Insight, or the lack of it?

Abstract: The 26 May 2006 Bangalore edition of The Times of India carried an article titled ‘Karnataka’s condom bubble has burst’. It was not about family planning. It told the story of how trying to sell condoms through ration shops failed as an AIDS prevention measure besides leading to unexpected consequences.

Published in Business Gyan, India

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The 26 May 2006 Bangalore edition of The Times of India carried an article titled ‘Karnataka’s condom bubble has burst’. It was not about family planning. It told the story of how trying to sell condoms through ration shops failed as an AIDS prevention measure besides leading to unexpected consequences.

The Karnataka State Aids Prevention Society (KSAPS) figured social marketing of condoms through ration shops was an excellent idea. Condoms would be available in remote corners of the State. Ration shop owners would be able to communicate the message of safe sex to their customers while selling them condoms. It would go a long way, they concluded, to arrest if not reduce the incidence of AIDS.

In early 2005, the State Government mandated that ration shops in fourteen districts must sell condoms along with essential commodities like rice, wheat, kerosene, etc. A one-day orientation for shop owners and the promise of ten paise margin per condom kicked off the programme. Shop owners were reluctant. But under pressure from officers nearly 1.4 million condoms were ‘sold’ in ten months. That is what KSAPS claimed.

What happened was different. Some shopkeepers paid and picked up the stock but failed to sell. Others paid but didn’t lift the goods. Still others paid no heed. Many of those who tried to sell in villages faced the wrath of customers. In one case a man accused the shop owner of trying to seduce his wife when he found condoms in his wife’s shopping bag. A battle broke out in a village when the retailer insisted on giving four condoms to a widow in lieu of change. Perhaps only a fraction of the million plus condoms that were ‘sold’ reached consumers. Why did the programme fail? Was it hard to foresee that it might?

Ease of availability of a product creates interest, even preference. It spurs demand when customers respond by buying. It is well known that sex related subjects are taboo in small towns and villages of India. Many men even married folk, purchase condoms surreptitiously. And women almost never do. A significant number, if not the majority, of people who buy monthly rations in these towns are women. Was it a good idea to have men (shopkeepers) persuade them to buy condoms? In small towns and villages where buyers and ration shop owners are more than nodding acquaintances, was it reasonable to expect many customers would be shy of buying them from someone they knew.

How could such a hare-brained idea work? Why didn’t the Babus factor these well-known characteristics of their compatriots in their ‘brilliant’ programme? Such incidents are all too common in boardrooms. A very large parabanking company concluded their itinerant collectors should be able to sell consumer products to customers. Why couldn’t they sell clothes, toiletries and imitation jewellery to the millions of people they were collecting money from? These customers were buying the very same items in local markets and village haats, weren’t they? Why wouldn’t they buy from someone they trusted enough to deposit their money with? Several years later and after at least a couple of hundred crores (a crore is 10 million) were lost, the project was abandoned.

The top management of this company failed to account for how people buy consumer products. For items like clothing and jewellery they like to select from a range, from a variety – of quality, aesthetics, functionality and price. Yes, they usually buy only preferred brands of toiletry products, but they are the ones where past experience has been positive. Buying from the fund collector would offer none of these benefits. They would have to buy the one brand on offer.

The reasons why the company’s project failed would appear to be different from the experience of KSAPS in selling condoms through ration shops. A deeper look would reveal both failed for similar reasons. They were unable to integrate qualitative knowledge and insight of their customers in their strategies.

Perhaps the more fundamental question is why do managers, and administrators, forget about the preferences and proclivities of the very people they are paid to serve? It is hard to understand when the signs are obvious and compelling enough to have set off alarms. Human foibles are perhaps one explanation. We are so caught up in our own worlds, in chasing our goals and dreams that we fall in love with our ideas. We end up committing ourselves to a course and overlook pitfalls that condemn us to failure. This is the charitable view.

Writing on strategic planning for Harvard Business Review, Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management, McGill University had a more telling comment, “Most significant, it (strategic planning) has told us something about how we think as human beings, and that we sometimes stop thinking.”