Rise of the Neighbourhood Brand in India: Soul vs. Scale

“We’re cool. We’re good. We’re awesome. Our products too. Now buy Us. (Here’s a coupon).

That’s what you invariably get to hear from brands. Online, offline, consumer, enterprise, FMCG, sports, automobile, electronics – all kinds of brands! And as a consumer, you’re already adept at tuning out those messages, aren’t you?

But the era of the big brand talking – one-way – to the consumer – might already be over!

As two people who have been running small brands for the past three years, we have realised that many of the traits of our small brands – www.linger.in  (a do nothing off-beat vacation company) and www.cinnamonstays.in (a small, quirky unhotel) are modelled more on the friendly neighbourhood than the mechanistic principles of large scale mass media brands. And in a fast changing world these principles will hold good even for larger brands. Even as organised retail threatens neighbourhood retail stores, the values of a neighbourhood are needed more than ever before.

Read on…

Be Accessible.

One of the primary qualities of a neighbourhood brand is that they are accessible.
People – employees, consumers, stakeholders can reach out to them anytime, converse with them anytime, hold a dialogue with them all the time, now with the aid of social technologies in real time.

The brand exists more like a ‘cafe’ – where everyone is invited to come and have conversations & transactions all the time.

It does not attempt to hide behind fancy packaging, expensive advertising and ‘conditions apply’. Like a neighbour it exists on par with the people it aims to serve. The neighbourhood brand allows a daily glimpse into it’s inner workings and thoughts and that’s what adds to it’s charm.

Be Honest. Avoid Spin. Take a Stand.

For almost 5-6 decades, consumers have been happy buying into the spin of large organised, mass media led brands. Happy to be led and misled by the catchy slogans and hyped messages of brands.

Cigarette brands have offered masculine archetypes, car brands have defined our lives destinies, skin care brands have raised the confidence of women globally, deodorant brands have promised us the elixir of youth and sexiness … always carefully sidestepping any reference to actual claim verification!

The most popular actors and celebrities of our times have offered us the joy of sugared flavoured water (read colas) and the sociability of fried potato chips!

It worked . We have believed them ALL for quite some time. In this ‘spin world’, brands
(regardless of the category) were always shiny, glitzy objects of perfection. No warts, zero defects. Happy, smiling faces all the time – from hoardings to TV sets.

CCD Branding: Too overdone. And too much about THEM, not You.
CCD Branding: Too overdone. And too much about THEM, not You.

They silently dumped their expensive endorsers when they aged. The brands themselves never age.

Everyone clapped whenever they took centre-stage. There was no two-way communication for people to give their view-point anyways. And Conditions apply was always in a smaller font size.

But then, over the last 10 years (in an accelerated manner) the world got connected and suddenly we-the-people-who-sucked-and-swooned-at-the-brands woke up from our collective slumber. Of course clients and brands pumping in millions of rupees into their advertising campaigns still believe that their spin largely works and that all of us are gullible suckers most of the time. Which many still are…

But there is also a rise of small brands that try to live by honesty and avoid the spin.
Travel brands, hospitality brands, technology products and services that are built on transparency and values. They cannot afford the spin machines and tools of mass media.

They’re honest in their DNA, in their communication and in what they deliver. Like a life well lived, they do not hide their warts and wrinkles. In fact that adds to their charm of these small neighbourhood brands.

Being laid-back, genuine warmth, slowing down for people, rooting for causes (not just using the cause) are all virtues in this world. And folks connect with these.

Coffee Day has been running a campaign about sitting down and talking, since a lot can happen over coffee. The thought’s nice. But have you tried conversing at a CCD, recently? The noise levels are something. And conversations, a sharing of ideas and making a lot happen would certainly be helped more by having post its, writing pads, scribble sheets and chalk-boards around than by pasting brand ads all over the walls and running muted television sets.

Like the good ol’ neighbour, brands need to be straightforward, honest and sometimes even blunt, and want us to know. They must be well-wishers, not spin merchants. They should be out to TELL not just SELL.

Amongst the bigger ones, Amul’s done a fabulous job on this front. They have a take on every event, and do not shy away from social commentary.

Amul Branding
Amul Branding

Soul vs. Scale

Another worldview that has bulldozed its way into our collective consciousness is that for things to work well, brands and businesses must scale. And fast. And for things to work really well they must scale even more. And faster. And everything that comes in the line of scaling must be overcome – be they people, other businesses, often values.

‘Big is Beautiful’ has been the defining mantra of the industrial economy machinery.
Of course it worked, it worked beautifully for faceless corporations, their super rich top management, for us consumers who got a variety of stuff at affordable prices ( stuff that many-a-time was not even what we needed, but we bought anyways. What the hell, it is a great deal!)

But is there a way for a brand that stands for soul and not scale? Is it always bad to be small and content? To plough back little dollops of goodness back into the neighbourhood where the small company or the brand started it’s journey? Once again small brands – restaurants, salons, fashion stores that are led by quirky owners and their soul led wares point to an alternate path.

Can the delivery boy also carry a message of reusing, reducing packaging? Can your store-front personnel also become friendly consultants for customers who don’t just push products? Should you not encourage people to go beyond and even break a few rules for the things, people or values your brand claims to care about? How many of us truly believe Airtel understands or cares about friendships, or is even friendly to us?

It’s possible to attract people and potential customers by focusing on the soul of the brand first and not chase scale as an end in itself.

Stories of the soul also get noticed, talked about, liked on facebook, get tweeted and pinned on Pinterest sometimes more than media backed stories of scale.

Get Involved. Know People. Help Them. Be The Brand Next Door

Brands – even the ones that routinely feature in the top 10, top 100 list are extremely narcissistic 🙂 While they supposedly exist for us, they are even more narcissistic than a Bollywood diva! Haven’t you noticed they always talk about how good they are , or what new fancy features (often useless) they have acquired. How they love to talk about themselves on TV, radio, print, facebook, twitter…

And while their curators (the ad & media agencies and  PR partners) try hard to sound participative and collaborative, the brands raised up on a diet of mass media don’t know how not to be narcissistic . That’s their essential DNA.

They are used to a world that spins around them or so they have come to think!

The neighbourhood on the other hand was never about one person. The neighbourhood was about helping each other. Remember the bowl of ‘milk’ and ‘dahi’ that got shared. The ‘tiffin-dabba’ that never came back empty from a neighbour’s house!

How many neighbourhood uncles and aunts one had was never the topic of discussion. What mattered which one made the best ‘kheer’, who smiled and gave your ball back even when you broke his/her window for the 10th time…

Neighbourhoods were meant for living. Till we made them into a marketplace with transactions alone. We believe it is possible to reclaim some of that lost space. It is possible to chart an alternate path? And yet make money, be happy, give back to society? And isn’t this a worthwhile ROI on life and brands?

Brands which integrate with their neighbourhood are already being heard. A cafe that gives space to neighbourhood artists, a hyper-local magazine that not only reports, but gets involved in local issues, and home run businesses that get involved in charity, waste management and other issues in their geographies.

Thus far, its been small brands that have led the way, but the bigger guys can too. Some ideas? Ensure you work with the local community for hiring, get involved in neighbourhood projects, become the hub for information about the place, and encourage your staff to “get to know people” – beyond the templates and scripts you hand out to them. If you’re a coffee chain, you could collect and display information – historical, civic, of tourist interest – about the area you are in. Those start conversations! If you’re Staples, you get involved in e-waste collection, people appreciate such efforts, and build a relationship with you.  Don’t just make ads about ‘women empowerment’. Participate or better still facilitate the discussion on social media and other platforms. It might be even more helpful if you do that in real time, out there amongst real people. Real time is the NEW PRIME TIME!

Brands now also need to be helpful . Don’t just blast your tagline into our heads. Be helpful. Tell me your nearest store location. Don’t just show me expensive ads. Tell me if you really value an old customer and show me how. Like a good neighbour, always be helpful. Use your money and power and access and knowledge to that end. Your consumers are tired of pure messaging. Extend your hand. Use technology, use an-always-connected-word to help people.


Mahindra helps find, and make available at reasonable prices, great off-road drives to its customers.

Helping with often mean partnering with, or at least providing information about, other brands and services that your customer could benefit from. This brings no business benefit to you and bigger brands have an unsaid “no mention of other brands policy” but its a huge win for your customers, and they’ll thank you, and ‘owe you’ for it. Why can e-commerce stores not provide information about all service centres, e-waste management organizations and even a few good places where you could sell old stuff? Why can an airline booking engine or an OTA not let you know about transport options to the airport, or even places you could pick up a snack on the way to the airport (airline food is bad AND pricey!) or a book for the trip? We’re NOT talking about affiliate networks, just good ol’ being nice to your customers!

Tell a story. Share others’ stories

Neighbourhoods are all about stories. Slice of life stories, stories of little successes and failures, gossip and more. They are never just about messages.

Brands today must understand and appreciate their core stories. Not just their core idea reduced to a one big idea on a powerpoint slide. But their colourful, textured and in effect more interesting story.

Messaging worked extremely well in a one way communication world. A job well done.
But in an always-on, connected world, people already know your message. Now they want your story! If you don’t have one, better invent one. Or you stand the risk of being tuned out. Consumers today have very sophisticated filtering mechanisms. Indulge them. Enthrall them. Engage them. Or ignore them at your own peril.

In our mohallas, it wasn’t always the richest or the tallest neighbours that got talked about . The ones who got talked  about the most were usually the very interesting people.

All brands now need to be interesting . Don’t ignore your warts, wrinkles – they are often the interesting parts of you. Sanitised beauty was for a mass media world. It worked well for a long long time. It perhaps doesn’t now.

Have a story. Practice being a storyteller. We have an oral story-telling past . It can’t be that difficult! Once people like your story and identify with the brand, they’re not only likely to be happy customers, but the best brand ambassadors and marketing folks you’ve ever had. Just remember to be genuine.

The best neighbourhoods worked on collective wisdom and shared experiences. And this has been our journey. Like good neighbours – Comment. Critique. Converse.

The future looks bright, different and neighbourly for brands – big and small 🙂


With over 16 years of advertising strategy, branding and digital planning experience, across JWT, Ogilvy, Leo Burbett, Digitas, Manish Sinha is now co-founder at travel start-up – Oravel.com & curates neighbouhood brands in Gurgaon – Cinnamon Stays – a homestay and Tikdam – a quirky creative studio. (Some inputs from Sameer Shisodia.)

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