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Kyuki saas loves to buy bahu's choice

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Kyuki saas loves to buy bahu's choice

It's not just in the K-serials that bahus count for something. Daughters-in-law can be an important force in marketing , even in places where they would seem least likely to have much influence.

Indian marketers are discovering, for example, that they can be important influences on changing product habits and brand choice in rural households.

At first, this seems counter-intuitive. Rural households are generally seen as being deeply conservative and patriarchal places, where as both women and outsiders in the family, daughters-in-law would be at the bottom of the hierarchy.

They are expected to defer to everyone - family elders, their husbands and, of course, their saas, who often sees the daughters-in-law as unpaid servants.

Yet, realities can be complex. Rural households are often surprisingly open to change, presented in the right way and coming from the right people.

Studies like the rural household panel that was run by ORG-MARG for a few years (but unfortunately found too few buyers to be viable) found products like P&G's Head & Shoulders shampoo, a typical urban, up-market product, in rural households.

Such products were usually brought in by privileged older sons who had picked up more expensive consumption habits while studying in urban areas.

Bahus are another source of new consumption habits, but their influence works in more subtle ways. “Many daughters-in-law come from slightly different backgrounds from the family they marry into,” explains Pradeep Kashyap, who runs MART, a specialist rural marketing consultancy.

“Often, they come from small towns, so they have slightly more sophisticated habits, which they bring to the village.”

Since dowry is a reality in most rural households, some products come as part of that.

Trips home for festivals and other family occasions, like after the birth of their first child, are other occasions to pick up new products as gifts. If bahus enjoy much influence with their husbands, they may get him to buy small gifts like soaps or cheap cosmetics when he visits the local market.

Harish Bijoor, a strategic marketing consultant, points out that they enjoy a lot of influence over all brands that appertain to the woman's realm.

“Rural households are clearly divided into the mens' areas, like the hall or the veranda, all the front of the house, and the womens' areas which are the kitchen and bathroom, the back of the house,” he says.

“Most fundamental FMCG products are used in the back of the house, so its the women who discuss them, what to get and what brands to buy.”

Even when the family initially forbids new products, smart bahus can end up getting their way. The anthropologist Emma Tarlo noted a good example of this in 'Clothing Matters', her study of Indian attitudes to clothes. In the small village in Gujarat where she's doing her field work, one of the bahus, newly wed into a very conservative family, started wearing a sweater in winter, much to the fury of her father-in-law, who considered it an immodest garment. He forbade her from wearing it.

She complied, but she made her unhappiness known. She didn't wear a shawl instead and made a show of working while visibly shivering.

And she told women from other families that she was so unhappy she was thinking of committing suicide. Word always spreads fast in villages and her father-in-law soon started hearing from other men, worried about the reputation of their community.

The last straw was when the bahu went home to visit her family, and then refused to return. This developed into such a scandal that the father-in-law was finally forced to surrender and allow her return and wear a sweater.

A small victory perhaps, but an indication of how a 'powerless' bahu can fight back.

The most traditional way for bahus to get influence is, of course, to have children - and unfortunately, that still usually means male children. Male children give the bahu a bargaining chip. Products that she might not have been able to get for herself, she can get in the name of her son. Instead of tooth powder, or even just neem twigs, she can insist that the son needs toothpaste and, once in the house, that consumption habit can spread.

Sons can be the excuse to get a whole range of products from a better quality detergent, to wash their clothes when they go to school, or a better quality of branded biscuits rather than the unbranded ones that the women and children usually eat.

Today, as the trend towards nuclear families accelerates, even in rural areas, the power of bahus can only rise. As Mr Kashyap notes, in an important new textbook on rural marketing, that he and Siddhartha Raut have co-authored, even when a joint family is still technically living under one roof, they are branching off by setting up separate cooking arrangements with their own chulhas (hearths): “These hybrid families can be termed 'individualised joint families' (IJF). The national Census records each chulha as a separate household. These IJFs live separately on a daily basis and take purchase decisions independently for FMCGs and consumer durables.” And within each IJF, the bahus' power is much greater.

One should avoid overstating the power of bahus in rural households. Many still remain in their traditionally-subservient state, with little influence and facing many problems.

Yet, as more marketers focus on rural areas, and do more studies on how households there really operate, many clichés are fading and the picture is becoming more complex.

The life of rural bahus may never be as complex as those in K-serials (but then nothing is as complex as that), yet their lives and influence is emerging as more important than has been thought of in the past.


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