If India, Inc. is waiting for the next frontier in marketing, it may just have arrived. The blurring of traditional gender roles, expectations and behaviours, is increasingly forcing marketers to figure out ways to rethink their age-old targeting paradigms. And if it means de-sexing their brands, so be it.
Call it the 'Gender Blur' or what you will, but surely there are signs of early stirrings, something that promises to not just change the shape of brand marketing, but more importantly infuse a fresh new wave of brand innovations into the Indian consumer market.
Van Heusen, a traditionally strong formal-wear brand for men wants to extend into formal womenswear. What began as Emami's experiment with fairness cream for men, Fair & Handsome, has turned into a serious category initiative.
Marketing heavyweight, such as Hindustan Lever has responded with its own version of fairness cream for men, by extending its existing women-oriented brands Fair & Lovely to Fair & Lovely MENZ Active. “Pink is the new black in more ways than one,” says Sanchayeeta Bhattacharya, national director Insights, MindShare.
“The Indian male is showing his feminine side in areas beyond personal grooming. What is most heartening to note is that women now, can actually look forward to men giving them ungrudging company on those endless shopping soirees.”
Across society, differences between the genders are blurring specially in the urban markets. It is increasingly accepted and expected that women will display traditionally masculine traits, such as competitiveness and aggression, alongside more feminine values and roles.
Conversely, men are exhibiting behaviours and traits traditionally more closely associated with women. Attitudinally, the difference between the sexes is blurring fast. There is virtually no difference between an urban Indian man and a woman when it comes to mindsets towards self-grooming, kids' nutrition, housekeeping, and even shopping mania, as borne out by a recent MindShare Insights 3D research (see table, Fair Sex: Which One?).
“Our research showed us that even women consumers in India were open to the Van Heusen brand,” says Hemchandra Jhaveri, president, Madura Garments.
While analysts agree that the 'Gender Blur' as an idea may have arrived in a conceptual sense, it's still early days for Indian marketers to embrace it fully. “Gender roles are strongly entrenched in our society. However, changes are happening at the margins, and de-sexing of brands is clearly beginning to emerge,” says Santosh Desai, president, McCann-Erickson India.
Women-oriented programming on television is witnessing a plethora of ads from brand hitherto targeted primarily at men. It's anyone's guess whether this is because more men are watching these weepy saas-bahu soaps, or is it because the lady of the house is assuming roles and responsibilities outside her traditional home-keeper, nurturer domain.
Tata Motors, perhaps, saw that coming a wee bit early. The auto major communicated directly with women for its workhorse, Sumo, in its campaign - 'Those who shoulder responsibility, drive Tata Sumo' - featuring a woman as a chief wage earner in a family. The 'You got to be dumb' ads of Tata Indica V2 Xeta featuring four women is clearly an attempt to reposition the brand as a family car, and women play a major role in making the buying decision.
Today, scores of Indian marketers are watching the 'gender blur', already a prominent cultural trend in the West, unfolding before them. Earlier Allen Solly, another menswear brand did exactly that although the brand did carry metrosexual appeal already.
“As categories develop, and markets mature, marketers have to look at finer segments. Earlier there were just segments in the market. But now addressable markets are emerging in segments, more so in categories where competition is intense,” says Kiran Khalap, founder, chlorophyll, a brand consultancy.
Recent trends work at Henley Centre India highlights that the opportunities and aspirations of the men and women are converging, as women succeed in the workplace and men take a more active role at home.
“It's not just about women taking men's role, but more interestingly emergence of men who are willing to shoulder feminine roles that is catching attention,” says Rima Gupta, country head, Henley Centre India, a WPP-owned marketing consultancy.
With work from home culture getting a push amongst entrepreneurs and wives pursuing a regular corporate job (to ensure a fixed, assured income for the household), men are willingly taking on traditional feminine tasks. And marketers are clearly factoring it in their brand communication. ICICI Prudential's retirement solution and Asian Paint ads, that show men happily doing household chores, have clearly addressed this emerging consumer segment.
Even Bollywood themes have started reflecting this gender blur trend. Take Madhur Bhandarkar's recent film, Corporate, for instance. The film's actress Bipasha Basu's overall get up, demeanour and the manner in which she demonstrates business rivalry gathering intelligence on the competitor's activities clearly brings that blur to the fore.
“Gender interactions have changed,” says Partha Sinha, chief strategy officer, Publicis India. “So why should a shampoo be targeted only a women, when 50 % of users are males?” As the first step to factor in gender blur, some marketers have chosen to look at how to put gender neutrality across first.
Surf Excel's Do Bucket Paani Ab Roozana Hai Bachana campaign while having social connotations, clearly didn't focus on female audience alone. It addressed a cross section of males and females as was evident in the ads.
Even in foods, there were some ad hoc efforts to take gender blur issue into account as far as early 1990s. Red Label did in that genre of advertising featured man in the family keeping a cup of tea ready for the lady of the house who's back after a hectic shopping jaunt.