What my 4-year-old son taught me about Marketing to the BoP

Emile Schmitz
By on February 12, 2015

Last December I had the privilege to travel with my wife and two young sons (1 and 4 years old) to Vietnam and Cambodia. I have spent significant time in low-income markets, but never visited these with my sons. Although my job title says ‘Marketing expert’, I noticed that my sons taught me a lot more than most of the books I’ve been reading lately.

It was a fantastic experience and, besides spending time in swimming pools, we spent a lot of time in rural villages, visiting local markets, using local transport and interacting with the local villagers. My sons emphasized two key elements that are essential when you want to market your products to the BoP:

1. Trust – children build trust

As my favorite marketing guru Seth Godin already emphasized, trust is the most important ingredient when marketing to the BoP. Generally when I visit rural BoP communities it will take significant time to truly connect with the local people and create an atmosphere of openness and trust. This time, however, my two sons instantly created a level of openness, interest and trust with the local villagers. Of course, blond curly hairs and blue eyes trigger interest, but also the innocence that children radiate caused an instant connection with local people. Additionally, the simple fact that children are universal and parents everywhere recognize children’s behavior created an instant feeling of equality and connection.

Instead of local people expecting hand-outs (which happened in some areas before), we encountered the opposite: my children were overloaded with free food, toys and hugs. Most importantly people started sharing stories about their own children and their lives in general.

2. Curiosity – children keep on asking

My four year old son is an expert in asking: Why? It becomes annoying after some time, but it’s the best thing you can do when you want to uncover insights. His never-ending curiosity made me think twice about local market dynamics. Below some questions that he raised during our travels:

  • “Why does everyone sell the same biscuits?” (because they most likely all get supplied by the same, powerful wholesaler providing entry barriers for new cookies to enter the market.)
  • “Why do we take this local driver and not that one?” (not because he’s cheapest or has the best motorbike – rational arguments- , but because he seemed nice and smiled at us – emotional arguments )
  • “Why do these shops only sell toothpaste, coca cola and shampoo” (because they’re fast-rotating, high-margin and don’t go bad, so they don’t pose a risk to the retailer)
  • “Why do they have these big red signs everywhere?” (because they are sponsored by one of the big beer brands that cleverly promote their beer in a vibrant market and support the restaurants/bars in their marketing)
  • “Why do they eat frogs?” (I couldn’t explain this one)

So what did this trip teach me about understanding people at the BoP?

First of all, it taught me that people anywhere, rich or poor, European, African or Asian, are often driven by similar values. When trying to understand people at the BoP, we often try to look for surprising behaviors that are different from our own. This is a good practice, but I would certainly also recommend to look for similarities when engaging with the BoP. Sharing your own experience and listing to theirs can greatly facilitate a deeper connection. In my case this similarity was ‘children’, but it can be other things as well (e.g. sports, food).

Secondly, when trying to understand BoP markets try to be as curious as possible. Up to the point that it can become annoying. By keeping on asking questions, like my son does, you challenge your own stereotypes and perceptions. And it might just bring that winning insight to the surface that will make your product introduction a big success.

Emile Schmitz is a marketing expert working for BoP Innovation Center.