The masculinity problem of unisex brands in India

While the brands in the US have had ambassadors like Maria Sharapova, Kylie Jenner, Uma Thurman, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, their desi avatars are still practicing obsolete method to attract consumers. Here's why advertising needs an urgent reboot to focus on the other majority of consumers—women

Abhik Choudhury
Updated: Jun 2, 2022 12:51:53 PM UTC

Abhik Choudhury is the chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting. He is also a visiting faculty of Advertising & PR at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. You can reach him at abhik@saltandpaper.co

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Image: Shutterstock

Fashion? Check. Kitchenware? Check. Personal care? Check. But what happens when we start peeping into the world of automobiles, banks, and real estate—categories with higher money and time investment? The difference is glaring.

A 2020 UN Gender study finds that 90 percent of people are biased against women. But in the third largest advertising market in the world, is it a lack of acceptance or just an obsolete practice that needs an urgent reboot?

Let’s start with a rather novel unisex category in India—Edtech. Except for female actor Vidya Balan, who was roped in as the brand ambassador of Math learning platform Cuemath, right after portraying the Math genius Shakuntala Devi in a Bollywood movie—every other single brand ambassador is a male celebrity. Shah Rukh Khan for Byju's, Aamir Khan for Vedantu, Hrithik Roshan for WhiteHat Jr, Virat Kohli for Great Learning, MS Dhoni for Unacademy, and Ranveer Singh for Eduauraa.

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Now one by one, let’s break the myths around this disparity phenomenon in high investment categories:

‘FEMALE CONSUMERS DON’T SHOW EXCLUSIVE INTEREST IN MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY’

How true is that? Let’s take cars as a real example to study this, especially with the automotive space in India being the second-highest spender after FMCG on advertising. Are Indian female consumers not actively looking for cars? There are 1.4 crores (14Mn) registered women car owners—a number all experts agree is far less representative of reality considering how many households still buy cars for women in the name of the male members. As Google Trends (Apr 2017 - Mar 2022) show, if anything, the interest has been growing substantially, taking the overall search average higher in reality. The representation in advertising however, hasn’t come close to balancing it.

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*Google Trends of “best car for men/women” in India (Apr 2017 - Mar 2022)

From Maruti, Tata Motors, Datsun, Hyundai, MG Motors, Nexa, Renault, Audi, BMW, and Nissan to Toyota, every single one of the brands has had a male ambassador in the last five years.

‘BRANDS DON’T FOCUS ON FEMALE CUSTOMERS IN HIGH-VALUE CATEGORIES’

Let’s dive deeper into the other side of the story by quickly looking at the bidding cost of two Google keywords in India: “Best car for men” and “Best car for women.” And then comparing the same ones with the US market.

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*Google Keyword bidding INDIA Mar 2020 - Feb 2022

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*Google Keyword bidding USA Mar 2020 - Feb 2022

INDIA: Best car for men: INR 0 | Best car for women: INR 59.40 (about $0.7) | Best car: INR 37.23

USA: Best car for men: INR 368.14 (about $4.9) | Best car for women: INR 173.82 | Best car: INR 333.22

Both the search and bid difference is a clear indication of how marketers are ready to pay more to get female customer leads in India than even the US. And yet, while the US have had ambassadors like Maria Sharapova, Kylie Jenner, Uma Thurman, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Masie Williams, Whitney Wolfe Herd, here with one in a decade, the exception is resounding. To some, it may seem that in India, general keywords are preferred, yet the highest bid for “best car” is still comfortably lower than “best car for women”.

In India, more than 80 percent of adults have a bank account today, so we can officially and fairly say that it is not a predominantly male inclined product space anymore, with extraordinary penetration possibility in the female customer market. Yet, except for two banks out of more than a dozen, from ICICI, Amex, and DBS to Citibank, all brand ambassadors are again either a male athlete or an actor.

It is 2022, and a similar turn in the newly minted crypto exchange category was seen last year with male actors Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khuranna signed in as celebrity endorsers by CoinDCX, and Ranveer Singh closely following them as the face of CoinSwitch Kuber. Let’s hope others are evolved enough to understand the value and need of female idols in the financial space. Otherwise, we will keep doing the award-winning ‘Share the Load’ creative campaigns with no real change.

Now coming to the final category and possibly the most aspirational buy in the Indian market—real estate. Even here, the female brand ambassadors like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to Anushka Sharma are few and far between, mostly saved for affluent properties of Tier 1 cities. For the rest of 98 percent of the country, in place of younger female inspirations, yesteryear's male actors would be roped in for a dozen full-page print ads and hundreds of outdoors. According to the research by Track2Realty, women contribute to nearly 74 percent of real estate buying decisions in India. A fair estimation of how high-value assets are finalised in the Indian families. The last brand campaign that focused on the decision-maker rather than the consumer not only saved but in more ways than one elevated a vintage product to legendary status in two years. ‘The man your man can smell like’ by Old Spice. Imagine what it could do to a whole category.

‘WHAT CAN BRANDS DO TO BALANCE THE SCALES’

First and foremost, stop saying we have come a long way. Accept the extraordinary imbalance and consciously start by bringing more women, both in front and behind the camera. When there will be gender equality in your top management, how far can representation in advertising remain?

With Falguni Nayyar making her startup a Unicorn in her late 50s to Avani Chaturvedi becoming the first Indian woman fighter pilot in her early 20s, the country was never this ready for a transformation. All it needs is three big brands to take a bold leap of faith and change the narrative for good. Especially if you’re a foreign brand doing the same in your country, why not trust the Indian audiences too by putting Olympic medalist female athletes, authors and award-winning female journalists as the face of your brand. And not for one-off award season, Woman’s day or weekend Twitter trend but genuine long term investment as done with a dozen male celebrities. Commit sincerely and see the whole next generation float your brand imagery to the highest sustainable and respectable mountains.

In the end, we all deserve a world where if a male superstar like Shah Rukh Khan can sell groceries for BigBasket in India, having a female star like Alia Bhatt selling MRF tyres should feel equally normal.

The writer is a chief strategist and founder of Salt and Paper Consulting. Twitter: @iamabhik

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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