Consumers everywhere are becoming increasingly sensitive towards issues around them and are urging brands to be woke too. Are brands listening though? In 2021’s final edition of Spotlight India, WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das asks how Indian brands can be more inclusive in their communication and truly celebrate the diversity this country is known for.

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

Nobody wants underwear for ugly people.” Apparently, a young Indian entrepreneur in the underwear business was told this by a potential investor. As appalling as it sounds, I am still trying to make sense of the statement. I have two options:

  1. Underwear for “ugly” people is not in demand at all.
  2. “Ugly” people should forego their right to underwear.

I suspect the investor was referring to the first option. Why are we even talking about this? Well, the final Spotlight India for 2021 focuses on diversity and inclusion in Indian advertising. The young entrepreneur is Abishek Elango, who co-founded Tailor and Circus, an Indian brand keen on selling underwear for all body types. A noble aim, one would think. But where Elango went rogue was with his decision to break the monotony and use regular people to model his product. No chiselled men or striking ladies, just regular people with “flawed” bodies. Fat people, short people, pimpled and “ugly” people. That, Elango told me as I interviewed him for this edition, didn’t sit right with investors, for they were certain that consumers wouldn’t be impressed. More on this interview later.

This year began with me taking up the role of India Editor at WARC and 2021’s first Spotlight: India on Brand Activism. Three more Spotlights later, we are staring at the end of 2021 with this final edition for the year. How time flies! It is befitting though that we close the year with a Spotlight that has a theme similar to what we began with. While we explored how brands could best take a stand on issues plaguing the world, we go a bit deeper this time as we attempt to find out why it is so challenging for Indian advertising to be inclusive and steer clear of stereotypes. In a “diverse” country like India, one would think it would be rather easy to come up with ideas that are inclusive. Perhaps it is also this very diversity that is a hurdle. You can’t please everyone, can you?

That could be a myopic view though. In the Brand Activism edition, we mentioned how consumers want brands to be more responsible, to go that extra mile beyond merely pushing business. Studies reveal how they also want the brands’ communication to be more inclusive. For example, the GWI report with this edition, among other insights, reveals how three in five Indians support brands that promote equality for the LGBT community.

What such data tells you is that the consumer is changing and is more aware or, in contemporary parlance, becoming “woke”. However, are brands willing to let go of old habits? One can only hope.

An increasing number of brands are willing to be bold and even reaping dividends, taking a stance and showcasing themselves as a responsible partner to the consumer. Then again, in the current cancel culture, when rubbing a fraction of the population the wrong way could mean a “boycott”, many understandably play it safe. Brands like Fem, Dabur, Tanishq and Zomato, among others, that have had such a rough experience in the recent past will know.

It isn’t always about the cancel culture, of course. There is lazy strategising, formulaic advertising and, of course, stereotyping that are delaying the arrival of the brave new world.

Then there are those who, while wanting to take a progressive stand, won’t stop congratulating themselves about it. Screaming about a contentious issue in your campaign might give you eyeballs and get you a pat on the back but then, you are not doing much to normalise the conversation, which I believe there is a greater need for than raising the issue. Being subtle can’t hurt. Here’s a Myntra ad that I think does that brilliantly when talking about same-sex relationships.

Responsible representation of minorities, women and children, inclusion of marginalised communities and moving beyond stereotypes – we have a long road to walk. A neatly executed film on Women’s Day, then going back to the usual routine for the rest of the year might not cut it.

In this edition, we feature four knowledge papers by strategists who list how brands can do their best as consumers get more woke. We also interviewed three brands in the fashion and apparel space, one of which I mentioned. I can only hope the change that is long overdue is just around the corner.

Strategists speak

In their paper, Astha Sirpaul and Satish Krishnamurthy from TBWA\India urge brands to create a long-term sustainable change and move beyond lip service. They illustrate the current situation very well by citing numerous examples of brands that are doing things right and those that are not quite there yet.

“While diversity is about binding India together, inclusion is what makes diversity work. For diversity to thrive, we need inclusion. Indian advertising is guilty of overlooking this truth in present times because of the self-laden burden by brands and marketers to excel and do it first,” they note.

Disha Bhattacharya from Dentsu Impact makes an important contribution with her paper on female-centric communication. She introduces a tool called The Female Ad Impact Index to help brands create more inclusive and less biased communication.

“Ads talking to women about fun, love, life, empowerment, inclusivity and breaking stereotypes have become a staple now, and thank god for that,” says Bhattacharya.

“But of course, there still exist several outliers – ads and brands that definitely don’t get it right, the ones that barely get it right and some that don’t even try. This is natural because we are at a crossroads where ideologies, people, tradition, feminism, patriarchy, goodwill and profit clash with one another.”

Academic and marketing expert Prachi Gupta advises brands to leverage India’s diverse cultures to promote themselves more effectively and inclusively.

Gupta says, “Diverse cultures give identity to Brand India across the globe. Thus, it becomes imperative that this diversity is displayed by every brand element and action that makes Brand India stand true to its identity.”

Sumeer Mathur and Anasuya M Chatterjee from Edelman India detail in their piece how diversity, equality and inclusion play a crucial role in leading change with advertising.

“Apart from mirroring society, advertising has the power to mould and reshape it. Apart from selling a product and building brand equity, a well-conceived ad can influence consumer behaviour and shape society, both positively and otherwise,” they say.

Brand focus

When not narrating anecdotes, Elango from Tailor and Circus makes some interesting points on inclusive advertising. A look at the young brand’s social media posts and one knows here is a company that is walking the talk. And while he does so, Elango doesn’t shy away from saying that there is no point in being an activist and not focusing on your product.

“The first thing brands need to do is reassess their product offering. The first step cannot be inclusive advertising; it comes later. Study the market first, see what you are not offering and where you are not inclusive from a product and service standpoint internally before you get more inclusive with advertising,” he says.

Myntra has been among the leading e-commerce players in the country and at the same time, the brand’s communication is mature. A chat with Myntra’s chief marketing officer, Harish Narayanan, throws light on the brand’s marketing and communication strategy. He makes  an important point saying how a mismatch between a brand’s DNA and its external communication could make for a futile exercise.

Narayanan says, “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.”

We also feature Fastrack in this edition. Here’s an apparel brand that has for long been known for conveying edgy messages, raising important issues with a touch of wit. Fastrack has single-mindedly kept its young audience in mind for years and it continues to speak to them in its signature tone in the recent You Do You campaign.

Ajay Maurya, Fastrack’ head of marketing, says, “We are not going to teach them (youth) anything because this is not a generation that needs to be taught. We will support and give them the platform and confidence. And if there’s anything wrong happening, we will be the guiding light. That’s the role that the brand has to play in making sure that we are talking to people who have multiple choices and are multidimensional in approach. That’s the inclusivity that we are looking at.”

Charles Dickens wrote in 1859: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It is now the 2020s and Charles, perhaps the times are still such. There are opportunities galore, there are obstacles aplenty; one needs to note the right lessons and do things right. And if someone could tell that investor, “We couldn’t find one ugly person on the planet.”