3 must-know growth tenets from the prepaid success

Kaamta Driver. Kaamta New. Kaamta driver 20. Kaamta Jio. Kaamta is my parents’ driver. Last Sunday, he was there at the airport to receive me. Actually, he has been there every time I have gone back home in the last twenty years. New, jio, driver 20 are the names of his phone numbers saved in my contacts. He has a knack of getting a new number every time I feel I have cracked which one works. It is a routine between us, he gives me a new number, then I ask him – ‘aur, pehle wala?’ (and, the earlier one?) and he has an answer on the lines of ‘Hai, abhi bhai le gaya hai’ or ‘abhi discharge hai.’ (It is there but my brother has taken it or it is discharged). So you can’t delete the old number and you save the new one with a new code name hoping you have cracked it. The last one I saved was driver20, in 2020. It didn’t work. It seems nothing related to 2020 works. 

I had to call my mother to get his number for the pick up. Waiting for the pick up at the airport, I decided I am not going to save his latest number. What is the point, eventually I have to dial my mother to reach him. 

Kaamta is not the only one. There are many who change their phone numbers frequently. The reason could be many. But the most common factor is that these are prepaid numbers. So when I heard Nandan Nilekani in conversation with Haresh Chawla on the topic of All things digital, what stood out for me was Nilekani’s comment on prepaid phone strategy. His comment took me to the success story of prepaid, almost like that of sachet marketing in fmcg, when fmcg brands made inroads in rural markets through packaging of products in small, affordable, sachet form. 

Following is what Founding Fuel has published as an excerpt from the talk of Nandan Nilekani: 

The India opportunity in the next decade, where India will go from a “prepaid” economy to a “postpaid” economy. This will drive a huge cycle of consumption and growth, because credit will boost the system. (The prepaid model was built by the mobile companies in pre-Aadhaar times, when they couldn’t identify the user. It enabled them to reach every corner of the country. As people get to digital payments, build credit histories, they will now be ready for credit.)

Nandan Nilekani talked about the state of Indian economy and opportunities. He brought up the example of prepaid mobile reach in the country and talked about prepaid to illustrate democratisation of credit lending as an idea to drive the growth. Prepaid in the mobile segment is 95% of the market share. 95% is a staggering figure for one particular service in its space to rule the market. Imagine a train commute pass where you have two options – one where you get to use the pass for a month with unlimited rides, like in Chennai metro, and the second one like any prepaid mobile service, where you buy travel points and commute and the second one is so lucrative, like the prepaid mobile service, that it takes a bigger chunk of the two offerings. Similarly, if one looks at other services like education, credit lending, mutual fund investments, and the different offerings in the respective bouquet, there is no particular offer that outshines the rest to the same extent as prepaid mobile. Prepaid mobile is not only about the 95% share that it occupies as the share of services, it is also the only unique service that has reached the nook and corner of the country. And, mostly through offline mode initially. It has not only reached, it continues to be the bedrock of growth in the country. 

In Habits for Thinking, we bring focus on mental models. Mental models are how we understand things. It is our reference point, our understanding arranged in chunks in our mind. Mental models are our thinking tools, they help us form a web of frameworks which helps in decision making and problem solving. We learn mentals models from different fields like economy, from science for example read about entropy here, from sports, from business etc. In today’s Habits for Thinking, here is a mental model inspired by the prepaid mobile market, as a consumer strategy framework. The economy is moving towards a gig economy where a steady flow of income is changing to income in batches with some months to be good months and some to be slow-generating-income months. Understanding consumer behaviour behind the success of prepaid mobile adoption, is a lens to the evolution of current and future services. 

In this model, we look at three tenets that made the adoption of pre-paid mobile cards deep and wide.

The Tenet Of Convenience: 

Convenience is complex. It is not just about the convenience of shopping, but convenience is about the ease of decision making. Is the decision making convenient enough for one to make a purchase? What are the factors that impact decision making? First is the price. To make products affordable, FMCG companies introduced sachet as a packaging variant. Prepaid has gone to another level. They made many sizes of sachet available, meaning you can buy a small amount of mobile time too. Availability, the most visible convenience factor, is most talked about in the field of ecommerce. Let me bring your attention to the availability of prepaid cards ten-twelve years ago. PrePaid cards were not launched through e-commerce but the convenience was added through prepaid sale counters in every corner store in small towns and villages. Selling from the neighbourhood store killed two birds in one. The product was made easily available and the sale through a neighborhood store owner made it trustworthy and for some, available on credit too. The trust that a face to face sale generates is sometimes essential in adoption of a category. People know the neighbourhood store guy and are comfortable buying sim cards through him. Affordability of price, easy availability and trust made the decision making easier.  

Convenience of an offering is not  just about affordability and availability, but it is about the ease of decision making for the consumer

The Tenet Of Flexibility: 

You can recharge not just any amount, you can use it for as long as you want. It has no stopper on the calendar like an expiry date. So there is no pressure on your time. This flexibility over time and spend empowers the end user and therefore aids in quick decision making by the end user. Flexibility about time also takes care of the seasonality of spends. During festive seasons, income rises and therefore the power to spend. If we had a health insurance plan that would allow variable amounts to be paid in the bucket as against a fixed amount every month, it would possibly see more adoption of health insurance. In the gig economy, seasonal spending will only grow and so will the need to have flexible programs

The Tenet Of Respectability:  

It doesn’t judge you. It lets you be you. There is no shame in refuelling a Rs. 20 charge. It doesn’t ask why you recharge three times in a week when you could have done once in the week. It does not judge the irregular flow of liquidity. One day one can have Rs100 in cash and the other day just Rs 20. That’s reality. But no one is judging that. 

It often happens during a sales negotiation, that the buyer starts thinking about how the seller is perceiving him. Luxury brands thrive on perception marketing. Many purchase decisions get influenced by what others will think and these ‘other people’ could be friends, colleagues and sometimes even the sales guy. My years of observing consumer behaviour has noticed that a buyer may get conscious of what he is ordering in the restaurant influenced by people around him but he is never conscious of how much or how little he is paying for a prepaid mobile. The credit goes to building a category where there is no perception marketing. 

There is another advantage of prepaid mobile cards’ positioning and price point. It makes everyone equal. The office boy and the office boss both have access to the same. But health insurance is out of bound for the office boy. Not because he cannot afford it, but because the product doesn’t meet the needs of office boy.  

Prepaid cards are levellers, it not only makes everyone equal, it does not judge anyone for his/her irregular flow of liquidity.

As we move into a transactional economy, the convenience of decision making, the flexibility of the offering to suit needs and the respectability of the product will define the growth of any product or service. Nandan Nilekani brought up the fact that the consumer today has access to digital platforms and has aadhar identity card. He is ready to consume, if we are ready to sell like the prepaid mobile businesses. 

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