Harish Narayanan, Chief Marketing Officer of Myntra, speaks to WARC about how the Indian fashion e-commerce company has been rated one of the best workplaces for women, among other laudable diversity and inclusivity efforts.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on diversity and inclusion in Indian advertising. Read more

Key insights

  • Diversity and equality for a fashion company are natural as communities at the fringe always use fashion to express themselves and celebrate the differences.
  • In a brand’s communication, diversity and inclusion can be about a variety of representations across parameters and about anybody who is under-represented.
  • Companies without healthy diversity are missing out, not just from a philosophical point of view, but from hard business metrics as well.
How does Myntra define diversity and inclusion?

I have had the good fortune of working in companies where diversity and inclusion have always been a priority. The first company that I worked for was Procter & Gamble. P&G prides itself on touching billions of lives. The second company I worked for was Google, famous for its culture and the way it celebrates diversity and brings together people of all backgrounds and even creates products for all people. And then, the third company I worked for is Myntra where again, DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) becomes a natural fit.

If you think about fashion, it is all about celebrating uniqueness, expression, everybody’s voice, using your personality to shine through – these are all inherent to fashion. The way our company culture has come through, it builds on what fashion stands for.

Fashion is about colour, variety, enjoying different views and expressions, styles and things that are new. And if you look at the communities at the fringe, whether it is transgender or the LGBTQ community as a whole, you’ll see that they always use fashion to express themselves and “celebrate” the differences.

In that sense, diversity and equality for a fashion company is very natural. That’s what Myntra starts with and builds upon. For us, fashion is the essence and our reason to be. And we can’t celebrate a world where we celebrate so many different forms of fashion and beauty without having diversity and inclusion at the core of our company culture.

For me, DEI is strength. It is a competitive advantage and a celebration of differences.

For the longest time, Myntra’s communication has touched upon subjects that many brands are only exploring now, particularly when it comes to issues like diversity and inclusion. For example, there was a campaign some time back that told the story of a same-sex couple. While DEI is definitely much more than representing homosexuality, what stood out in that film was how it didn’t have to stand out in the story. Can you comment on your advertising strategy?

That campaign by Anouk (a Myntra brand) remains one of our most popular ones. It has become the benchmark for many brands who want to talk about such subjects in a very sensitive and caring way.

Our advertising strategy has been about celebrating all forms of creative expression via fashion and beauty. The core marketing team and the brand building team work closely with me on this. We also take content creation and content marketing very seriously. We work with a bunch of influencers. We have among the largest social media presence in terms of e-commerce companies in the country.

If you open our app, the kind of imagery that you will see on the page, the kind of models we sign up for our shoots are all part of the way we think about diversity. Now, it is not a written-down formal strategy of how Myntra thinks about DEI. It is more in the essence of how we think about it and hence, it comes out beautifully.

For example, from a very uber level, even the celebrities we have leveraged in our campaigns have been chosen from across the country and not just a couple from a particular region. We have worked with celebrities from down south and we have worked with an equal number of men and women.

Coming to a project that is particularly relevant in a DEI context is the reality show Myntra Fashion Superstar (MFS), with the third season to be shortly launched. The first two seasons were heavily focused on diversity and inclusion as a core concept, perhaps more than any other reality show or piece of content marketing in India.

In the first season, we featured people who were gender-fluid, androgynous models, dark-skinned models, and the participants were real people who shared real stories. Celebrity judge Sonakshi Sinha released a video on body shaming wherein she spoke about body positivity and how much criticism she faced in the industry. Our call to entry in Season Two was about diversity. It was about variety in skin tones, sexuality, the way body image is perceived. We have always welcomed everyone with excellent fashion sensibilities and style. I feel very blessed to be able to work on projects such as these.

With the Anouk campaign you mentioned, it isn’t just about sexuality but about representation of women; it is about giving voice to any under-represented community that faces any kind of discrimination. Fashion ends up being in a place where it is able to do that easily because the dress you wear is, in a way, the armour or extension of your personality and voice.

These are some of the examples I can think of with Myntra’s marketing perspective in mind, not just advertising.

We have a brand called House of Pataudi that we launched in collaboration with the Pataudis. One of the brand campaigns comprised a series of videos called “Stories of Love”, featuring couples in love sharing their stories. We chose couples from across the country and different age groups.

Diversity and inclusion can be about a variety of representations across parameters and about anybody who is under-represented. This is how my team would think about DEI in communication.

Let’s talk about your influencer marketing strategy and how you are weaving in the concept of inclusion.

How we choose our influencers also has DEI at the core of it. Our contestants from Myntra Fashion Superstar became our key influencers because of the kind of work they have done and the fame they get from the show. By default, they are very diverse. They have very strong personalities and that shines through when they participate. Just leveraging MFS participants, finalists and winners, we have a wonderful canvas in MFS to play with.

Other than that, when we choose influencers, we choose diverse styles. We don’t always choose those who are “bold” or “edgy”. We might choose someone with a mature style, who is trendy or even androgynous, or someone who plays on colour and texture. The types of influencers we choose also reflects the types of customers we have who are in many different shades of colours and choices – our influencers reflect such sensibilities as well. Combined with MFS, this makes a very diverse set of talents who we can work with and activate for different campaigns in different mixes.

When a brand champions a cause, it is important that it walks the talk. Myntra has been regularly listed as one of the best workplaces for women. Tell us how you’re approaching the idea of diversity and inclusion at work because clearly, you aren’t just limiting it to your communication.

When you see it as a strength and a place of pride, the attitude changes automatically. I am a firm believer in the idea that companies without healthy diversity are missing out, not just from a philosophical point of view but from hard business metrics as well.

When I was in Google, a survey was done that clearly showed how more diverse teams end up being more effective and long-lasting. So it is not just philosophy, it is good business sense.

Let’s talk about walking the talk. Consistently, Myntra has been rated as one of the best workplaces for women. And not just about women, this is one of the few places where even in the insurance policies, we support gender reassignment surgery or equal maternity and paternity leave. We ran a return to career programme for those who have been off their career path for a variety of reasons. A lot of our senior leaders are women. They feel comfortable knowing that their career advancement is not hindered by any of the life choices they make. They don’t have to choose between being great at work and personal life.

As a group, there is a lot of emphasis on such specific aspects at both Myntra and Flipkart. And that shows up in the way we have our people discussions when we meet as leaders. I, as a leader, will be measured on how well I have been able to meet the benchmarks in terms of diversity and inclusion. There will be policies we will overindex on even if it isn’t the norm in the industry or the country.

This comes from the core belief that this is good for the people, brand and business. I have seen the leadership take calls without even blinking an eye and that shows in the way our people feel safe, respected or loved within their teams.

We often see brands patting their own backs for having championed a cause that should have been normal conversation in the first place. It is nice to know Myntra thinks gender reassignment and homosexuality to be a part of regular conversations.

When you take a stand in this space, it should be natural. You are not doing this to be woke. It should be something that people watch and say, “Yes, it makes sense that Myntra is talking about this. They have been doing this for years.

These ideas should be linked to the brand ethos. We have done two seasons with the idea of inclusion with MFS. Now when we launch Season Three and talk about somebody from the LGBTQ community, nobody is going to point a finger and say that we are doing this for short-term gains. It is a philosophy we have followed forever.

Have it in your essence, in your core belief system. Then when it reflects in your external communication policies and PR, those who think positively and understand that you believe in a certain idea will have your back even if things go south.

If it is meaningful to your brand, something you deeply believe in, have been talking about for a while, something you should talk about because your brand is in that space, and is the right thing to do, then by all means, you should go ahead and talk about it. But talk in a way that feels natural and is aligned to the tonality of your brand.

As long as it is aligned to the tonality of the brand and what the core belief system is, and you are bringing about positive change in society and helping people celebrate differences, it's a thing to be happy about. However, not every brand effort comes from the right place and not every execution hits the spot.

Do you think it is easier for a young, lesser-known brand to take up certain contentious issues in its communication than an established one like yours?

Obviously because of the reach we would have, anything we say gets amplified multiple times. If you’re a smaller startup, you can afford to take risks, make mistakes and move on. At the same time, when you are a smaller company, not many people are listening to you in the first place.

As a marketer, if you want to tell stories, being part of a big brand has its advantages as well.

When I launch an MFS, I know I would have the resources to do a big production and tell an amazing story.

It comes down to what the right story is and how your brand wants to say it. The size shouldn’t matter. I remember the way the Dollar Shave Club was launched in the US. A video was released, it became viral and reached millions of users. It eventually became a billion-dollar company and was sold to Unilever.

The size of the company and resources are becoming less important and the story is becoming more important. What I have learnt from my years in marketing, particularly in this decade, is that people can smell authenticity.

We have seen in recent months how the online audience is widening. Your stories appeal to a woke and urban audience but how are you managing the balancing act for those beyond the metros?

It’s a tough one to balance for sure. Not everybody resonates with the same idea and execution.

But it’s not a new challenge. For example, FMCG companies like P&G and Unilever have sold products to millions of Indians. I am sure the person sitting in South Mumbai has a different mindset from the one in Jalandhar.

The first thing we are taught as kids is how India is a diverse nation. Marketers in India have been grappling with this problem and finding solutions for it.

The digital media channels make it slightly easier. I wouldn’t say that they solve the problem but they make it easier for me to create different stories for different audiences. Especially in e-commerce, we do this very rigorously in a nuanced and detailed manner. Sometimes, when I go mass media and do television advertising, it is difficult. But I now have more tools at my disposal than five years ago.

What's your message to other marketers across categories? How do brands get out of what has become a comfort zone and be truly inclusive?

One thing Ambi Parameswaran said resonated with me: “Advertising cannot change society.”Movies can, books can, activism can, reformers can but advertising at the end of the day has a job to do, which is build a business.

I believe marketers who believe their ads are going to change the world are being too immodest. It is hubris, not reality.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that all we should do is say: Buy this product! There is a reason to talk about diversity and inclusion and addressing real issues if your brand really believes in it and it is in your DNA. The Pepsi-Kendall Jenner commercial, for example. Those things fall flat because it isn’t in the brand’s DNA to talk about such issues. So if it is in the brand’s DNA to talk about something, go right ahead and do it because you are being true to yourself. And in the long run, you might even bring about some change. A case in point for me is (apparel brand) Patagonia. They talk about sustainability, caring for the environment and so on and they have stuck to this messaging for decades. People who believe in this brand believe in these issues.