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23 Dec

Reciprocity-hacking: A very Indian marketing phenomenon?

Recently, I went saree shopping with my wife. We visited five shops in a span of 6 to 8 hours.

Each seller happily showed her about 15 odd sarees.

But finally, we didn’t buy any. You might think that she is too picky, and you’d be right. I was tired by the end of it. But more than tired, the whole experience oddly left me feeling guilty.


The marketeer in me felt that every seller went out of their way to fulfill her tastes and demands. After unpacking and unfurling tens of sarees, not making a sale must hurt, I thought.

In my mind, I expected that she’d yield and buy something, just as a way to pay for all the effort and hospitality.When I expressed my displeasure, she had a clear opinion. She was in no rush to buy a saree and didn’t want to settle. For some reason, she was sure she would get a better lot of sarees on her next visit.

Whether she finds a saree on her next visit still remains to be seen. But I was more curious about all this guilt I was feeling.

On our way back home, I recalled two more instances where I had felt the same discomfort.

Let me narrate them before I reveal what I think lies behind this.

One of my father's colleagues was also a part-time LIC agent. She convinced my parents that they weren’t saving enough for the future. So, she urged my parents to invite a few other family friends and offered to conduct a free session on financial planning.

In good faith, my parents agreed to the idea. Soon after the meeting, she shared her business cards with everyone and provided free guidance on which policy would suit whom the best. She had come prepared with all the policy posters, the details on returns accrued, and the next steps if one failed to pay a premium.

She wasn't trying to sell.

The first meeting ended with a dinner at my place and more banter around different saving plans and schemes. The next day at tea, my parents discussed how they would invest in a short-term policy to return the favour.

The favour?

Yes, all that time and energy she spent conducting the session without any payment? My parents considered it a favour and felt like reciprocating.

They were willing to disregard the long-term financial commitment they were about to enter, just because of this one-meeting she conducted for free, out of her own seemingly altruistic nature.

On a separate occasion, one of my mother’s friends did something similar. She convinced my mother that she wasn’t taking good care of her skin and could do with a better range of skincare products.

My mother invited other women from the building for a free session on better skin care.

Once again, the lady who conducted the session didn't come across as trying to sell.In fact, she walked the women through the process of a skincare regime. She also provided free insights to all the women on specific skin types and which products to use. My mother and the rest loved the insights they got.

She understood that skin care is a serious business, and before making the sell, she offered the women small samples. The products weren’t free, but most women happily complied and spent about ₹500 – ₹1000 on these samples.

The next evening, they decided to order a few products from the catalogue that the lady had left behind after the demo.

The reason? Her generosity in helping everyone understand skincare better.

After recalling these few instances where I, as an indifferent observer, still felt a sense of guilt-ridden pressure to buy, I realized what underlay all these instances.

It was a feeling of reciprocity. In colloquial Hindi, the best word that I can see commonly used for this is "vyavahaar."

Vyavahaar actually means "behaviour" but is usually used to convey the obligatory nature of social relations. It is that obligation to reciprocate someone's generous gesture when you're in a social setting, especially when you have existing social relations with them.

When interspersed with a business context, the feeling is so subtle the consumer doesn’t mind or even realize it while extending oneself. Even if it comes at a cost, a person doesn’t think of it as a business transaction.

Vyavahaar is how most traditional sales functions in our country.

And underlying vyavahaar is a feeling of reciprocity.

Evolutionarily speaking, humans are biologically attuned to reciprocate. Why? Because we are social beings. And society entails playing iterated games in a multiplayer environment.

We do not cut off our transactions cleanly. In fact, prolonging our mutual indebtedness by keeping things vague and non-transactional is seen as desirable. When we are mutually indebted to each other, we are incentivized to play long-term games.

In such a collectivist environment, failing to reciprocate is akin to severing a relationship and being bad at playing the social game. Hence, reciprocation is a natural biological impulse when someone goes out of their way to do something for us, even if we didn't ask them to do it or even if it was just a part of their job.

And now that I think about it, a lot of salespeople in the country hack our natural desire to reciprocate in order to sell.

Think about why Multi-level Marketing businesses work so well in India.

Before companies like Amway, Tupperware, and Oriflame came to the picture, the masses of India treated these products as commodities. There was little to no brand preference, and a lot of consumer skincare largely didn't exist.

And I would argue that by pulling in the social context, MLM businesses hacked into our reciprocal impulse and sold us a lot of stuff we didn't really need.

Here's how a typical MLM sale goes.

You have a group of friends, be it friends you have from college or friends you made in the society/apartment complex you live in.

One of those friends comes to you one day and tells you about this brand new company they are a consultant of, that allows them to do business from home.

Enthusiastically, they share a lot of information they've recently learned about the category of products they're selling. All of a sudden, they sound knowledgeable and scholarly. And then comes the sales pitch.

This suddenly puts you in a reciprocal frame. Your friend has started something new. They spent so much time and energy educating you about this new thing. Now they're asking for your support. You feel obligated and compelled to buy. Not buying would demoralize your friend and maybe create a rift in the relationship. To avoid cognitive dissonance, you convince yourself about the quality of the products and end up buying a few of them.

To put it slightly harshly, you were guilt-tripped into buying on some level. Because you couldn't help but feel the urge to reciprocate.

This kind of reciprocity is greatly enhanced in collectivist societies like India where you only have your identity as a part of the group. Without the group, you have no independent existence. In such scenarios, obliging by the group and maintaining vyavahaar with everyone becomes paramount.

Smart salespersons leverage this reciprocation tendency to pressurize you into buying. Because it's not simply a business transaction anymore. What you do in that situation now also has social and moral implications.

If you fail to reciprocate, you might be seen as shameless; a freeloader even.

Looking back at the instances I mentioned earlier in the piece, both women who conducted those free sessions at my house invested time and energy without any guarantee or promise of making a sale.

And I am sure there must have been instances where they hosted a cold audience, who saw through their sales pitch, took advantage of the free session, but never converted to paid customers.

But in my case, it was one of my father's colleagues and one of my mother's friends. The saree shop owner... well he just spent a lot of time and effort showing us his wares.

The sweet-natured talk, the hospitality, the effort, the value they share — all of this adds to our moral sense of reciprocity and pressurizes us into converting.

Additionally, the free sessions are social events that create unique brand recall among the group that meets. They not only increase individual awareness, but also induce socially-influenced buying behavior.

As I was driving on our way back home, I imagined the saree seller sadly folding all those sarees and keeping them back on those shelves.

At the same time, I realized that my wife, being well-versed with those tactics, is actually the more rational and objective person out of the two of us.

If it were me, I surely would have capitulated and bought something...




P. S. —


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