Can Marketers Make Festivals Bigger?

Between Ayudha Puja when instruments are worshipped (and take a holiday) and the 10-day Dussehra/Durga Puja/Navratri celebrations followed in quick order by Diwali, mails and even spam have dropped to an all-time low.

But have marketers done enough to make these festivals successful? Yes, e-Commerce majors have raked in the moolah this year, and shopping does spike around them. But do we have the equivalent of Christmas, which can account for 25% of the sales in categories such as toys and certain foods? I ask this question wearing my marketing hat, and not that of a sensible economist or protector of culture, or even responsible parent.

Durga Puja in Kolkata/Calcutta is a phenomenal affair. Each Puja Pandal is an art form, and each has a theme – eco-friendly, jute, recycled cardboard and so on. There are prizes for the best pandal and points for matters such as cleanliness, provision of toilets, parking etc so these are among the best run festivals in India now. It wasn’t always so – they used to be a mess of pollution, stolen power and shoddy finishing, but corporate sponsors and the competitions have completely cleaned that up. I mentioned corporate sponsors – yes, every pandal is graced by products vying to sell to this target audience.

And that brings me to the question of why isn’t Kolkata Durga Puja marketed as a “destination festival”? Special trains, paying guest accommodation, the works? Or why cannot Durga Puja be miniaturized so that the Bengali away from home gets closer to the real thing? Wherever there are Americans you will find a fairly authentic Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas party.

I take Durga Puja as a reference, but obviously Navratri, Ganesh Puja and Diwali are also great opportunities for well, marketing. And the various regional new years, Vijaya Dasami, Lakshmi Puja and so on.

We were in Sydney, Australia a few years ago over Christmas. Entire streets had special light displays in their gardens, malls are decorated for months beforehand and all kinds of special foods are sold in cafes. It culminates in the New Year fireworks – an experience in itself. Not one city in India markets a festival in this fashion. I saw ads in airline magazines for Diwali in Varanasi and Mysore Dasara but off-take has not been great.

In recent years, a highly ‘marketed’ festival has been Akshaya Tritiya, the auspicious day to buy gold. I will give credit to ICICI (and other banks) for taking a festival that was niche/limited to certain communities and driving a nation-wide gold-buying frenzy. I’d never heard of this festival before the ads started coming out, but one year succumbed to buying an (overpriced) gold coin. This year Karva Chauth has started coming into the limelight – a combination of patriarchy, sisterhood and consumerism driving consumption.

Now, it sounds,rather evil if we “package” festivals to just sell more of the same stuff, and rather frivolous if all we achieve is to postpone purchases such as cars to the festival season, but what about creating whole new categories? Which enhance our experience of these occasions, and create happy memories?

Here are some examples:

Seasonal decorations – why use the same lights and decor for all festivals. I think it’s a terrible loss of opportunity that we’re using Chinese lanterns – I mean the style of lantern, not country of origin – to light up Diwali.

Ethnic festive packaged food – a boon for cottage industries, and self-help groups. Come Christmas and shops in India are flooded with fruit cakes and puddings. Wouldn’t it be great if there were special Diwali ladoos or Ganesh Chaturthi modaks or even cookies that only went on sale during these festivals? Each region used to have some culinary traditions centered around festivals – I think there is a lot of commercial opportunity here. Personally, I haven’t tasted a good kozhukattai stuffed with jaggery and steamed in a palmyra leaf in years. Sigh.

Destination tourism – (Check out the light display at the little town I grew up Kerala has done a great job of marketing its festivals, Mysore to some extent with Dasara, but not many others. And of course the real benefit is when we can make it state-wide and not just pack one city for one festival.

Special clothes – not just expensive stuff, but commemorative T-shirts, decorative pins, accessories, reusable gift bags. Surely the theme of good over evil has lots of creative potential. Halloween has made considerable headway into the Indian festival calendar. Perhaps we can at least incorporate our own demons into the costume repertoire?

Accessories. I’m sure all of us in corporate India were fortunate enough to receive at least one gift during Diwali. But I’m also reasonably sure that it came wrapped in regular gift paper. If there was special Diwali paper – and that seems like a pretty easy design – wouldn’t corporate gift buyers buy kilometers of it?

Books and programs on the true meaning of these festivals. Migration to metros and inter-marriage make these essential to retaining the essence of our culture, in the absence of the oral tradition of passing them on.

Special editions – phones, furniture, idols. Again, yes, crassly commercial. But if you’re going to do an ad saying “Dussehra Special” or “Diwali Offer”, surely you owe it to yourself to at least connect the product somehow to the festival.

Gone are the days when eating sweets was a luxury. When dry fruits were kept in a bottle on the top shelf and brought down only for sprinkling on festival desserts. Or when you got new clothes only for festivals and your birthday. Or when a doll was a cherished possession to last a lifetime (mine have celebrated their 40th birthday!) As disposable incomes rise and consumption increases across most segments, we have to move away from just selling the same stuff through the year to making it special and time bound to recreate the anticipation.

I did mention up front that this was written purely from a marketing perspective. And certainly I am not suggesting we commercialize festivals to the extent that we forget the meaning behind the celebration. But a little standardization and marketing can help sustain these into the age of mass migrations and nuclear families. Help us create a common, shared, culture – and yet prevent homogenization. And in the process, ensure a new generation of festival memories, that are different, yet magical.

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