Real is progressive - How women marketers feel about the current state of advertising

Women are the most significant market opportunity on earth and are principal shoppers in both consumer and business markets. The role of women as consumer, influencer and secondary influencer can be felt in most categories. Yet gendered segmentation in marketing is prevalent and has been influencing advertising communications for decades. At the Women Disruptors Summit 2021, we were joined by some of the most astute women leaders in the business of advertising to understand a better way to communicate to women.

The session was moderated by Chandni Shah, Co-founder & COO, Kinnect, and speakers included Kainaz Karmakar, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy India; Babita Baruah, Managing Partner, GTB India; Sherina Kapany, Founder, Sunstrategic; Debarpita Banerjee, President - North and East, FCB Ulka and Head Fuel Content India; Garima Khandelwal, Chief Creative Officer, Mullen Lintas; Tista Sen, Regional Creative Director, Wunderman Thompson South Asia; Vasudha Misra, Executive Creative Director, BBH India; and Pallavi Chakravarti, Executive Creative Director, Taproot Dentsu.

Watch the full session below.

Prefacing the discussion, Chandni Shah said that the role of a woman in her family really stood out in the 2020 pandemic. Women are the primary decision makers in the household and because of the Lockdown and Work From Home, marketers had to calibrate their approach to reach women.

GTB India’s Babita Baruah remarked that before we speak about women as buyers, the overall conversation around women in pop culture has changed. Brands often reflect what is happening in society and that’s why women centricity in communications is picking up.

“However, when it comes to actual work, to creative briefs, the way you review work and the way you set Return on Investment (RoIs) on the work is based on the relationship the brand has with the woman as a consumer, influencer and secondary influencer,” she added.

For example, in the FMCG business, brands are focused on women because creative briefs are strongly linked to business goals.

“How much appetite does marketing have to take on work that may not get you immediate sales because the woman is not the primary consumer?” asked Baruah, adding, “If marketers want to be a part of the narrative for overall progress, then the matrices for measuring the work has to change.”

Baruah, who handles communications for a major automaker, concludes, “While I love to work on briefs aimed at women, we will never do as much work as FMCG brands and I understand why.”

For automotive, BFSI and other traditionally male dominated brands that do want to talk to women, the communication is often sappy and unauthentic.

According to BBH India’s Vasudha Misra, “Briefs with women specifically in mind put too much pressure on being empowering and liberating. But sometimes what we need to do is keep it real. I strongly believe that the reality is far more progressive than our communication. As a woman, I want the right representation. I don’t want to see a big deal made about small things.”

Wunderman Thompson’s Tista Sen adds, “I am highly suspicious of brands that want to empower women. It is scary because there is a fine line between being insightful and connecting with women versus talking down to them and patronising them.”

Sunstrategic’s Sherina Kapany, who has worked on a lot of BFSI clients, remarked, “Whether the client is FMCG or BFSI, most of the content we churn out is to educate the audience. Even if I’m looking at women as my primary target audience, our communications has always been ‘you’re an intelligent human being and here are your options of using this financial tool to your own advantage’.”

She further said that even in the automotive industry there is not as much segregation as compared to four years ago.

Talking about empowerment being distinct from inspiration, Baruah said, “Time and again we talk about communication being about storytelling. Stories play on our subconscious and leave an impression. I personally seek inspiration from a good book or movie. Imagery has a lot of power when it comes to inspiring women.”

Taproot Dentsu’s Pallavi Chakravarti noted that today brands are more conscious of being seen as doing the right thing. At the same time they have to do what’s right for business wise. “It is fair to say that empowerment is a boardroom/ metro dream.”

Harkening back to Vasudha Misra’s statement, she said, “Real is more progressive. In financial services, if you were to suggest can a woman be thinking about mutual funds, you would get an apologetic expression saying ‘I would love to but….’, ‘we can do a special project around women and mutual funds’. So we are currently special projects” she remarked.

FMCG is one of the largest advertising categories where the primary buyers are women. The panellists discussed how FMCG advertising has changed in response to the pandemic.

FCB Ulka’s Debarpita Banerjee pointed out, “FMCG has always kept women in their good books and has always looked at women buyers closely. The narrative built up in boardrooms primarily by marketing men is not to alienate women.”

That’s why FMCG advertisers often rely on popcorn advertising so as not to lose women or mothers as an audience.

“Post pandemic FMCG marketers are confused because the father is at home helping in the kitchen. It has become a question for marketers whether they should broaden the category and speak to all consumers” she concluded.

Ogilvy India’s Kainaz Karmakar opined, “We should give our clients some points for intention. I work on a lot of FMCG brands and sometimes they falter, sometimes they over-index on certain things, but at least brands are showing an intention to do something that is not regressive. Being in advertising for close to two decades, I can say that things are really different from where we were. Brands cannot afford to be completely idiotic and portray women in a negative way. Brands have reached an awareness stage and cannot afford to send out communications that can be ripped apart on social media.”

Mullen Lintas’ Garima Khandelwal added here, “We can thank the pandemic for bringing the awareness that men can use household items. For a recent launch of a vegetable cleaner, we portrayed a man using the product even though the target audience were still women. This is possible only when you know what kind of segments you are talking to. You may not alienate a woman by not showing her as long as you speak to her about her day to day reality.”

Vasudha Misra concurred by saying, “The pandemic has given us access to talk to men about certain categories that were dominated by conversations around women.”

Pallavi Chakravarti remarked, “We’ve all grown up on a strong diet of “This is Neetu. She wants her children to have strong bones”. Today, you may come across a communication which says that Neetu wants to have strong bones herself. So, the narrative has also changed to women wanting things for themselves.”

She further said, “While I think women will continue to remain front and centre for FMCG advertisers, consumer durables has seen a shift after men discovered that in the absence of a maid, a dryer and dishwasher are important. Clients in durables have understood that decisions are being taken jointly because not having these appliances in the household have cost men dearly.”

Sharing some food for thought, Tista Sen said, “It is the pandemic which has made men more involved or has it forced us to think about how people actually live at home?”

“Maybe men were involved, but we didn’t bother to communicate it earlier. Maybe had brands decided prior to the pandemic that let’s get the men more involved, it would have led to a completely different result. Why couldn’t we be brave and have these conversations and have women say great that’s a change I would like to see as well. Is it only the pandemic that was responsible for removing our blinkers to go beyond?” Sen concluded.

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