Does Women's Day resonate as well among women at large as it does among marketers?

This week, the founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting deciphers how Women's Day as an occasion resonates with Indian women and why do brands go gaga over it. She writes it is unclear what gap Women's Day is filling. Often, its messaging overlaps with the kind created for Mother's Day and Rakshabandhan

Hamsini Shivakumar
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Search for Women’s Day campaigns and you will find a sizeable quantum of content showing up. We found 32 examples from just last year. All converging around common themes, indicating that marketers have a shared understanding of the meaning of Women’s Day. Women’s Day is all about celebrating the modern Indian woman by supporting and inspiring her individuality.

On the whole, communication is about making a progressive statement by resisting the stereotypes long imposed on women. The campaigns liken women to a force or a powerhouse of some kind. Giving them the due they have been denied for years and recognising their struggle. Visualising them as quirky and individualistic, to show them claiming their identity without trying to align with the societal understanding of how a woman should present herself.

This largely similar and consistently growing mass of content indicates that, over the past decades, Women’s Day has become well codified in brand culture. Brands are well versed with what to say and how to say it. They know which elements are necessary for creating communication that fits the occasion. And other marketing elements as well, such as offers and deals for shopping and partying.

Consumers have started to notice the patterns and brand codes, with a little help from some brands.

Media and news platform BLUSH spoofed this codification in 2018:

‘Every Women's Day Video Ever’ lists the common techniques used to make women viewers feel empowered through branded communication – close up shot of a woman with a steady expression looking straight into the camera, deadpan voiceovers to cue a serious tone, a scene with her balancing life between the home and the office, and so on.

Despite its unflattering representation of brands, a similar approach was adopted by Netflix India and Ola for their 2020 Women’s Day campaigns.

Happy Women’s Day? Ft. Karishma Tanna:

Every Women’s Day Ever Ft. Sumukhi Suresh:

The two don’t just focus on the style of messaging that has become the signature of the day, but also on how women are ceaselessly bombarded with promotional offers and hollow encouragement, to the point of saturation.

Netflix and Ola position themselves in opposition to such brands – they are the ones who invariably serve your needs, regardless of the day. Who sympathise with your irritation at the sudden barrage of messaging on Women’s Day, and stick around even after the noise dies down. They aren’t here to tell you what to do and how to feel. No, they will only facilitate your choices when you feel ready to make them.

This self-awareness makes the brands appear youthful. They are cool because they ‘get you’ and are not like the others – a useful tactic to decrease the gap between brands and consumers that apparently widens on Women’s Day. But how did Netflix and Ola spot the opportunity to spoof the codes, to begin with?

Why does their deviation from a well-established code find appeal amongst their audience? Why do consumers not feel like engaging with the brand culture around Women’s Day, as they do on other occasions? After all, they are happy being similarly nudged by brands when it comes to marking Rakshabandhan, Valentine’s Day or even Mother’s Day through consumption and emotional messaging. Here is our diagnosis of the issue.

Women’s Day is not relational

As previously highlighted in our write-up for Valentine’s Day, India is a community-driven culture. It places the relational self on a higher pedestal than the individual self. To such a culture, a festival such as Rakshabandhan makes sense because it celebrates the bond between a brother and a sister. Even western imports like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are easily adopted since they celebrate romantic love and parental love, respectively. None of these are about celebrating a certain kind of person, in and of themselves.

This realisation shows in many examples of branded content. Take the recent and broadly appreciated 2021 campaign for Women’s Day by Prega News that discusses the social repercussions of infertility in women.

#SheIsCompleteInHerself​ - A Women’s Day Initiative by Prega News:

The campaign “urges you to celebrate every woman for who she is because #SheIsCompleteInHerself”. Yet, it rests on the characterisation of a woman who happily busies herself with making her father-in-law’s tea, right after returning from work. Who is appreciated by the younger daughter-in-law for always having the perfect cure when their mother-in-law falls ill. For tutoring younger family members and playing the pillar of support to the household.

The video does show a brief sweep of her academic and personal achievements, but it is really her relational achievements that are highlighted to praise her.

It seems as if Prega News realises that Women’s Day is not based on relational sentiment and to draw the kind of emotional reaction it desires; it will need to highlight the relational even while celebrating selfhood.  

Women’s Day doesn’t fill a gap

It is not to do with simply being a western import. If it was, Valentine’s Day wouldn’t have worked in India. But it has because it fulfils multiple cultural needs – an aspiration to be like the ‘modernised and progressive’ West, and feel like a global citizen. A chance to celebrate romantic love, in a way that traditional culture doesn’t facilitate. Even the chance to celebrate your partner while participating in the bigger cause of love; something anniversaries don’t offer.

It is unclear what gap Women’s Day is filling. Often, its messaging overlaps with the kind created for Mother’s Day and Rakshabandhan i.e., ‘recognise the women in your life as capable/people of their own, and support and enable them’. This weakens the importance of Women’s Day. Especially since we are worshippers of the mother figure and are raised in an honour culture. And so, more receptive to communication around those subjects than a sole focus on the woman as an independent entity (unfortunately so).

When the day doesn’t get into discussing relational support for women, it is largely left with giving out inspirational messages telling women how powerful and unstoppable they are. A fine message, especially when done well, but it can create an impact only so many times. Especially when it starts being seen as just another way for brands to sell their product or service due to the offers and deals that are showered on women for Women’s Day.

Case in point – Pepperfry’s 2021 #WowWomaniya rap song concludes by encouraging you to ‘celebrate the spirit of the self-made woman with Pepperfry's exclusive #WowWomaniya sale”.

How do brands address these limitations through branded content?

The limitations highlighted above explain why Women’s Day hasn’t completely moved from brand culture into the consumer’s lived culture, even when the content created for it has often generated a high level of engagement. But that doesn’t mean that the day cannot complete the shift.

There are a few key questions that brands need to consider.

How can they go beyond promotions and inspirational messaging to make consumers do something more than buy from them? How can they truly squeeze out the benefits of branded content to engage them with cultural stories and myths? Would it be worth considering something similar to the editorial site created by the Natural Diamond Council, to flesh out the world of Indian women as a distinct cultural space?

And lastly, in what would be an impressive culture change if achieved, can brands then go beyond virtual engagement to create specific customs and practices around the day, as exist for Rakshabandhan and Valentine’s Day? Especially seeing how the latter was willed into being by brands.

Because as one of the founding fathers of Semiotics asks, what more is meaning and significance than what we will into being?

women's day