Indian corporates wake up to women power

Posted in India | 23-Sep-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Top Indian male actor Shahrukh Khan

NEW DELHI - Top Indian male actor Shahrukh Khan is now featured in an advertisement for bath soap that has been promoted for the past 75 years by local beauty queens.

Generations of Indians have grown up watching top Bollywood actresses promote beauty soap - nearly 50 have had their faces splashed on Lux soap wrappers and billboards. But now Lux, which is produced by Hindustan Lever (the Indian arm of multinational Unilever), is experiencing dwindling sales and increasingly stiff competition. As a result the soapmaker is undertaking a "brand revamp".

Bring on Bollywood's Shahrukh - heartthrob to millions, mostly women who love to see him naked surrounded by floating rose petals in a bathtub. Using a movie idol to sell products to women is a reflection of the growing money power and independence of the product's female target audience.

He is the only Indian man to endorse the product but not the only male to appear in a Lux campaign. Hollywood actor Paul Newman was once the face of a Lux campaign in the West, but the ads did not appear in India.

While promoters are keen on the advertising campaign, market analysts are not sure how much Shahrukh in a tub is going to translate into sales. Women consumers can be difficult to judge. Internationally, there have been instances in which such brand revamps have resulted in sales dipping further.

Motorcycle giant Harley Davidson tried it in the early the 1980s when faced with tumbling market share due to the arrival of new Japanese bikes in the US. Harley focused on women bikers, but the advertising did not help.

The final success or failure of the Lux campaign will only become clear in time. However, ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar thinks the ad will sell: "I think it's a great strategy, as most of the time these guys make females doll up in bathtubs, and who are the people who see those ads more? The men - who don't use the soap. At least with Shahrukh, who is popular with his sensitive, emotional appeal across women of all age groups, they have ensured that the buyer will also see the bare-chested man in the bathtub."

The Shahrukh ad has brought focus on the importance of women as niche spenders. In a free market, the consumer is king - with men replacing beauty queens if the need so arises and the competition so deems.

The past few years have seen a tremendous resurgence of female workers in India, courtesy of the growth of a service sector that contributes to more than 50 % of India's GDP. This sector is considered friendly to women employees. Working women, whether single or married, are earning more and spending more, which is why corporate and marketing strategies are being fashioned to target women.

Women are also filling positions in hospitality, tourism, health, market research and education. They are estimated to account for 20-25% of white-collar workers in software, information technology-enabled services such as call centers, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, market research, financial services and advertising-marketing-media. That is up from 10% in the 1980s. According to predictions of IT industry body NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies), 65% of IT jobs will be held by women by the end of this year. Specifically, women already comprise the majority of employees in the IT-enabled service sector. In several India's cities, single women make up the second-largest group of homebuyers.

It is estimated that there are more than 100 million working women in India though 90 % are still in the unorganized sector, but their say in making economic decisions is growing. According to a survey by Business Today, ACNielsen and ORG-Marg, working women are slowly becoming a lucrative target group for a large number of products and services, including apparel, grooming services, financial products, consumer goods and even leisure and entertainment.

The overall picture also indicates that more and more women will seek to enter the workforce. Female literacy levels have risen to 54% as per the 2001 census, compared with 40% in 1991. Management institutes are reporting a larger proportion of female students. The enrollment of women in higher education increased to 40% in 2001 from 33% in 1991.

Recent decisions by the Indian courts have removed some of the biases against women in relation to property inheritance. Women's voices have become more prominant in local politics while the Indian parliament has been discussing a reservation bill allowing more seats for women.
India's corporate world is also getting the first taste of "girl power", which has made worldwide celebrities and top endorsers of tennis players such as Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova as well as pop singers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Indian tennis player Sania Mirza is just 18 years old, yet she is set to overtake the top celebrity brand endorsers in the country. She has become an icon for young girls, a prime example of a women making a mark. She should spawn many more wannabes.

She caught the eye of world audiences and sponsors at the recent US Open tennis tournament. After her US Open sojourn she was pegged as the joint second-highest grosser in endorsement deals amongst sports stars in India. She is in the same bracket as Rahul Dravid (a cricketing hero) - second only to Sachin Tendulkar, the cricket God of India and the country's only million-dollar sports star. Sania Mirza, in November, was valued at under US$15,000 per deal while her current rate has reportedly climbed to more than $400,000.

Indeed, consequent to India embarking on the path of economic reforms, there have been several indicators that executives with the top Indian and international brands have been going out of their way to please the local consumer, whether men or women. There has been a fall in overall prices, which translates into more innovative marketing strategies to kick up sales volumes - the kind we see involving Shahrukh.

Ad spending across the Asia-Pacific region has been on the rise, and India wants to be no exception. By and large, developing countries spend anywhere between 4-5 % of GDP on advertising, whereas India has hovered below 3 %. Observers say that a country such as India needs advertising to create demand and change attitudes, given the strong negative sentiments against consumerism.

Shahrukh must have been paid a huge amount to sign the Lux deal. The idea is to court the consumer, in this case the women, who should have no complaints.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.