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India 2016 | Thought Leadership | Progressive Change

As India’s economy becomes more open, so does the society,
and attitudes change 
Brands that lead social change deepen connection with consumers
By Aanchal Nagar
Account Planning Director
J. Walter Thompson
Social change is taking place worldwide as societies reconsider long-held notions about gender, sexuality and the role of women, for example. India may not be on the cutting edge of some of these trends, but their emergence in such a traditional society, along with the pace of transformation, is extraordinary.  The more open cultural attitudes parallel, and are in fact intertwined with, the more open economy. Brands are playing an important role in the advancement of these attitudes.
Family structures are changing with the growing emergence of nuclear double-income families. The Indian film Ki and Ka explores a relationship where the woman is the breadwinner and the man is a househusband. Women activists are fighting to gain access to the inner sanctum of temples. In a society bound by traditional gender roles, a landmark ruling recognized the rights of transgender people. And Indian film star Tusshar Kapoor became a single father through in vitro fertilization and surrogacy.
Internationally, many brands are becoming prominent advocates for sociocultural change. They are uncovering ugly truths, confronting taboos, and challenging outdated practices. In India, the most prominent sociocultural theme has been that of women’s empowerment. A highly patriarchal structure has been around for decades; Indian women are fighting it to build lives that were once unimaginable.
Women’s empowerment is key theme
Progressive Indian brands are advocating for the empowerment of woman in various ways. For example, the watch brand Titan Raga challenges traditional views of marriage, telling women not to marry until they find a partner “who deserves your time.” In its “Share the Load” commercials, the detergent Ariel makes the point that doing the laundry is not exclusively a women’s chore; men also are capable tossing a load of clothes into the washing machine. In a similar way, commercials by the appliance maker Havells feature women handing the men in their lives coffeemakers, irons and other products that symbolize the traditional role of women. The ads end with the tagline “Respect for women.” In an ad titled “Touch the Pickle” for Whisper feminine pads, a woman breaks a hygiene taboo by touching food (the outside of a pickle jar) during her menstruation period. Commercials by the apparel brand Biba feature respectful dialogue across generations as the tradition of a bride’s dowry is challenged. In the end, the father of the groom offers a dowry. A Father’s Day ad for the clothing brand Raymond dramatizes the change in social norms. In the ad, a boy gives his single mother a mug with the saying “World’s Best Dad.”
One area of women’s empowerment that has rich potential still waiting to be unleashed is that of motherhood. Mothers face several challenges, one example being the stereotype of stay-at-home mothers. Far fewer brands have explored the sociocultural change that mothers may be hoping for.
Brand sociocultural propositions
Only a few Indian brands have stood up for themes beyond women’s empowerment, perhaps out of fear of backlash if they are associated with riskier themes. Themes such as LGBT and diversity may seem more niche and controversial now, but as society evolves, they will be remembered as clear markers of the progressive journey.
To stand out from the clutter of “problem-solution” advertising, brands must communicate from the larger pedestal of thought leadership that drives sociocultural change. They must adopt emerging attitudes and behaviors that resonate with their consumers and influence society at large by standing up against ugly truths, stereotypes and taboos.
When brands assert bolder, socially potent themes, they take on a more active role of shaping consumer thought rather than just reflecting it. This is important because brands are not only known for their image, but also their thinking.
By standing for sociocultural propositions, and not merely product propositions, brands will be able to create a deeper and more meaningful role in the lives of consumers and make consumers more receptive to the functional benefits of their products.