Rebranding Bihar – An Approach for a Bottom of the Pyramid Market

Rebranding Bihar – An Approach for a Bottom of the Pyramid Market

As Shahrukh Khan said (in the Bollywood movie ‘My Name Is Khan’ which dealt with stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists) my name is Khan and I am not a terrorist, I have a confession to make, I am a Bihari and I am proud to be one.

Over a period of time, Bihar as a state has been characterized by several kinds of jokes and by several kinds of (negative) stories. To the extent that when I first got the invite for this project, it said ‘unplugging Bihar’ and I sort of rejected it, thinking that it must be one of those chain mails on Bihar jokes.

Being a Bihari myself, my story today is going to be partly anecdotal. But before I talk about a new Bihar, I have to talk about what it means to be a Bihari. All through my childhood, my uncles and my parents told me one thing “It doesn’t matter which brand of shoes you wear, what matters is that it should be polished with Cherry Blossom”. The idea was – no matter how talented you are, no matter how intelligent you are, no matter how much education you get in Bihar, you have to go to Delhi or Mumbai (the larger metros) to get polished so that you can clear an IAS examination (the exam to become a civil servant in India) or get entrance into an IIT (the most reputed engineering institute in India) or clear the medical school entrance tests.

So you listened to your uncles and parents and you landed up in Delhi University. And you realized that the students from Bihar were notoriously popular in Delhi University. There was a popular song dedicated to them, which I don’t remember fully but it ended with a line, which said, “While trying to clear the civil services exams, we have failed in life”.  It was kind of a joke on the obsession of the state with government jobs and how the students from Bihar spent their life attempting to qualify for these jobs.

Over a period of time, through about three-four decades, what has been instilled in Biharis is this sense of personal redemption. They have been told that there is very little you can do about your environment, but you can sure as hell escape this environment, get out of Bihar, get to Delhi or Mumbai or the United States of America and make a career, and a life for yourself.

When I went out of Bihar and met my Bihari brethren in Delhi, Mumbai and America and asked them, where are you from, they would claim they are from Delhi or Mumbai – anywhere but from Bihar. The issue was that Bihari had become an identity that no one wanted to own.

Historically, Bihar was seen as a land of lawlessness. I remember, when I returned home from the hostel (boarding school), my friends from other states would ask – “When you get down at the Patna (capital of Bihar) railway station, do you see people moving around with guns?” That indeed was the perception of Bihar as a state. A state which had brilliant individuals yet was a backward community, a state which was the largest supplier of unskilled labour, a state which was resource rich but economically poor. Being a Bihari had become an embarrassing identity.

That was then, but the sate is definitely coming out of its shadows, the fact that we have gathered here to discuss how Bihar is progressing and emerging is reflective of this resurgence.

My first personal experience of this change was in the year, 2009. This is my village in Bihar, it’s called Mamrejpur, it’s about two hours drive from Patna (the capital city of Bihar) in a district called Vaishali (the birth place of lord Mahavir).


I don’t now if you can spot some aberration in that picture of village huts and some dilapidated brick houses. But this is what I saw in 2009 in my village, which had no power, no electricity – suddenly there were ten solar powered lamps that had come up. This to my mind was the first symbol of the state churning, the state changing itself. When I visited Patna, I heard stories of law and order being sorted out, a sharp decrease in the incidents of lawlessness, construction of roads and state highways was in progress, real estate prices were going up and factories were being set up. It was clear that the state with a hundred million in population was turning around.

As I went further, I saw how aspiration was taking shape in Bihar. This is a picture from rural Bihar of a shop called ‘Beauty Mobile Downloading’.

It’s a small shack that traditionally sells paan (beetle leaves used as a mouth freshener in India) and beedi (Indian cigarette, filled with tobacco flakes and wrapped in a leaf). But these shops now offer an additional service – they can load your mobile phone with entertainment content and other value added services that you can’t otherwise download because you don’t have access to a computer in those parts.

The numbers underline this rise in aspirations. Look at any number, say the number of people owning mobile phones, the fact that Mercedes has set up shop in Bihar, the number of brands such as Lee and Puma which have set-up shops here – they all tell the same story – that the change is palpable. The signs of rising consumerism are more than visible even in the remotest parts of Bihar.

There are changes in people’s tastes as well. I visit China quite often and I haven’t seen as much Chow Mein being sold in China as I have seen on the roadside in Bihar. What you see here is a roadside shop peddling Chow Mein in rural Bihar – ‘Khushboo Deewana Chow Mein Shop’.


There is an interesting revelation here. We typically feel that the bottom of the pyramid strategy needs us to strip down products and services to a certain cost. And we strip it so much that it is no more aspirational for the emerging markets. But the bottom of the pyramid also wants to be top in status. Their dreams and desires are similar, if not bigger because it’s the same television that we are watching today that gets beamed to their houses too.

Yet another symbol of the state coming out of its own shadows is that words from the Bihari language, which were till now subject of jokes, now have a place of pride in a Bihari dictionary on a facebook page. This certainly is a symbol of a state finding confidence in itself, a state celebrating what it means to be a Bihari.


There are several stories of individual pursuits powering this resurgence. This gentleman called Ramprasad is a catering contractor who works across multiple villages in Bihar.


Ramprasad started out as a child labor. He told me that the first time he saw chicken was at the age of twenty-five when he bagged a contract to prepare a chicken dish for a wedding party. He traveled all the way to Patna to figure out how to cook a chicken dish. Today, he runs a full-fledged catering business across villages in Bihar. He says he can easily afford a car but doesn’t buy one because he likes to walk, he says it keeps him healthy. Ramprasad has two daughters and a son; they are studying for their bachelors. The son aspires to study engineering at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology.

If all these anecdotal stories of what’s changing in Bihar are true then the state is definitely making headlines, not just in Indian newspapers but also in International newspapers. But more than the newspaper headlines, there are blogs on Bihar today that associate words such as ‘progressive’ with Bihar, which wasn’t the case earlier. There’s certainly a distance that the state seems to have covered from where it was, till about a few years back.

But it’s not all celebration about Bihar. I think it’s just the beginning. It’s certainly a big flip for a state, which pretty much lived in darkness for about good six decades. But it’s too early for us to begin to celebrate.  The truth is that Bihar’s absolute per-capita income is still one-third the national average. The population density is on a rise and is growing at a rate much higher than the national rate.

While we do not want to take away from the big flip, from the big start which has been made, but it’s too early to begin to celebrate. I think we need to be aware of the enormity of this moment – that if we let go of this moment, it may not come back again for Bihar.

What has started in Bihar is a fantastic support by the government that has created a state of law and order – an absolute must for any development to take place.

However, there are two other critical elements of any revolution that still need to happen for Bihar. Firstly, the people of Bihar need to get up and want to change their own destiny. The larger idea of being a ‘Bihari’ needs to change. No revolution like this will ever be complete unless people become a part of it. The second factor is the role of brands and businesses in catalyzing and provoking the revolution. Till now, it’s only the first criterion – that of the government’s action – which has been met. We still need the two other legs of people and business participation to kick in.

At this stage, I want to share an international case study. Its not too old, actually it was a winner at the Cannes Lions festival of creativity, the previous year.

This is a case study about how Levis as a brand has partnered Braddock, a city in the United States of America to rebuild the city. Braddock was a steel center and about twenty thousand people used to live in that city. The steel plant went down and the city almost broke down. With the help of the city Mayor and the brand, the entire city is being rebuilt. It’s a fascinating story and a big learning for businesses, brands and marketing about how businesses and people can come together to create such revolutions.

So that’s really the point, while a lot of development has happened, what is required is the participation by people in a big way, what’s required is a participation by businesses and brands in a big way.

Therefore, the big task for Bihar is to awaken its people’s potential. It’s a state that has a lot talent but all of it has gone out. It’s a birthplace of brilliant individuals, who have taken personal parachutes of IITs and IIMs (the top engineering and management institutes of India) and gone out of the state. They haven’t added back to the community in a way that they perhaps should have. We need to bring the talent back to the state.

The syndrome of blaming the system – that the system is not right, that someone will come and change my plight and I will sit and wait for the system to correct itself – needs to change.

While NREGA (the government’s scheme that guarantees 100 days of wage employment) is a highly successful initiative of the government, in some sense it makes people reliant on the government. Why wait for someone else to come and change your plight, what’s your own contribution to changing your plight? The low social respect for entrepreneurship needs to be reevaluated as well. Everyone is gunning for a government job, even in today’s times. There’s a limit to which the government can generate jobs. People need to find ways to help themselves, not just wait for the government.

Unless the community comes back, unless entrepreneurship comes back, unless intellectuals who have fled the state begin to add back, the state is not going to realize its potential.

What this really means is that we need to re-brand the feeling of belonging to Bihar – the idea of being a ‘Bihari’. We need to change what it means to belong to this state. We need to change the meaning system of being a ‘Bihari’ which got characterized by helplessness and escapism – that the only way to build a career or earn a livelihood is by getting away from the state. This sense of being downtrodden needs to be flipped. Bihar needs to begin to stand for enterprise, determination and a place that’s upcoming.

Rebranding Bihar

From To
Helplessness Enterprise
Escapism Determination
Downtrodden Upcoming

The approach for brands and businesses needs to be that of participation. It’s not about saying – hey there’s a huge market out there, lets open shops, lets skim the market and get out. Bihar needs partnerships. It needs brands to go there, build businesses and provoke the growth story. We need to be a part of people’s growth story rather than see it as a mere opportunity to sell our wares.

I am making a case for people-brands-government partnership to build the real opportunity called Bihar.

In conclusion, there a few big points I want to underline. Yes, there’s a definite upswing in Bihar but it’s perhaps too soon to celebrate. The state and its people are changing in their tastes, desires and the size of ambition. But the need is for marketers to partner and provoke the growth story rather than merely leverage it. The need is to covert this into a people’s revolution. Only then can this growth story be sustainable and self-fulfilling. It means changing the meaning system of being a ‘Bihari’. So that people can wear it as a badge, with pride.

I want to leave behind the thought that there’s a proverbial golden hen waiting. But we need to nurture her and be patient about it, not think of killing her for the dinner tonight. Thank you.

A note on the conference

The emerging markets – namely the rural India, are powering the next phase of growth in India. The ‘Real India Conclave’ is an attempt by Jagran (a leading Hindi language newspaper in India) and exchange4media (a media industry portal) to bring to the forefront the huge opportunities that are waiting to be tapped in the emerging states of India. The first edition focused on the state of Bihar. This speech was delivered at the first Real India Conclave. It attempts to outline how the state of Bihar – a bottom of the pyramid market – can redeem itself and realize its full potential.

About Bihar

Bihar is the 12th largest state in India in terms of geographical size and the third largest by population. More than 85% of Biharis live in villages. For many years, Bihar has lagged behind other Indian states in social and economic development. However, Bihar has had a glorious history. Ancient Bihar, known as Magadha, was the center of power, learning, and culture in India for 1000 years. India’s first empire, the Maurya Empire as well as Buddhism arose from the region that now makes modern Bihar.

In the past few years Bihar has seen resurgence, largely on the back of improved governance. In the period 2011–2012, Bihar was the country’s fastest growing state in economic terms, with a growth of 13.1% for the year 2011–12. This followed a growth rate of 14.8% in the previous year.

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