1. The XX Factor

The XX Factor

Using feminism to sell products is more than just a cause marketing strategy. To succeed, it should be real, relatable and move beyond women-centric categories 

By: | Published: March 8, 2016 12:02 AM

A few years back, HBR released a report which stated that as a market, women represent a bigger opportunity than China and India combined. And marketers have duly taken note. It is no wonder, then, that a woman’s whims, fancies, trials and tribulations are finding their way into every marketer’s radar, and communication is steadily moving beyond functional, to emotional. Consider the surge in women-centric advertising: Dabur Vatika’s Brave and Beautiful campaign featuring a bald lady who is a cancer survivor; Myntra’s Bold is Beautiful series for its in-house brand Anouk; Biba’s Change is Beautiful, a take on arranged marriages; Airtel’s Boss ad; Havells’ Respect Women series for its kitchen appliances; and Ariel’s latest campaign, Share the Load.

The advent of digital marketing has further fuelled the femvertising wave by changing the way brands tell stories. In fact, most of these women-centric ads are long format, digital-only ones. “After all, people don’t engage with advertising; they engage with content,” says Samit Sinha, founder and managing partner, Brand Alchemist .

While challenging traditional notions and selling empowerment to women might be in vogue, are marketers laying it on too thick? Can femvertising prove to be the Holy Grail, or is it coming across as a forced exercise in the case of some brands? How can marketers strike the delicate balance between brand relevance and social messaging?

Marketing with a purpose Currently, there are two types of women-centric communication. The first primarily creates social awareness about women empowerment, or stands against the atrocities that women have been subjected to for centuries. There isn’t any overt need to sell a service or a product here. For example, take Boys Don’t Cry — a film starring Madhuri Dixit forVogue magazine (using #VogueEmpower). The second type is about brands raising pertinent and uncomfortable issues while trying to sell their product or service. Of the two, the share of the latter is much higher. “Gone are the days when products and services just fulfilled a functional need,” says Ayan Banik, head, brand strategy, Cheil India.

With most brands operating at the same price point as rivals, coupled with increasing product parity, addressing emotional needs of the target audience can prove to be the biggest differentiator. “Emotional need is about exploiting the insecurities of the consumer, and accordingly positioning your product or service,” adds Banik.

But is women-centric advertising an effective marketing tactic or a reaction to changing social attitudes? “I don’t call this a marketing tool,” says Manish Aggarwal, vice president, marketing, Myntra Fashion Brands. “Women’s fashion is a cluttered category where communication has been very product centric. Therefore, we want to disrupt the game and create something that women can relate to.”

So far, the brand has released four films under the Bold is Beautiful series and plans to unleash more. In fact, Bold is Beautiful is now a franchise. “Fashion is an individual’s choice. We thought the same choice should transmit not only in fashion but in all aspects of her decision making,” says Aggarwal. “It is more about individuality than feminism.”

Each of the four creatives is high on issues like single parenting, eve-teasing, partner selection and gender discrimination at the workplace. The common thread binding all four films is the choices which the modern Indian woman makes, whether in the family, at the workplace or as an individual.

Similar storylines are seen in Biba’s Change is Beautiful or Havells Respect Women attempts. Biba’s campaign addresses issues of the typical arranged marriage setup wherein a bride is usually tested on her household capabilities. The digital campaign has recorded more than 14 million views. The Havells Appliances campaign was rolled out in 2014 during the IPL, comprising five TVCs based on the central theme that a woman is more than just a kitchen ‘appliance’.

Vijay Narayanan, VP, marketing, Havells India, says, “In the small appliances segment, people don’t really want to see product features in ads. So we decided to talk about our target audience — women.” The humourous, tongue-in-cheek, yet somehow socially relevant tack is not a new one for Havells. The brand went down a similar path in its previous ads too, such as Hawa Badlegi (2013), where, in one creative, the husband takes on his wife’s surname after marriage. Also moving away from traditional advertising is the Tanishq second marriage ad for its contemporary wedding jewellery. The protagonist in the TVC is a dusky woman with a daughter. In a single attempt, the ad broke many existing stereotypes. “By running a progressive spot in an otherwise traditional space, Tanishq proved to be the differentiator. Apart from sparking conversation around weddings and portraying a new-age mindset, the ad had emotional appeal that resonated with our TG,” says Deepika Tewari, general manager, marketing, jewellery division, Titan.

Not all hunky dory

While most such campaigns succeed in creating viral content, not all hit the right chord with audiences. For example, many consumers found Vogue magazine’s Deepika Padukone starrer campaign

My Choice as gender stereotyping of the worst kind, and dubbed it “vague empowerment.” Similarly, Grofers’ We Get It, which shows a young working woman dreamily imagining of getting happily surprised by her husband managing grocery without her intervention, didn’t go down well and many thought it portrayed men as nincompoops.

Clearly, there are good stories and bad stories. “As long as the stories are good, it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a man or a woman. We are still confused between what is progressive and what is permissive,” says Swati Bhattacharya, CCO, FCB Ulka. Consider Raymond’s The Complete Man ad, where the husband stays home and takes care of their baby. “A permissive man is not the progressive man,” she says.

Or consider Airtel’s Boss ad. The insight behind the creative fails to break gender stereotypes. While on one hand, it shows the wife as a boss at the workplace issuing orders in the day, on the other, the same woman, on going home, makes an elaborate dinner and is seen coaxing her husband to come home early. As Bhattacharya puts it, “She started off as Zeenat Aman and went home to become Nirupa Roy.” The case of a brand trying too hard?

A more-than-necessary or overenthusiastic embrace of feminism can backfire and can do brands more harm than good, thanks to social media. It is important to tread the fine line between being sexist/feminist and empowering.

Battle of the sexes

The objectification of women has been a core part of advertising even more so in the past, not only in India but also in the West. It has been the standard norm to use women as props for the object of male desire to sell a product or tell a joke. Lyril is a classic example. While it is known for iconic communication, it is also the classic case of objectifying women. At present also, we can see similar communication. Axe has been positioned as a ‘chick magnet’. The communication of Wild Stone and Imperial Blue is also on similar lines. “All detergent brands have focussed on the man’s white shirt to get him promoted. If those can be seen as career stories then why not Myntra’s ad on gender discrimination at the workplace?” exclaims Bhattacharya.

How is it that the communication centred around men is the norm and a woman-centric story is dubbed as femvertising? “There are pertinent real issues that Indian women are grappling with. It is better to focus on those issues rather than going the other extreme and objectifying men. Two wrongs don’t make a right,” observes Banik of Cheil. At present, femvertising is restricted to women-centric categories: beauty, skin care, kitchen appliances, apparel, jewellery etc. “Going forward, advertising needs to be neutral of the category. Increasingly, gadgets, technology and

automobile brands need to talk about it,” Banik continues. For example, consider the smartphone segment. There are as many women who buy high-end and mid-level smartphones as men.

Femvertising is hard-hitting. Using this route runs the risk of alienating some segments and there is also a risk of the brand getting diluted. Experts say it is not a quick-fix solution and requires sustained investments. For example, Voonik, a fashion marketplace for women, which recently unveiled its first TV ad campaign, decided to stay away from women empowerment-led ideas. The TVC, Har Din Fashion Karo featuring Farah Khan, promotes the idea that every day is an occasion to be fashionable. “We did not take the route of women empowerment just to ride the viral wave. We’d rather speak to our target audience and explain the value proposition of the product,” says Sujayath Ali, CEO and co-founder, Voonik.

On the flipside, capitalising on the trend without supporting the cause can lead to a pratfall. A severe dose of femvertising can be a reflection of losing perspective of what women empowerment really is. “All brands are eyeing a multiplier effect. Brands need to recognise that unless there is a seamless fit with what they are doing, there is no point in paying tokenism to this topic. You have to be clear about your objective,” cautions Arun Iyer, chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas.

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