Gender baggage and the role of brands in changing culture

Thursday, 18 March 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

If a man works hard, a woman has to work harder to reach the same place. For women, gender is an additional baggage to cart around throughout their lives whether it’s in the boardroom or the living room. This is where I feel local brands can do a lot more to change the cultural narrative of women for a better balance of gender roles – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

Recently, I was at a small gathering to watch a game. At the end of the first innings, all my friends headed outside on their nicotine break. I paused for a moment before I joined them as one of my favourite ads popped up on TV and I stayed back to watch it. 

There were four young women sitting in front of the TV. As soon as the ad was over, one woman said, “This ad was definitely made by a man,” to which another replied, “It’s creating false expectations.” They all laughed. I wanted to find out who the actual creator of the ad was, just to verify their judgement while I could see the plot of the ad withering before my eyes. The ad failed to connect with one crucial segment of the target audience. 

This was a cement ad where the intended daughter-in-law was suggesting building an additional room for her would be mother-in-law. I stood their clutching my glass, asking myself whether the ad actually appealed to me only because I am a man. My female friends were unaware that I was behind them. I asked them, “What makes you think this ad was made by a man?”

“No woman in her right mind will invite another woman with competing interests to move in with her, especially when she is just married,” one woman said. “This is the ideal conflict free world of a man,” another joined in. They all giggled again. Clearly, there was no point in looking for the original creator of the ad to verify anything. It was almost as if the painter could be identified from his brush strokes. I moved on to refill my glass. 

This encounter stuck in my mind for a while because therein were many implications for brand building, advertising, marketing research and overall culture. Even if the makers of the ad had done a concept testing, this would have come out with flying colours. Even in an all-female focus group, most likely, in front of other strange women, a woman will be far less likely to point out that this is the male perspective superimposed on women. 

As someone who spends a lot of time on marketing research, I made a mental note to test future ad concepts among friends besides conducting focus groups. This made sense to me because when concepts are tested among friends, they would be more open and honest and exchange their views more freely rather than in front of a bunch of strangers they met for the first time. This could be a way of ensuring brand safety as most of the advertising today finally end up on social media, open for scrutiny by all and sundry.  I like to think of culture as the software of a country and the citizenry of the country as both the creators of it and those who are controlled by it. We create and alter culture by the kind of stories we tell each other. This storytelling, be it for commercial gain or mere entertainment, have far greater implications for people than we may realise as these stories define the roles and expectations of various groups. Much of this happens at a subconscious level. Women in particular are facing the harsh realities of this storytelling.

A good example is a TV interview I saw around Women’s Day. The interviewer asked the female business leader on the show, “When women come to senior leadership positions, what is it that women bring differently to the table?” I couldn’t believe that this was being asked on a popular television station. Most likely, it was not ill-intended. But you get the gist – a businesswoman has to bring in something over and above or something different to leadership than her male counterpart. That’s the expectation. If a man works hard, a woman has to work harder to reach the same place. For women, gender is an additional baggage to cart around throughout their lives whether it’s in the boardroom or the living room. This is where I feel local brands can do a lot more to change the cultural narrative of women for a better balance of gender roles. 

Brands don’t exist in isolation, as they are inextricably linked to the culture, especially in today’s context. Most brand custodians are happy to make an impact in the category and do not venture beyond that. They do not think it’s their responsibility to change culture. As a result, most brands go about their business without upsetting the ‘apple cart’ of culture because they view culture as a form of authority. However, they lose out on good opportunities to change society for the better.

Most brands still try to carve out their propositions using archaic marketing theories as if they exist in isolation. The impact of this behaviour is obvious. Most local brands do not perform well on social media and their content gets less traction. It’s not that people’s attention levels are crashing through the floor. No one feels that your brand has really understood them. They feel that you are not interesting enough to be engaged. Your brand does not act as a cultural barometer. It has no real voice in public discourse. It has no real point of view other than saying something about itself. 

As a brand, if you aren’t actively changing culture for the better, you must at least take precautions to stay away from reinforcing old gender roles or the unrealistic expectations of various groups of people. You may not intend to do it. But it could easily happen if you are on auto pilot. This nearly happened in a project I was involved with. Recently, I was at a shoot where the background frame of an ad had the ‘mother’ serving tea to the ‘father’ while the camera was focusing on their ‘daughter’. I questioned the need to have the ‘tea’ serving part. Why couldn’t she just be sitting there with the ‘father’? I questioned. 

The director’s interpretation was that it adds warmth to an intimate family situation. While he may be right, we were also unconsciously embedding the role of a wife to the viewers. I am sure most wives are happy to serve tea to their husbands and that is fine if it is their personal choice. But that should not be portrayed as a necessary part of being a wife. That’s where the problem lies. If you pay close attention to the majority of the communication in Sri Lanka, women are mostly portrayed with a heavy load on them emotionally and/or physically, thus, making it the expectation. Communication is tricky business. Everything we do, communicates at different levels, especially with younger audiences getting subliminally conditioned by what they see. 

It’s not smart marketing to be blind to what’s happening in the culture around you. Ideally, brands should look for opportunities to integrate parts of the culture into their brand building and messaging to be an exciting part of the culture as well as allowing people to be a part of it and have a say in how the culture evolves. This will enable the brand to build a vibrant set of advocates who will be more than happy to champion brand initiatives. 


(The writer is a Brand Strategist fiercely passionate about all things Sri Lankan – the people, culture and local brands.)


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