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Marketing to women…why do brands get it wrong?

As the month of March wraps up, a lot of brands have understandably raised a toast to the power of women. In our work across categories, we have interacted with women from categories as functional as app-based cabs and payments to as involved as fashion jewelry and beauty.

Given the noise around the topic, we felt it would be interesting to talk about some of our key learning around this interesting consumer segment.

Hence, in today’s edition of FreeFlowing, we touch upon the highly relevant but equally complex topic of the Woman Consumer, based on our experience of in-depth discussions with women across categories, town-classes and income-levels.

Why isn’t talking to women as simple as it seems?

Women today find themselves in a world of contradictions- while on the one hand there is a lot of chatter around gender equality, breaking gender stereotypes, and a high emphasis on education and increased participation of women in the workforce; the ground reality is that the progress is slow, and a lot of distance needs to be covered.

For instance, a recent McKinsey report indicates that just about 25% of India’s workforce is female, and according to a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap report, India ranked 108th out of 149 countries on the gender gap index, primarily due to gender pay gap.

Hence women consumers span across a wide spectrum depending on which section of society we are talking to. From the silent ones forced to conform to social norms while stuck in extreme patriarchy (and contrary to popular notions this isn’t essentially limited to non-affluent households or non-metro towns) to those who come across as almost perpetual rebels.

However, neither of these extremes portray the correct picture of a modern Indian woman consumer, often the core target group of many brands seeking to speak to women.

Some ground realities

The truth is the modern Indian woman consumer is in a state of flux.

She is educated, is often financially independent, has been born and brought up in a reasonably liberal environment and carries a well-considered opinion on every topic under the sun. She is a digitally empowered consumer with information at her fingertips. If married, whether in a joint or nuclear family, she is no longer merely a ‘nurturer’. She has an active voice and say in every decision, regardless of whether she is working or not.

In our recent interaction, a 32-year-old woman from Lucknow eloquently articulated this sentiment: “In the case of my mother, she was mostly a spectator in decisions exclusively made by my dad- but that’s not the case with my family. I am an equal partner in any decision that our family is making- if anything, my word matters more in some cases!”

She is well-aware of the almost unrealistic expectations that society places on her, but she is also increasingly realizing that she cannot be a please-all. She is open to put herself first and does not feel guilty about occasionally showering herself with some self-love.

A 27-year-old working woman from Indore succinctly summarized this emotion while reminiscing on her lockdown life: “I used to be obsessed with my home looking a certain way and I realized I was killing myself in the process. At some point I realized that this cannot go on, I mean in lockdown who cares if the bed is unmade on some days? So, during lockdown, I gave that responsibility to my husband and if he didn’t do it, the bed stayed unmade!”

She isn’t an iconoclast. She simply seeks independence in decision-making.

For the same reason, when it comes to traditions (e.g., Karva Chauth), she wants to be a person of her own free-will and make her own choices about the ones she wishes to celebrate. She wants to travel the untreaded paths and is also not shy about celebrating her femininity.

A 35-year-old investment banker from Mumbai nicely articulated the freedom of choice sought by her: “I do want my independence and personal space but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would let go of traditions. I really like some of the rituals and dressing up for them also makes me happy and is good fun.”

Finally, she is aware of inherent social biases in personal, professional, and social spheres, but she doesn’t want to be bogged down by them. While she can smell patriarchy from a distance, she chooses her battles wisely.

A young 30-year-old entrepreneur from Bangalore told us about the tradeoffs she makes: “I don’t really like ethnic wear much, but when I visit my in-laws in Kanpur, I stick to ethnic wear. It’s only for a few days a year, and the rest of the time I am free to dress the way I like. So, I ask myself, why rock the boat?”

The communication imperative

Rather than a world that condescendingly makes way for her, she seeks a world of equal opportunity where she gets a fair chance to get her voice heard, on an equal footing with the opposite gender. A world that truly celebrates her, her individuality, and her multi-hyphenated identity.

A 33-year-old homemaker and a budding poet from Bhopal who found her mojo on a vernacular social media platform perfectly summarized this sentiment: “What I absolutely love about this platform is that I have my own identity here- I write my poems here and have gathered many followers. So far what was just written on pages of my diary has now found an audience and I am proud of what I have achieved.”

Interestingly, when it comes to new-age categories like app-based payments, investments, commute, and even crypto, many women love the feel of independence ushered in by new age brands and services. They like the fact that in an otherwise male-dominated narrative around these categories, these brands are offering a refreshing alternative that makes participation more democratic.

A 36-year-old mother of a young kid from Jalandhar gushed about the freedom she feels services like Ola and Uber have given her: “We have just one car which my husband drives to work. So, if I had to take my young daughter to her hobby classes or go to her PTM, it was always a struggle. I didn’t like that I had to depend on my husband for such basic transportation needs. But thanks to these services, it’s all so easy now. I feel a lot more in control and a lot freer now.”

Jyothi, a 27-year-old prolific crypto trader and a sales professional from Trichy echoed a similar sentiment: “Even though I have an MBA in Finance, my father would talk about family finances with my brother but not with me! That’s why I started investing in crypto, it’s an even playing field. Be it my father, brother, or me, we are all learning the ropes. So, I can chart my own learning path, without anyone judging me.”

Hence, the implications for brands:

Step out of binary contexts: while portraying women, brands often resort to stereotyping two extremes of the spectrum- either a ‘conservative conformist’ or a ‘rebellious feminist’.  However, in reality there are many shades and nuances between these 2 polar extremes. In fact, more than brands, some movies and mainstream TV content perpetuate these biases. 

Don’t just shrink it and pink it: designing products meant for women, customized for their tastes and sensibilities, and aimed at solving their pain points is the need of the hour. The problem occurs when brands take unisex products and market them to women in a brightly colored (often pink) and smaller format. The issue here is that these brands come across as following a templated approach that screams “we didn’t put enough thought into this.”

Focus on deeper insighting: all great communication needs a great insight at its core. Brands that market to women tend to get it right when they uncover strong insights they can work on. Capturing their multitasking, multifaceted self, their vulnerabilities as well as their fortitude, and bringing that to life in the context of the category can help to create a communication that resonates.

Avoid the gender tug-of-war: the brand communication need not necessarily show women in an ecosystem of an unsupportive male cast (husband, colleague, bosses…). While the modern woman is constantly trying to better her place in society and family, she is often encouraged by a strong support system around her. Though this section is arguably small today, celebrating this supporting cast can send a very positive message and inspire many others to support women in their lives.

Let women vet it:  Although this is by no means a generalization, women are typically underrepresented in senior-level marketing positions. A recent Mercer report on female participation in the workforce and their representation in leadership positions puts it starkly: “While sectors such as IT, Customer Service, and Human Resource see better female representation, in jobs such as…Sales, Marketing and Product Management representation of females is poor.”  This definitely has an impact on the way women characters are portrayed in ads.

Marketing and brand teams, in general, would need to sharpen their focus on diversity and inclusivity to ensure that marketing bloopers are avoided while talking to women.

In the end, we believe that marketing is a mirror of contemporary culture and purposeful marketing can be a change agent in its own way. In this context, we have a lot of admiration as well as expectation from brands that are portraying women or building relevant offerings for them.

What are some of your favorite examples of brands that you feel have got it right? Do write back to us at freeflowing@winnerbrands.in.

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