How to develop a market entry strategy for India

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Why consider developing a market entry strategy for India?

It’s very simple: India is a huge market. In population terms, it’s now on a par with China at around 1.3 billion people – and it’s likely to overtake its northern neighbor this decade. India is still a young country – 44% of its population is under 25 years old – and is seeing rapid growth in both its wealth and economic make-up, quickly becoming a global hub for technology and manufacturing.

It’s also seen massive urbanization over the past 50 years, with six megacities in excess of 10 million inhabitants: New Delhi (31.2m), Mumbai (21m), Kolkata (15m), Bangalore (12.8m), Chennai (11.2m) and Hyderabad (10.3m). Like China, the latter years of the 20th century saw a rapid expansion in the middle class as the impact of globalization opened international opportunities. The number of households with a disposable income of more than $10,000 a year leapt from around 2.5 million in 1990 to nearly 50 million in 2015.

India’s links with the rest of the world have not always been easy. Their historic relationship with the UK, for example, created lasting cultural ties, but is scarred by colonialism, too. Although India’s recent history as a global powerhouse has been tense at times, businesses from all over the world – and especially anglophone nations and Asian neighbors – are now deeply enmeshed in its economy.

Brands interested in getting into the Indian market will find a strong legal system, democratic structures, a broadly market economy (although with caveats – more on that below) and an entrepreneurial and aspirational customer base with wide interests and diverse patterns of consumption.

One problem for overseas brands coming into the Indian market is that many decision-makers outside the country retain a very mythologized view of India. It’s still perceived by some, for example, as defined by widespread poverty and fixed traditions. While there is poverty – as there is in every country – a rapidly growing middle class and highly advanced tech infrastructure tell a far more nuanced story.

Nevertheless, brands entering India must be ready for a land of diversity and contradictions. This is a nation with a successful space program; but faces complex challenges resulting from inequalities. It has a thriving cultural industry, and produces (and exports) some of the world’s best medical professionals; yet is in the third quartile for life expectancy.

So it’s no surprise that businesses both large and small rely on local expertise to ensure they can navigate the highly diverse and nuanced byways, trends, localities, attitudes and expectations that make up ‘India’. And it’s a reminder that proper research of this market – or, perhaps, these markets – is an essential stage for successful market entry.

Understanding the challenges – the barriers to market entry in India

Before brands even get to researching the nuances of the different markets in India – and which of them might turn out to be fertile ground in terms of consumer or B2B attitudes and behaviors – they need to some investigate the practical issues confronting companies entering the market.

At the highest level, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has looked to extend the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, ‘make in India’ or ‘self-reliant India’, policy to accelerate the country’s economic development. This is built on five pillars, which offer some guidance for brands looking to enter India on the country’s political and economic priorities:

  1. Economy – designed to deliver significant growth, not incremental gains.
  2. World-class infrastructure – to facilitate additional growth.
  3. Technology focus – where India’s vibrant tech sector offers strong foundations.
  4. Vibrant demography – harnessing the energy of diversity for self-reliance.
  5. Demand – a huge and growing population can massively fuel domestic economic growth with the right supply chain capabilities in place.

It also means restricting imports of many goods that might be manufactured in-country. Modi talks about creating a ‘new paradigm’ for job-creation and entrepreneurialism. “The mindset of free India should be ‘vocal for local’,” he said in August 2020. “We should appreciate our local products, if we don’t do this then our products will not get the opportunity to do better and will not get encouraged.”

In practical terms, that’s meant high-profile bans being phased in on imported armaments, for example (although not to universal acclaim). During 2020, the country’s three Covid stimulus programs were labelled ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ packages; the development of Covid vaccines was cited by the Prime Minister as a success for the project; and India is planning a domestically equipped and run 5G network. There’s also been a push on loyalty to local brands in many consumer categories – right down to cooking oils.

Looking more broadly, India ranked 63rd in the World Bank’s latest Ease of Doing Business rankings, scoring well for investor protections, getting credit and access to utilities; but very poorly on enforcement of contracts, registering property and starting a business.

The rules for trade are also complex. Even after the departure of Donald Trump and his hostile trade policies, India maintains considerable tariff and non-tariff barriers to US trade. And only China has more entries than India in the UK government’s lists of trade barriers for businesses looking to operate abroad. True, some are minor – such as adding labels to food and drink products; others are in very niche sectors, such as the export of luxury yachts.

But non-Indian professional services firms – legal, accounting, architectural – face considerable barriers to entry. And finished cars (including second-hand vehicles) face a basic customs duty of 125% – which can be augmented with additional levies taking total duty in India as high as 260%. There are even moves to adjust duties on car components and kits to deepen the Indian manufacturing base beyond in-country vehicle assembly.

Both national and state-level controls and tariffs need to be evaluated, and it will pay dividends to take advice on specific sectors, categories and regional variations from both home-country trade advisory teams and local Indian experts on the ground. India is not, therefore, a place to skimp on market research.

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Opportunities still abound

But don’t think this means the door is slammed shut. “It’s not going back to socialist India – we want imports to come in,” said Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, speaking at The Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excellence in 2021. She says the government has been selective in choosing sectors to face rising tariffs. And the policy is far from universal (or universally popular), despite the nationalist rhetoric. So change is not inconceivable.

Trade does remain vigorous. India was the 12th largest export destination for US goods in 2018 (worth $59bn, including services), and the EU exports around €33bn worth of goods and services to the subcontinent each year. And EU-India free trade talks restarted in 2021 after an eight-year hiatus. One recent blip has been Chinese exports to India, which fell 11% in 2020 – albeit to a still massive to $66.7bn. (Note that China remains a major geopolitical rival to India, which shapes attitudes to the trading relationship.)

The recent Britain Meets India report, prepared by Grant Thornton, highlights the scale of inward investment into India (between 2000 and 2020 an estimated $29.5bn of UK capital was invested in India – and that’s just 6% of global investment flows into the country). Trade between the two countries was worth $26.7bn in 2020 alone – even with the effects of the Covid pandemic – with UK exports amounting to around £8bn.

The presence of major global companies such as Apple – especially as an investor in local manufacturing capacity – shows there’s deep interest in working alongside both state agencies and domestic business partners to ensure access to this massive market despite import controls.

Netflix is another example. Despite some initial challenges regarding insufficient Indian content and the possibility of fresh regulation, it’s slated to release 40 local productions to steal a march on streaming rivals, building on its existing five million subscribers. (Although Amazon Prime’s own $2bn investment in India is making Netflix’s progress more challenging.)
So it’s no surprise that many countries are eyeing up India as a potential trade partner. In post-Brexit Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to “more than double trade with India to £50bn by 2030”, according to texts of a (Covid-suspended) trade speech the he planned to give in India.

View of Mumbai

Developing a market entry strategy for India: should you go deep or wide?

Standing up the commercial rationale and the practical issues around doing business in the country is a vital first step for brands wanting to enter the Indian market. But the top-level data – the rules and economics– is only half the story. Scale, diversity and local nuance are also important factors, and these demand more careful evaluation.

At the outset of any market entry project, organizations will need to make a series of choices that demand much deeper research into their specific sector, the markets they want to address, and the different audiences they will encounter. In other words, what’s your aim, where will you focus your efforts, what products and services might succeed – and how might you translate this into a sustainable market position?

In a market as diverse as India, that idea of ‘focus’ is central to a successful project. Geographically and culturally vast, the attitude to many of life’s fundamentals differ widely between regions. Of course, there’s language to consider (more on this below). But behaviors and preferences also differ across geographical areas. For instance, in the eastern and southern regions, rice is the staple carbohydrate and hardly anyone uses fresh milk; in the north and west, people eat breads and powdered milk is frowned upon.

That’s just a couple of examples of the kind of consumption gulf that can exist – before we even get to the differences between urban and rural consumers, or cater to varied cultural touchstones.

A misstep many brands make when considering market entry is thinking about how to capture the Indian market as a whole, then. It can be much more valuable to consider which slices of the pie you might be able to go after – the better to tailor your proposition, branding, logistics and competitive position.

Market research in the field: be clear on your objectives when it comes to market entry in India

This idea of ‘focus’ is particularly important when it comes to the market research methodologies you’ll need to inform your market entry strategy.

Imagine a global brand looking to understand its status or opportunities in lots of different markets. It decides to survey 200 consumers in a couple of dozen countries. In Germany – no slouch with over 80 million people, and some marked regional variations of its own – such a study might yield usable national results. But in India, just the top six megacities – each with a very particular identity – comprise over 100 million consumers. Those 200 interviews are only going to scratch the surface of the big cities, let alone the emerging conurbations and rural population.

There are two possible solutions. First, massively increase the sample for India to reflect its scale. Or second, as we mentioned earlier, focus in on higher-probability markets assessed in partnership with local research teams. It’s not simply an either/or choice, of course. But it highlights the need to make some very clear and well-informed decisions right at the outset of any market entry project.

Find the right partner: local research for local people

Because of the diverse nature of India, the key to a great research partner in India is coverage. That starts with teams based in the country whose ability to advise on high probability areas for focus will be much more acute than agencies based outside India.

Then it’s a question of being able to conduct research effectively to flesh out the objectives of that initial focus. The project leadership will need to understand the different regions – and in many cases, have a clear idea about the unique profile of the 28 states and eight union territories that make up administrative India (with all the conditions they impose).

With 415 living languages (22 of them ‘officially recognized’ for the purposes of administration) and countless local cultural nuances, research teams with local sensitivities are understandably valuable. (We joke that every 5km in India the language changes – but watch out, because every 2km there’s a new dialect…) Our teams speak a broad range of languages enabling us to conduct market research across the length and breadth of India.

Harness technology – India’s secret sauce

India is a global leader in technology, boasting one of the largest and best-trained IT workforces in the world. This is no flash in the pan: Indians, particularly in the middle classes, but increasingly across society, are heavy users of connected technologies and mobile devices. It’s a world leader in low-cost data plans, too, and smartphone adoption is widespread enough, even in many rural areas, to allow for the new generation of online research methodologies to make their mark, alongside more traditional face-to-face approaches.

When it comes to online research, to reach the urban middle classes, laptop-based methodologies should work well. It’s worth bearing in mind that good bandwidth can be spotty – which means limiting the use of video-intensive approaches – but surveys and even text-based communities can work really well. And with the level of smartphone penetration even outside the cities, there is even an opportunity to exploit app-based research or community platforms to build long-term engagement and insight.

Watch, too, for the roll out of India’s own 5G network. Like any country – especially one as vast as India – coverage will be limited at first. But as penetration grows, it should offer new opportunities for richer research projects.


Notable openings – target sectors for a market entry strategy for India

We’ve already noted that global brands in new categories are making a play for Indian consumers – such as Netflix and Amazon Prime in the streaming video space. So where else might brands research a successful move?

Premium brands

While ‘made in India’ is politically potent, for less price-sensitive consumers there remains an affection for overseas brands – particularly those with a reputation for quality and durability. Indian firms are catching up fast (its domestic chocolate brands see huge growth in premium products, for example), but the opportunity persists for now. As BCG noted in 2017, “Consumers in emerging cities… have high purchasing aspirations but are often constrained by product availability.”

Auto brands

While domestic makers Tata and Maruti Suzuki dominate (the former state car-maker now owned by the Japanese motor giant has about half of the market), tech and usage transitions create openings for overseas brands if they partner with local industry. India’s passenger vehicle market is something of a roller-coaster: a period of strong growth was halted in 2019 – unit sales fell 12.75% to 3 million – then further slowed by the pandemic. But the long-run pressure on enhanced mobility should present opportunities.

Fast moving consumer goods

Although this has been a target of the ‘vocal for local’ campaign, there are brands such as Unilever that have retained a dominant position in many categories. That suggests there is an option to leverage strong brand image to gain a firm foothold. In areas such as confectionary, for example, French/Belgian group Barry Callebaut sees huge growth opportunities. Kellogg’s initially struggled in India – it was overconfident with existing product and marketing formulas – but has carefully tailored its approach to succeed.

Youth brands

In more traditional rural areas, the division between young and old is less marked. But in bigger towns, fast reliable internet access and varied career opportunities mean young Indians are developing a more global outlook and in many cases, that creates fertile ground for international and ‘cool’ brands. With a median age of just 28 (across Asia as a whole it’s 32) and the ‘millennials’ ascent into higher income brackets, catering to youth in India has huge upside.

Top tips for success

It’s impossible in a market this large and diverse to offer up general principles that will hold true everywhere. But some of the research basics will serve brands well in India – and there are some tips for making market entry a success.

Let experts find you a product/market fit.

Desk research can take you so far, but local expertise will make the process of investigating high-probability markets much quicker and more effective. Kadence’s India team know where to find the populations that dovetail with your product values and attributes.

Adapt brand, marketing and packaging.

Try to get ahead of cultural biases with your presentation – from packaging (where hygiene and transport conditions are a factor for many Indian consumers, incidentally) to the language used. Guidance on these issues should drop out of your initial product/market fit conversations.

Target your fieldwork carefully.

If you’ve been clear on the product or service qualities and work with local experts who can identify more fertile ground, this ought to be easy. Fieldwork costs can mount up in India – and poorly targeted surveys are both money and time wasted so think carefully about the people you want to reach and how best to achieve this

Stay relevant.

India is a fast-evolving nation and its consumers’ tastes are changing too. Customers will reward brands that stay in touch with them – either through programs such as loyalty schemes or through longitudinal research projects. These same methods are ideal for spotting emerging local and international rivals, as well as shifting attitudes towards overseas brands.

Above all, respect the fact that India is a single nation in many respects, by a diverse collection of people in others. With 1.3 billion people to satisfy, even the kind of precise targeting we recommend for overseas brands can open up vast potential markets. India is not for the faint-hearted. But the upside is enormous.

Developing a market entry strategy for India?

To find out more about how we can support your organization to break into a new market, learn more about our market entry services or get in touch to discuss a potential project. Alternatively, you can consult our market entry resources – from our ultimate guide to market entry to our tips for breaking into China.