Socio-psychology of Indian Youth and the theory of "adopted Differentiations"
colors of youth
by kaustav sengupta
A national retail chain in India decided to stock a chic international brand of tee shirts
and watches. The brand was a rage among the youth globally and was being touted as
the ‘in thing’. Following the trend, the retail chain anticipated that the collection would
also be popular in India and would fly off the shelves. However, contrary to all
expectations, the collection failed to capture the imagination of Indian youth. The chain’s
supply and sourcing manager was baffled. He had visited markets abroad, and after
careful analysis and research chosen the highly popular line. He concluded that the
youth in India had yet to tune into global trends.
The retail chain’s experience was not a one off instance. Several other retailers and
marketers in India make the mistake of marketing ‘similar’ products popular in other
countries in India. They fail to comprehend patterns such as: why do Indian youth want
to look ‘mature yet cool’ rather than ‘wild and outrageous’?; why are there no indigenous
youth oriented style tribes or subcultures (such as punks, hippies, goths, psychedelics
and skin-heads) in India though there are enormous numbers of sects, sub sects and
religious or spiritual groups?; why is a blue colored beverage more popular among youth
than its rival?; why did the yellow color scooteret designed especially for girls fail to
a different palette
With over 60% of its population under the age of thirty, India is growing younger whereas
most developed countries are facing an ageing population. Rough estimates peg the
size of the Indian youth segment (between the age of fifteen and twenty five) at around
250mn people. Further, about six out of ten households in India have at least one
liberalization child (born and grown during the liberalization of the Indian economy) who
acts as a change agent in that household.
Indian youth are, however, not a homogenous group. On the contrary, they comprise
three broad categories:
01 the bharatiyas: accounting for around 67% of the population, the bharatiyas live in
rural areas. They are least influenced by globalization and have high traditional values.
They are also the least economically privileged, most family oriented and Bollywood
02 the Indians: constituting around 31.5% of the population, the Indians are moderately
influenced by globalization. Though well aware of global trends, this segment is firmly
rooted in Indian family values, customs and ethos.
03 the inglodians1: this segment is the creamy layer, accounting for just 1.5 % (or
roughly three million) of India’s youth market. However this segment is expanding
quickly with a growth rate of over 70%. A highly important consumer group, the segment
has the following characteristics:
affluent, consuming most of the trendy and luxury items
Internet savvy and believers of the global village concept
highly influenced by western music, food, fashion and culture
Indian at heart
may not have grown up in the creamy layer but have risen to the strata through
various professional and academic achievements.
innovators or initiators of most trends, irrespective of their minority numbers
strive to differentiate themselves from peers and the mass.
The Indians and Inglodians are also distinguished by the fact that they are India’s first
ever non-socialistic generation with thriving aspirations and new found financial power
emanating from an environment with a steadily growing GDP, flourishing IT industry and
increasing list of confident young entrepreneurs. All these factors, thus, make the youth
market or Gen Y lucrative for global and local retailers to target. This is no smoke and
mirrors, but reflects enormous business possibilities. However as illustrated earlier, the
danger for marketers here lies in not truly understanding the lifestyle, habitat and attitude
of India’s youth. Remember, the golden rule - India’s youth should not be painted with
the same colors as their global counterparts.
the theory of adopted differentiation
In a study of youth trends undertaken in six A1 and three A2 cities in India over the
course of 4.5 years, I found that there may be one underlying explanation for the “we are
different” behavioral patterns and choices of youth in India – ‘the theory of ’adopted
The theory states: “to distinguish and separate themselves from the mass culture of
India and other youth categories, the Inglodians and most of the Indians have
consciously adopted a sophisticated, yet cool look and attitude that is not as young as
the global perception of youth culture”.
The theory is fairly simple to understand. India, as a country is extremely colorful and
decorative. Consider, for instance, India’s various and varied cultural aspects, festivals,
decor and lifestyle. India’s masses commonly use color and ornamentation as a tool to
define their identity and interest. The reason is simple: both color and texture are more
cost effective and easily accessible as compared to the other two fashion attributes of
materials and silhouettes. Further, being a well lit and sun drenched country, color has
the maximum impact on the viewer. Naturally, the black, white, pastels and grays are the
most awkward color tones among this riot of color. Therefore, India’s young prefer these
colors in order to stand out and make a statement.
The above theory finds resonance in Kishore Biyani’s narrative in his book ‘It happened
in India’. Biyani says, “One of our first mistakes was around the humble white shirt. Plain
observation and intuition suggested that almost everybody has a white shirt in his
wardrobe. Therefore it should naturally be one of the highest selling items. So we
ordered around 100,000 white shirts and offered these at Rs149…customers, however,
were not keen as we expected them to be and it took us a long while to get rid of all that
bulk…the reason slowly became clear. The customer who walks into a Big Bazaar
travels by train and buses. Even when the price of a white shirt is low, the maintenance
cost of these shirts is too high for him.”
Now, compare Biyani’s experience and insight with the answer that we got from one
respondent from Delhi University during a trend direction analysis. He said,”White is
mine…it makes me stand out of the crowd and chaos…And ya, it shows that I have
money to maintain white…as I drive my car…It’s really tough to maintain white in Delhi”.
Color, it seems, makes a difference to the social status projected. Color also serves an
indicator of the extent of the aspiration level. To a question as to why he chose grey over
other colors, another respondent said, “I want to be a Tata or Birla…and want to acquire
all the global giants in business…I want to be a man of steel… the Ambanis and Mittals
look smart…I want to be in the Forbes list of the global rich!” Another exclaimed, “I wear
bright colored kurtas during festivals but for most occasions I prefer pastels as they
make me appear mature. Sometimes, even if you have money, people do not respect
you unless you look mature.”
These and other factors influence the thought processes and attitudes of Indian youth.
the color of money
Thomas Friedman (New York Times columnist and Pulitzer winning author), says,
“When I was growing up, my parents told me, ‘finish your dinner. People in China and
India are starving.’ I tell my daughters ‘Finish your homework. People in India and China
are starving for your job’ ”. Globalization has opened new and lucrative job opportunities
for Indian youth. As more and more companies set up shop in India, there is tremendous
pressure on liberalization’s children to ride the first wave of becoming ‘rich’ before it
eases off. But it’s not an ‘easy grab’. Millions of young people in India aspire for college
education, competing for seats that are becoming more scarce.
In India, children are considered as a family asset and therefore, expenditure on their
education is considered as an investment for the future of the whole family. Unlike their
global peers, Indian youth study hard to make their parents proud and pay them back by
achieving success. This explains why the icons of Indian youth today are successful
Indian entrepreneurs, established Indian sportspersons, famous movie stars, successful
singers and producers rather than scandalous young and upcoming pop stars or
alternative subculture leaders.
The Indian youth are highly motivated by limitless aspiration. The high aspiration levels,
accompanied by a motto of “make my family proud” (as seeded by parents) not only
makes the youth in India focused and career centric but also the most family oriented
youth in the world. A recent Global TGI report states that India scores highest (76%) in
the rating of “it is important my family thinks I’m doing well”. (exhibit01)
A global survey by Swedish research and consulting firm Kairos Future reconfirms the
findings that “work comes as top priority for Indian youth, followed by a good career and
higher status. In contrast, European youth chose a good living environment above all
work related aspects.” The priorities of Indian youth - work, good career and a position
with high status - are reflected in their values such as endurance and entrepreneurship.
Mats Lindgren,CEO and founder of Kairos Future Group, says that, “The Indian youth
are also strikingly more optimistic about their future and also about the future of society.
The general picture in other countries is that young people tend to be personal optimists
but societal pessimists. "
colors of cool
Indian youth’s penchant for exhibitionism, stemming from the need to project an image
of money power, indulgence and sky high aspirations, leads to a ‘mature, yet cool’
styling influence. That is, a look and feel of ‘neat, balanced and sophisticated’, which is
seen as a way to differentiate themselves from the masses.
This definition of style explains why bright yellow or khaki were not popular with the
Indian youth segment though they were hot selling colors worldwide. Both the colors are
perceived as ‘cheap’, because yellow is widely used in ‘public’ services and products
such as STD booths, autos, taxis, cabs, earth movers, trucks and helmets of construction
workers. The same reasoning explains the perception of khaki as an uncool color.
Similarly, surveys have revealed that Indian youth prefer to wear tee shirts with Western
imagery (gothic, rockers, pop stars and Che Guevara) or westernized Indian images (the
stylized OM insignia or Vedic mantras) but hate to wear a Bollywood influenced image
though Hindi and regional movies are popular entertainment. The rejection of popular
Indian cinema motifs is rooted in the youth’s image of Bollywood as ‘down market’ as
compared to a more cool and creative western influence.
It is this line of reasoning that accounts for the gothic skull becoming one of the most
coveted graphics on the tee shirt. The skull is a known motif with a mystic and spiritual
value in India and when it is mixed with the “exotic” gothic theme the combination
becomes trendy. My survey found that most of Indian youth never bother to understand
the meaning of the graphic worn over the tee shirts (a few respondents remarked that
Che was a rock star!). They wear them for one simple reason - they feel “it looks cool”.
Denim is the one and only unisexual casual bottom wear preferred by youth (with a very
small percentage choosing the cargo) across India irrespective of the climatic condition
colors of family values and tradition
My research on global youth culture along with Ted Polhemus, reveals that the
development of a subculture or style tribe needs a ‘certain level of frustration’ over the
existing culture or society. The frustration develops due to loneliness and lack of
‘emotional bonding’ among family members which forces youth to create groups or
gangs who share similar AIOs (attitudes, interests and opinions) and in the process, a
However young middle class Indians are amongst the happiest people and much more
satisfied with all aspects of their lives compared to other nationalities. According to a
survey conducted by Kairos Future, over 50% of young Indians are satisfied with
themselves in comparison with 'pessimists' such as Japanese or Germans, where only
17% and 27% are satisfied with their lives.
In another study conducted by global market research firm Kantar Media, a whopping
82% of Indians believed it's important to have a lasting relationship with their spouses,
reinforcing the faith in long term commitment. Interestingly, in India, less than 1% of the
adult urban population lives alone. Though, broken marriages and live-in relationships
are growing in the metros, this is largely an urban phenomenon and the rest of India is
still traditionally insulated from such life changing practices. However the cocooning
phenomenon is spreading rapidly across India and smaller families are being perceived
as trendy and comfortable. But, unlike in the west, this trend has not influenced the
emotional bonding amongst family members.
India being a country of celebrations and social gatherings, the prevalent customs and
rituals typically act as a buffer. They serve as a meeting place for larger and extended
families to strengthen their emotional bonding and provide a sense of belonging and a
place to fall back on while passing through a rough patch. This decreases the level of
frustration and prevents further fragmentation.
Targeting subcultures is considered to be one way to segment a market, plan a product
mix and promotion for FMCG and fashion products. The right message to these
subcultures could catapult a brand to cult status among youth ensuring a loyal customer
base for decades. The best example of this is Nike shoes and Harley Davidson bikes.
Though Indian youth ‘superficially” follow ‘trendy’ subcultures (the recent growth of the
‘gothic look’) they have never got sentimentally attached to a brand (‘will die over
Harley’) or service. They rather prefer to remain loyal to maintaining the ‘look cool’
aspect. The recent Bollywood movie “Rock On” depicts how the young generation deftly
balance their passion and family responsibilities. And most often family becomes the first
priority rather than individual passion.
colors of duality
The daily behavioral pattern of Indian youth can be broadly divided into two parts: “ghar
pe”(or at home) and with peers. The difference between these two lives, depend on
youth’s exposure to global influence. However they balance both the halves with
expertise. Arun Saldanha (Center of Media Sociology, Free University of Brussels) in his
research report on Bangalore’s youth culture described a scenario, which he named as
“subculture mid day”. He explained the logic behind the popularity of the ‘mid day
parties’ among the youth of Bangalore who spend around Rs10, 000 for a birthday
celebration in some luxury hotel. “Mid-day parties are popular because during the
afternoon, it’s far easier for the teenagers (especially the girls) to think of fibs,” he wrote.
The clothing also ‘mutates’ according to the occasion, where most of them wear two
layers of clothing. The outerwear is to please the parents while going out; to be
discarded at the party venue. This applies to makeup and hairstyling too. There is some
amount of corporate influence on modes of dress as well. For example, call centers and
BPOs are encouraging western apparel. Therefore, the youth tend to maintain a dual
life, one inside the office with peers and colleagues and one at home with parents and
Other lifestyle trend surveys I have been involved with have also highlighted this dual
role/life trend. For example, most youth preferred to comfortably sit on the floor (“zamin
pe”) in a traditional Indian style seating arrangement rather than on the dining table for
their meals! However when dining or partying out, they develop a totally different
persona and a ‘make over’ takes place. They follow the finest western etiquettes while
dining out. They even change their style of talking, pronunciation and non-verbal
communication, to suit the social context.
colors of confidence
Narcissism or the “I Love Me” syndrome is growing. Children today are self centered and
even their friendships and relationships are conditional due to intense competition. Right
from education to job opportunities, it is a race. Further with families becoming nuclear
and opting for one child, an attitudinal change has come over the children of this
generation. As the entire interest and the attention of family revolve around them, they
have become demanding. Also many overcautious parents discourage their children
from mingling with other children and unwittingly encourage them to view their peers as
rivals. This makes the youth more self centered and pushes them towards a materialistic
The positive aspect of this situation is the growing confidence level in an individual unlike
earlier generations of young Indians who were taught to remain in a group. Risk taking is
now encouraged leading to the nurturing of successful young entrepreneurs and
professionals in newer fields such as human interface consultants, DJs, scuba diving
experts, style and image consultants etc.
The pattern of relationships and peer groups is also changing. Peer groups are
becoming more concentrated with higher AIO matching. As a student explained, “Today,
to be a teen is to be in relationships and to be a college kid is to be popular and
happening. And from this stems their self esteem”. The growing popularity of reality
television shows and craze about Indian Idols are also indicators of the growing
confidence levels among youth in urban and rural areas.
colors of acceptance
India follows a different system while adopting a global trend. Youngsters do not simply
consume a trend but filter it through a unique osmosis process (slow and time
consuming) where it is treated with an Indian flavor and mixed with the finer elements of
age old customs and then ultimately is readied for consumption. One of the finest
example of this phenomenon is the way Indians create a unique ensemble with the
ubiquitous denim jeans.
The simplest combination can be a Kurta with wood or glass beads worn around the
neck ,a Swatch on the wrist, Levi’s, Kolhapuri footwear, sunshine stones, a gold ring on
the finger (gifted by the grandparents), a red charm thread around the neck or wrist and
so on. It is an interesting and heady mix-trix of fashion, tradition, spirituality and family
This mix-trix pervades every aspect of the lifestyle of Indian youth be it in food or fabric.
Pizza retail chains struggled to get Indian youth habituated to pizzas until they came up
with the unique chicken tikka pizza, paneer tikka pizza, tandoori pizza and so on. Coke
came out with Coke and Samosa/Dosa combo. Yeh hain India meri jaan!
As Hebdige once stated “the politics of youth culture is the politics of metaphor…it forms
up space between surveillance and the evasion of surveillance, it translates the fact of
being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is a hiding in the light. The
fine balance between the pleasure of “showing off” (to the peers and other half of India)
and “hiding in the light” (hiding the “true-self” to the parents or relatives) is the factor
which is shaping the consumerism of young India.
1 Copyright Kaustav SG2007
2 Copyright Kaustav SG2007
3 Copyright, Kaustav SG & Ted Polhemus 2007.
4 As quoted in The Week