around. My guide gave me a small grin and a pat on the back for the effort; I loved his subtle way of putting things. Next day, the news arrived that I was selected for the final round of presentations in Nashik.
The Mahindra Centre in Nashik was nothing less than yet another hill station! The presentations to the top management from other verticals was a successful affair too, given the scrutiny with which we approached the prior rounds. A party in the night and we were back to Mumbai, one day away from returning home. I walked one last time on the streets of Colaba, visited the small cafes in Fort, walked along the by-lanes of Nariman point, caught a play at Prithvi theatre and spent the night at Marine drive followed by breakfast at Bandra. No matter how much ever I cussed this city before, this was life and I would miss it. I looked out of the windows of the quickly ascending flight, the droplets of rain trying to bash their heads and it was as if the city wasn’t bothered. It knew I would be there again, there was no goodbye.