“Being a mother is not a sacrifice--it’s a choice, and I’ve made one,” a pregnant woman in her late twenties proudly declares as her mother fights back tears in Titan Watches’ new prime-time Indian TV commercial, conceptualised by Ogilvy.
This ad, and a plethora of similar ones, reflects a trend that is slowly but surely overturning traditional perceptions of Indian women as docile homemakers who clean kitchen utensils, dry clothes, and cook noodles for the kids. Rather, they are now taking charge of buying decisions and the household spend.
Established brands across industries, led by FMCG majors Unilever and P&G and telecom giant Airtel, to name a few, have ushered in an era of advertising that rejects gender stereotypes and portrays women in positions superior to men both at work and in social situations.
What’s behind the shift in India? Among the reasons, a burgeoning middle class, more educational opportunities, greater financial independence, and increased female stature, coupled with increasing awareness through media, has made the formulaic “pink” message less appealing across the country.
Further, it isn’t just urban, educated women being influenced by these changing views. According to the “Women Consumers In Rural India” study by Accenture:
- 37% of rural women make purchasing decisions.
- 69% buy branded products, mainly for their trustworthiness and reliability.
- 76% make impulse purchases in or near their villages.
Clearly, brands and advertising agencies that closely monitor changes in consumer behaviour are the first to change their messaging accordingly. It’s no surprise, therefore, when a brand such as Unilever (whose predecessor, Lever Brothers, entered India in 1933) vows to eradicate outdated gender portrayals from its US$8.5 billion global advertising budget that other brands will follow suit.
Implications Across APAC
India is far from alone in the changing societal perception and consequent brand messaging in the region. Ads showing women in independent and leading roles are on the rise across Asia. International sport and lifestyle brands are naturally taking the lead in encouraging girls to reach new heights. The Adidas #mygirls campaign in China and Korea, for example, promoted fitness, with women running together that made a statement about unity and independence. This was replicated by Nike in India.
The effect of societal change in the workplace is also clear; it’s breaking down traditional hierarchies as well as promoting pay equality. In Japan, where the government has established a target of 30% women in leadership positions in its companies by 2020, “more and more startups are being founded by women, which was extremely rare even five years ago,” said Nori Matsuda, CEO of SourceNext, Japan’s largest software distributor.
Equal pay policies at SourceNext, where two in five of the workforce are women and the same ratio holds for managerial positions, means “almost all women returning to the company after maternity leave, another rare occurrence in Japan,” she added.
And according to Aung Kyaw Moe, founder of Singapore-based pan Asian payments provider 2C2P, “In the fintech startup space where women used to be a minority, we now see greater female participation, with more women taking up entrepreneurial and technology roles.”
With regard to 2C2P’s own marketing strategy, “our marketing efforts reflect the current social convention, such as portraying women using digital channels for payments,” he added.
That inevitably leads to the question: What are companies really doing to empower women beyond marketing? CSR initiatives by big companies in Asia demonstrate sincere efforts. For example:
- Coca-Cola, with its STAR program (part of its global 5by20 initiative) is well on its way to enrich the lives of 200,000 women store owners by 2020 in the Philippines.
- Diageo’s ambitious Plan W project has helped 40,000 women across 17 APAC countries through its training and skills development programs.
- Asian companies account for 485 of the 1,401 signatories to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) charter. The majority of these come from China.
As brands attempt to influence the fairer half of what will be the world’s fifth largest consumer market by 2025, they have a mountain to overcome: It is still hard for Indian and Asian women to break out of their traditional roles as mother, wife, and homemaker.
While the portrayal of female independence in marketing is welcomed, it also leads to unrealistic expectations with respect to maintaining physical beauty in a society where women who aren’t married by their late twenties are considered “leftovers.” It remains to be seen how successful brands will be in addressing such double-edged issues.
When all’s said and done, however, the new generation of progressive ads being made across the region promise to move society in the right direction.