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Small towns in North India, viz tier 2 and tier 3 towns, have become a big market for multiple categories. With consumption in the six metro cities reaching saturation point, businesses and brands are viewing small towns as the next frontier. 

One example that illustrates the gains to be had from small town focus is the enormous growth of the OTT platform MX Player that has dwarfed giants like Amazon Prime, thanks to this consumer base in tier-II and tier-III cities. 

A parallel development to marketer’s interest in the Hindi Heartland has been the interest of film makers in Bollywood to tell small town stories. A recent list of films set in small towns ranges from Gangs of Wasseypur to Masaan, Tanu Weds Manu, Badhaai Do, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Dreamgirl, Haseen Dilruba. 

While there have been a few movies like Gangaajal in the past, the trend of Hindi movies set in small towns of the Hindi belt began notably with Gangs of Wasseypur. The trend has continued from movies to web series such as Mirzapur, Kota Factory, Gullak, Jamtara, Panchayat, etc.  These films present a specific imagery of small town life, the positives (relationships and family ties) and negatives (crime and gang warfare).

So, how are brands treading the road to the Hindi heartland which has been paved very well until now by cinema? 

We start with a recent example: 

MEESHO x The Timeliners - Sonu Beauty Parlour 

Sonu Beauty Parlour traces the journey of the eponymous character as he tries to understand and fight gender stereotypes. Shot in a nameless small town, the show depicts the life and aspirations of its residents. Sonu is a man who is proficient in beauty and make-up skills but encumbered by gender norms, he refuses to assist his mother who has lovingly named the parlour after him. He eventually comes around with the help of a female friend and takes up the task of managing the parlour. 

While many narratives around the heartland tend to ride high on nostalgia and romanticise life in a small town- Sonu Beauty Parlour doesn’t. Instead, it goes for a socially relevant theme by dealing with roles defined by gender.

Meesho has skillfully placed brand plug-ins over the course of three episodes. Often billed as a social e-commerce brand, Meesho has always maintained empowering its consumers, especially women consumers, is a crucial part of its brand ethos. Therefore, a content piece such as ‘Sonu Beauty Parlour’ aligns well with the brand. It shows two women entrepreneurs while discussing the ill-effects of gender constructs on both men and women. 

Another piece of branded content set in the heartland around an almost identical theme was released by Gillette, three years ago: 

Gillette India - The Barbershop Girls

The Barbershop Girls was launched with the aim to ‘shave’ stereotypes, it was inspired by the real-life story of Neha and Jyoti - teenage girls who pretended to be boys in order to work in their father’s barbershop. By situating its story in a barbershop, the brand achieved a direct brand connect as men’s grooming is prominently featured in the background. Interestingly, it made use of a very famous folk song from the heartland used on the occasion of a boy’s birth and tweaked it for celebrating a girl child as well. 

So, contemporary small-town India is no more a rose-tinted picture with men aspiring for the latest Bollywood haircut and women preoccupied with their marriages, homes and family. Even though the family structure may or may not have changed a lot, the semi-urban youth is tackling nuanced challenges - a fact witnessed in almost all the films like Masaan, Dreamgirl or Haseen Dilruba. Brands making in-roads in the cultural discourse therefore must keep this in their minds. Consider, for instance: 

Mankind Pharma - Shh Not Okay Please 

The catchy song released by Mankind Pharma advocates for planned parenthood via a young vocal couple. The couple refuses to politely go along with the structure that the elders decide for them and instead make their intentions clear. Thus, the song explicitly signals that staying quiet is no more okay- be that in the matter of gender stereotypes or family planning. 

So, has the high-on-90s-nostalgia version of a small-town lost relevance completely when it comes to branded content? Not quite. 

A major chunk of metro India, especially in Delhi and Mumbai, traces its roots back to small towns. These are the people who have grown up and lived in the heartland during their formative years. A piece employing symbols from their life before can therefore appeal to them and may also be used to deliver a modern message. 

Let's use an example to understand better: 

AMFI x TVF - Yeh Meri Family 

Yeh Meri Family is set in 90s Jaipur and shows a quintessential middle-class family of five. Rituals such as the annual painting of the house are combined with drinks of Rooh-Afza and Nagraj comics to create a well-curated repository of the 90s era symbols that act as instant hooks for anyone from that decade. 

The titular family in Yeh Meri Family is headed by Mr Gupta who also heads a firm called ‘Invest & Co.’ It is through the fictional Invest and Co. that the Association of Mutual Funds in India delivers their message: “Mutual Funds Sahi Hai”. Thus, the present-day youths once engaged via their childhood symbols are seamlessly advised for financial prudence. 

Some insights for brands aiming for the small-town demographic: 

The small town as depicted and shown in cinema, is a place yearning for hope and change. Even a violent portrayal like Gangs of Wasseypur ends with the characters having escaped from the bloody revenge battle. The residents of the Hindi Heartland are aspirants for a better future for themselves and seekers of opportunity.

Following this insight, the small-town in branded content is essentially a place open to change. Change can be in terms of lifestyle and consumption, but more important is the shift of mindsets, wherein the small-town demographic is trying to challenge stereotypes in its own way and develop in its own right.