Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Storyboard18 - Girl Uninterrupted: The danger in undervaluing and understudying teenage girls

Key truths about young Indian consumers, many of which clash with our urban assumptions about non-metro India, revealed in a new report

Published: Feb 21, 2022 05:55:34 PM IST
Updated: Feb 21, 2022 06:18:40 PM IST

Storyboard18 - Girl Uninterrupted: The danger in undervaluing and understudying teenage girls

Girl Uninterrupted is a study I had wanted to take on for almost a decade, for the simple reason that media portrayals of small-town India have, at some point, taken over from the reality to the extent that even marketers believe that what they saw in the last year’s hit comedy film represents the reality of ‘bharat’.

At the same time, I began to notice that every meeting about Gen-Z and the changing image of India revolved solely around what was happening in affluent circles, in metro cities. 

This is doubly problematic—not only do we minimise the lived experiences of non-metro India, but we project our own version of what is acceptable, desirable and aspirational onto them, and we write them out of our target audience by surmising that they simply aren’t ‘ready’ for what we are offering. 

For context, 420 million people live in the three states we studied (Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar) and there are tens of millions more that we simply are not seeing because we have not taken the time to understand their needs.

Moreover, teenage girls as a segment have been heavily undervalued and understudied worldwide, particularly as serious consumers of business and technology. The idea, that it is young girls and women of tomorrow who will have both discernment and purchasing power in the coming years, is being entirely missed by brands and businesses.

Young women buy more, experiment more, and tend to be more emotionally invested in the brands and influences they engage with. While much of our study focused on understanding teenage girls, we also uncovered a staggering amount of data that goes beyond the segment to family and community behaviour and sentiments.

We found several key truths, many of which clash with our urban assumptions about non-metro India. It is my hope that reading this study will help change the stark black-and-white narratives that we have about a large majority of this country, and will help us understand and create for everyone.

We studied young women across heartland India – and we gathered qualitative and quantitative data on everything from their family and community contexts, future aspirations, education, shopping, body image, gender roles, to content and social media.

Here are three key findings from the report that will help anyone, across categories:

Traditional media is still very much a mainstay in their content preferences
TV, newspapers, out-of-home (OOH) still hold tremendous value and are considered one of the main ways in which influence is established and displayed. Brands are making a huge mistake here by extrapolating the preferences of city audiences to the rest of the country, particularly when it comes to choosing the correct media mix for non-metro audiences–there is certainly a huge amount of wasted ad spend that can be salvaged if this is understood well.

Bharat meets ‘brand’, and it's love at first sight
This is a time of great excitement among consumers—they have begun engaging with ‘brands’ very recently (and they are doing it online). While manufacturer brands have existed for decades, consumers have not seen these as ‘living and breathing’ brands, but more as businesses or family run empires. For most of their daily needs they have bought undifferentiated products, and are now discovering the landscape of branded products that exists (the success of boAt is a testament to this fact). Therefore, for much of India, the idea of ‘what a brand is’ is being written in real time. The opportunity is being almost entirely exploited by D2C brands at the moment but there is enormous potential here for a brand to establish the playbook of what India should expect by leading the way.

Woke is not the only way
While a lot has changed in the last few years, social media and advertising is pushing an image of India that simply is not the reality or aspiration of many, particularly when it comes to adopting activism and values from the West (especially when it comes to things like dating, gender, beauty norms). As a result, much of mainstream Bollywood and OTTs aren’t appealing to audiences outside the cities, who instead are turning to regional and global content to find more resonating themes and genres.

About author: Gayatri Sapru is an anthropologist and a cultural and strategy consultant. 'Girl Uninterrupted' is a study she conducted with girls across MP, UP and Bihar with first-time respondents between the ages of 13 and 17. The study had two phases, an exhaustive survey phase, followed by a qualitative phase with friend groups and use of stimulus, games, and media content.