Colours have been infused in day-to-day life of India since time immemorial. Their symbolic and psychological effect has been studied for thousands of years and the ‘chakra’ system came into being.

Turmeric, for example, a beautiful deep mustard colour, is used in auspicious occasions as a symbol of wellbeing. Red represents fertility and is often used in weddings. In the modern context, pastels denote a European flavour, while gold and silver have royal connotations.

In terms of the economy, with over sixty per cent young buyers and GDP growth of six per cent even in the times of worldwide slowdown, the consumption is set to increase dramatically, derived from the burgeoning middle-class households.

Presently 10.9 million middle-class households consume more than US$42 billion, which is expected to increase to 55.1 million households consuming US$225 billion worth of goods and services aggregately by 2015.

Every company in the world with a long-term view is in India today. General Motors is declared bankrupt in USA but its India arm is doing well. The Indian subsidiaries of many companies are doing way better than their whole world market put together.

The advantage of scale that India offers is difficult to ignore for any company that wants to buffer itself against future shake-ups in the world market.

But these consumers do not have the same requirements as their western counterparts. With more than 5 000 years of civilisation and countless influences of foreign cultures in ancient and recent times, resulting in more than 2 000 ethnic groups, current market research is less valid for Indian consumers.

Research for the Indian market, therefore, is a crucial feature of product development, not only in terms of the cultural differences of the Indian market compared with their western counterparts, but also in terms of the enormous diversity within the country itself.

There are different consumer segments in India. What appears refined and sophisticated to one segment may appear dull and boring to the larger group. Additionally, Indians don’t like experimentation with their symbolic realm; this means that if they are comfortable with a certain hue of maroon, they would only explore browns and reds at the most.

A lot of white products came into the market after iPod and iPhone appeared, but white didn’t last long in India. Essentially because white usually is not the colour of fun and enjoyment in India (rather, it is a colour for sadness and disenchantment).

This important research is expanding into areas such as mobile phones and automobiles, and findings are being extended to the fashion industry as well.

Traditional demographic or personality-based segmentation does not seem to work in the complexity that India presents. Research has established that a large consumer base in India is still quite traditional and rooted in their approach to consumption. This rootedness, along with financial status, becomes an important parameter when segmenting the highly complex society of India.

When studying colour preferences in India, it is important to understand: (a) Indian consumers slot into segments, (b) regional preferences – north and south – behave differently in their colour sensibilities and (c) the product category is important.

At Onio Design, this model of segmenting is labelled ‘intentionability’. The Indian consumer base has been divided into six segments. Out of these six segments, ‘Desi Dynamos’ form forty per cent of middle-class households, with an annual income between US$4000 and US$10 000.

Desi (local) Dynamos represent the typical India that the business world is eyeing off. They are the people who are traditionally rooted, aware and educated. They are the champions of the old economy and heavy consumers of the retail boom.

Factory managers, politicians, mid-size traders, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats fall in this status-conscious category. Broadly, their palette can be divided in two distinct halves – south and north Indian.

South India consists of the southern states. There is a thriving art and science focus, and the people here are the thinkers of Indian society, such as engineers, scientists, philosophers and software gurus. In terms of colour, they prefer whites, earthy and subdued shades. There life moves at a slower pace and colour choices reflect the more introverted nature of the society.

Chestnut, also known as Indian red, is one of the most seen colours in south India. Blues tend to move towards black. Gold is an inseparable part of India, however, it becomes slightly red-tinted in the south. Colours influenced by gold like sunflower-yellow and ochre are also popular in this region.

North India represents areas surrounding Delhi. The entire culture reflects a live-for-the-day attitude. People in this region are outgoing, adventurous and indulgent, thus making their choice of colours vibrant and lively.

Blue appears in a brighter tint in the north, while bright pinks and purples show the extroverted nature of north Indians. Gold is popular in north India too, but as with other colours, it’s brighter. Yellow also appears brighter.

The traditional palette becomes the staple for Desi Dynamos and is also the starting point for any designer or consumer experience being crafted for India. This segment usually adopts the global trends with a minor tweak that is aligned to their traditional palette.

Turquoise is the lead colour for the next two years. It is traditionally associated with the royals, and is also a colour present in the peacock feather (adorned by the Lord Krishna). Hence, it is already present in the traditional palette.

Likely to become more mainstream in the next two years, this colour presents a fresh and elegant expression away from overdone blues and the greens. Of late, many carmakers in India have put their bets on this colour (ie, Sumo Grande, Indica Vista).

While the world is still in awe of ‘Apple white’, India gives it a pearly twist. White denotes sadness in the north, while it is the colour of serenity in the south. However, the pearly tint (with a little more yellow in it) makes it acceptable to north and south alike. At the same time, this also represents an evolution of the white. Functionally, this colour is less prone to get dirty than pure white.

Brown has been an all-time favorite in India, as a reflection of classic elegance, and it goes well with India’s obsession with gold. However, soot-brown is the darker (more black) version of the leather-brown. As black is now a passé in mainstream products, soot-brown is the evolution.

Ultra-plum is another colour of choice for bringing some life in blacks, greys and boring blues. Internationally, the purple family has already made inroads in spectacles, cameras, laptops, etc. However, this is a colour that is yet to become mainstream in India. If Fiat is listening, this is the time to launch the Palio in this colour (the earlier attempt was too early).

Peach-pink is the next evolution of popular pink. While certain reds, pinks and yellows are ever-trendy for India, representing the bright and festive spirit of the country, this colour is the refreshing line for women looking at a not-so-pink attitude.

As mentioned earlier, India’s love for gold and all that is golden is everlasting. Classic red needs to have a fresh breeze and that results in a copper sparkle. Very close to rust and copper with a golden heart, this would be a colour of choice in automobiles, consumer gadgets and wearable accessories.

It is important to understand that the average Indian consumer is highly function-focused and usually less willing to let go of functionality in favour of sheer style.

While an outsider may consider India colourful and vibrant, it is suggested that interpretations are made with contextually in mind. As the economy is still evolving and consumers have not seen even the first peak, the filter of functionalism in colour is still heavy.

More than sixty per cent of consumers still prefer grey/black/silver mobile phones, as they look good for a long time, compared with coloured counter parts. However, as the culture moves up the income and awareness pyramid, the play with colour has started.

For a country with traditions supporting the gleeful colours in everyday life, the future is not sombre – it is slowly but decidedly colourful.  

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