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The Missing She Economy

Despite obvious benefits, most of India Inc. is oblivious to business around women-specific needs. Marketers listening to them have never been happier
Sonal Khetarpal | Print Edition: October 4, 2020
The Missing She Economy
Illustration by Raj Verma

At 40, Priti Rathi Gupta, Promoter and Managing Director, Anand Rathi Group, was enrolled in Owner/President Management programme at Harvard University where she made a business case for a financial management platform for women as part of a class project. The skepticism from fellow classmates surprised her. "They were oblivious to the varied needs of women - they earn less, live longer, and have a different outlook towards investing. They didn't seem to understand the rationale," says Rathi. She launched her university project - LXME - a digital financial planning platform for women. In the last four months since its launch, it has got 5,000 users. Not just financial services. As consumers, women are under-served across sectors, be it auto, hospitality, fashion or sports. Most brands, say experts, have never thought about gender as central to their products and services. "Small sporadic experiments have happened in the Indian consumer brand space to cater to women but nothing exceptional. Mostly, it is positioning of the same product with a different communication strategy," says Alpana Parida, former CEO of brand consultancy DY Works.

One reason for this is economic. "The fundamental problem is that women dont have control over finances. If 21 out of 100 women work, and 100 out of 100 men work, marketers will go after the (bigger) spender," says Apurva Purohit, President, Jagran Prakashan.

The average disposable per capita income of women (Rs 46,505 a year) is about one-third that of men (Rs 1,87,868)."Due to this, products which help a woman live her life effectively and efficiently are low on priority in households," says Akshaya Vijayalakshmi, Professor of Marketing at IIM-A.

The Stereotype

Things are changing, though slowly. There might be few women in leadership positions but women are finding ways to earn and supplement family's income. Also, they are delaying marriage and so getting more years to spend on themselves. Increasing access to internet, digital payments and new micro-entrepreneurship opportunities are encouraging them to improve their lives. "With rise of platforms offering gig work, entrepreneurship opportunities and work at home options, women are aspiring to increase their standing," says Sairee Chahal, founder and CEO of Sheroes.

But, marketers often fail to recognise these nuances and communication is still black and white. There is a tendency to classify all women in one category, says Ameera Shah, Managing Director of Metropolis Healthcare. "Just like not all men are cheats and philanderers, not all women are emotional." She says there is a deep segmentation among women that marketers fail to understand and, hence, fail in communicating with them, she says.

Though brands are slowly recognising this and launching campaigns breaking stereotypes, most product categories continue to follow the older pattern.

"Mainstream brands are usually wary of trying new consumer strategies or products. It is not that they can't target women. They are risk averse," says Parameswaran Venkataraman, Chief Design Officer, Fractal Analytics.

Then there are domestic power equations. For categories where they are end users (such as for household goods, kitchen appliances), women play a key role in purchase decisions. But for more expensive appliances such as fridge and air-conditioner, while they can be influencers, men are deemed to be final decision makers, he says. A Google study of Youtube ads over four years found that male characters got more screen time (59 per cent) than women (41 per cent). Also, male characters were heard two times (at 67 per cent) more often than female characters. Women were also less likely to be seen as having a profession and in a leadership role.

But what about categories specific to women like clothes and shoes? Here, too, the reality isn't pretty. Fashion brands for women - clothes, shoes - are still geared towards looking good and comfort isn't a priority. "Retail brands focus heavily on women but look at the popular stereotype needs of fashion and beauty with focus on 'looking good'. They do not really focus on other needs that a woman might have, such as comfort and functionality," says Rajni Menon, Head of Solutions Development & Chief Strategy Officer, DAN Solutions India.

Take sports. In shoes, men have more options than women. In sports clothing, products of prominent brands are not designed for Indian body types. Neharika Vohra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at IIMA, says, "As a working woman who wants comfortable shoes, I have to buy the same pair in a different colour. Only a handful of brands such as Red Tape or Hush Puppies are comfortable but hardly offer any variety. Liberty did a good job with comfort but didn't upgrade." She says a lot of clothes for women are high maintenance and need to be hand-washed or dry-cleaned.

However, brands that are listening to women couldn't be happier.

Creating New Category

The handful of brands customising products and services for women have reaped decent gains. They are approaching the subject in two ways. They genuinely believe that they can broaden their consumer base by being relevant to women, says Menon of DAN Solutions. One example is Titan. The company saw that women watches was dying as a category and so re-imagined watches as a jewellery product. "A brand's journey has got a lot to do with the socio-cultural context of its customer. The product has to shift gears as role of women changes," says Revathi Kant, Chief Design Officer, Titan. Raga by Titan is now a Rs 350 crore brand.

Another segment where there has been a major change is scooters. To make scooters more user friendly, HeroMoto Corp and Honda started introducing features such as automatic transmission for ease of use. Many launched lower saddle variants. Y.S. Guleria, Director, Sales and Marketing, Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, says when they launched in 2001, the design input since then has been to serve a wider spectrum of consumers from 18 years to senior citizens. "That universal appeal served us well," he says. He says scooter sales are highest in progressive states with high female literacy such as Kerala and Delhi. About 20 per cent buyers are women but users will be 33 per cent or so, he says.

These brands created a new segment of consumers and expanded their market. "Scooters became one of the biggest liberators of small-town girls," says Santosh Desai, Managing Director & CEO, Future Brands.

New Customers

Some brands are looking at women afresh as a consumer base and building products that cater to them. "Such brands have a competitive advantage over others," says Menon of DAN Solutions.

Seven years ago, HDFC started looking at socio-economic and medical trends and came up with women-centric products, says Vibha Padalkar, MD and CEO, HDFC Life. One was an insurance-cum-investment 'Smart Women Plan', which provides covers for pregnancy complications and female-specific cancers, and a goal-based product, 'Sanchay', which gives buyers the choice of investment horizon and guaranteed benefits. She says plans that have an emotional story work best with women. For instance, there is a policy, YoungStar, for mothers who want to take care of their children without depending on the husband. She says close to 40 per cent women policy holders at HDFC Life earn between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 15 lakh. "Over the last five years, business from women has grown from late teens to about a quarter of the retail business. The segment has grown over 2.5X in absolute terms," says Padalkar.

While in the healthcare industry, the focus is on fertility and reproductive health, Metropolis has diagnostic test plans to cater to women across age groups. "Women will have different challenges at 13-14, when they might have concerns around anaemia or PCOS, and in the 50s, when osteoporosis can be a challenge," says Ameera Shah of Metropolis Healthcare. She says the aim is to offer health solutions for each life stage.

The strategy is working. Desai of Future Brands says women are more assertive about personal needs and not apologetic about it. He says this might not mean new categories of products or services but willingness to spend more on themselves, for lingerie, accessories, apparel and even a holiday with women friends. "From kitty party and karwa chauth, women are now going on holidays with friends. This is a very big change."

That is where travel comes in. Sumitra Senapati started the WOW (Women On Wanderlust) Club for solo women travelers in 2005. "Since security is a concern, these tours allow women to travel alone but in safety a group offers." She says when they started, eight out of 10 women dropped out after initial queries. Today, women are making own decisions. Now, conversations are not about asking father or husband for permission but about dates, duration, etc.

Hotels, too, are focusing on the 'single women traveller'. Most have women friendly rooms closer to the lobby area offering more CCTV coverage. ITC, for instance, has an 'Eva' wing or floor depending on number of women guests in a property at premium luxury hotels, including ITC Maurya, New Delhi, ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru, and ITC Maratha, Mumbai. In these areas, attendants, maintenance staff, housekeeping staff, lift manager are women. Each room has a door-view camera. Plus, the hotels ensure additional supplies of things such as nail polish removers and safety pins, apart from a full-length mirror. "We started this in 2000 when we saw the segment gaining prominence. We designed Eva rooms keeping in mind the privacy and security of a single women traveller without compromising on luxury," says Benita Sharma, Area Manager- North & GM, ITC Maurya. Nearly 10-12 per cent ITC guests are single women travellers.

Women are also buying more cars. According to industry figures, 10-12 per cent buyers are women. Menon of DAN Solutions says auto firms started including women in their communication strategy five-six years back. Tata Motors's campaign, where the second key was named 'Her Key', encouraged more women to get behind the wheels. Mahindra & Mahindra started hiring women in customer facing roles at dealerships. "Several car companies have started reviewing the vehicle's design from a women's perspective and trying to reconfigure and prioritise those needs," says Menon. "For instance, the country's largest carmaker, Maruti Suzuki India, says 36 per cent of women bought cars with automatic gearbox technology. Women also enquire more about after-sales service. "The uptake of car service pick & drop through our app is a lot more with women consumers," says Shashank Srivastava, Executive Director, Marketing and Sales. The company also introduced reverse/rear camera as a fitment in certain models after feedback from women consumers. The results are encouraging. In FY06, only 5 per cent buyers were women. In FY20, this was 15-17 per cent. Srivastava says women prefer sub-four metre cars such as compact sedans/SUVs and hatchbacks. "From our research, we know that almost 50 per cent women drive to work. As more women enter the workforce, the number of women buyers will increase drastically," he says.

However, the best surprise has been sprung by power bike brand Royal Enfield. It has started women-only riding events and rider training programmes for women. "The brand is about pure motorcycling. It is not about the machine but motorcycling as a way of life, so the endeavour has been to build the ecosystem of motorcycling and making it accessible for all kinds of riders," says a company spokesperson. The company has a five-year-old programme STRE (She Travels on a Royal Enfield) to encourage women to take up riding and create a community. There is also an 18-day ride for women riders in the Himalayas, Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey Women. It recently launched riding gear and apparel for women. "Most of the brands available in India are from Europe, for cold weather, and don't suit Indian body types. Plus, price is a big deterrent," says Puneet Sood, Head, Apparel and Accessories, Royal Enfield. One of the major demands of women riders was lighter helmets. Most of the Royal Enfield collection for women has fibre-glass helmets instead of the commonly used ABS ones.

Davids of the World

Purohit says the problem is not as much with products as with product development. "Even in the input, women have been poorly represented," she says.

New entrepreneurs have taken note. A number of women-focused start-ups are coming up, not just in beauty and personal care but also in health technology, nutrition and hygiene. "The Davids of the world will see an opportunity and change will start from there," says Parameswaran of Fractal. Recognising the dearth of clean public toilets in India, Deep Bajaj started First Step Digital in 2015 with PeeBuddy, a device which helps women pee while standing. The company has a women hygiene brand, Sirona, which includes pregnancy kit, menstrual cup, chaffing cream and natural sanitary napkins. Other hygiene product firms such as Sanfe and SheWee have also come up with innovative products.

Then there are start-ups catering to women's nutrition requirements. Start-ups such as OZiva and &me are trying to tackle hormonal imbalances in women. "Women are getting periods as early as 11/12. Menopause is also setting in early, at 42, instead of the usual 50," says Ankur Goyal, founder and CEO, &me. He says the discourse on women's health in mainstream media is restricted to reproductive health and evades topics such as period pain, cramps, menopause, ache, mood swings. &me has launched drinks for health conditions related to women such as fibrosis, menopause and hormonal imbalances. OZiva focuses on clean, plant-based nutrition for both genders but women account for 70-80 per cent of its consumer base.

While start-ups have limited reach, when they introduce innovative products, they open up new markets. "When start-ups cater to underserved customer segments (such as women, rural consumers), it pushes larger incumbents to evaluate these new products, services and segments," says Ruchi Hanasoge, Senior Manager - Strategy & Impact, Omidyar Network India.

But it is not easy for the founders. A founder who didn't want to be named said: "My investors made it clear that they were investing in my IIT/IIM degree instead of my idea for a women's startup. Even today they tell me to pivot to unisex products." Women-related start-ups find it much more difficult to raise funds.

To solve this problem, online coupons platform Mydala's founder Anisha Singh decided to turn to a VC. As an entrepreneur, she would have pitched the idea to over 200 VCs over ten years but the common reply she got was 'let me ask my wife.'

"The VC doesnt decide but it goes back to the wife," says Singh. It was then that she decided to launch a woman-focused venture capital fund SheCapital. "We want to be the cheerleaders for large-scale female-led companies in India. I believe for women-focused start-ups, it is what the year 2008-2009 was for internet consumer start-ups. By 2012, they were the most cool thing. We will soon see clear winners in this segment and I am excited," she says.

@sonalkhetarpal7

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