WHEN journalist-turned-entrepreneur Anusha Subramanian launched her adventure tourism company, Bohemian Adventures, in 2014, she had a handful of women patrons. Today, over 50% of her clients are women, many in the 45-50 age group. There is a growing trend of women going for treks and nature trails, says Subramanian.

However, one of the biggest problems her women clients face is inadequate travel gear options. “I often trek to the Himalayan base camp and walk long hours. I need comfortable backpacks with good straps so that I don’t feel the load. No Indian brand makes travel gear suited for women. The ones available are either unisex or targeted at men,” says Subramanian, who buys adventure gear from the US or Europe.

Communications professional Melissa Arulappan, a frequent traveller, echoes this. She loves road trips but complains that none of the SUV brands work for woman drivers. “I recently test-drove a Mahindra Thar. It was inconvenient to get in and out. I wonder why SUVs have to portray a macho image,” says Arulappan.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) says women in India have a say in 54% spending of households. And in another 25%, they are key influencers. In categories such as consumer durables, appliances, devices and vehicles, they are influencing as much as 42% buying decisions, says BCG. So, what is stopping marketers from launching products for women? Why is it so difficult to find mobile phones, cars or even cycles specially designed for women?

Unconsciously Ignored

According to a March report by information and insights company Transunion CIBIL, the share of women borrowers rose from 23% in September 2014 to 28% in September 2020.The data was based on home loans, loans against property, auto loans, among others.

Women say the maximum that most brands have done for them is to launch pink variants of products. “We’re looking at a more assertive, self-confident woman, who’s more conscious of her needs, but at the same time, not scared of her femininity. Marketers are still coming to terms with it,” says Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and former Marketing Head of HP Asia, Motorola and PepsiCo India. Rajan Amba, Vice President, Sales, Marketing and Customer Service, Tata Motors, says there has been a rise in number of women buying cars. “From FY2019 to now, the percentage of single women (buyers) has gone up dramatically, certainly for us.”

In India, women account for 12-15% automobile buyers. That’s not a small number. Used car company Spinny says last year 20% buyers on its platform were women. In the last six months, this number has been 30%. It says most women buyers are in the 25-35 age group. Earlier this year, the platform saw a 34% increase in demand for compact SUVs from women, month-on-month.

Brands seem to be taking note, though in small ways. When Tata Motors launched compact SUV Tata Punch a few days ago, it released a short film featuring precision driver Samantha Dong driving from Manebhanjan to the Sandakphu peak on the border between India and Nepal, on a barely motorable road. The auto major’s recent #dark campaign, which included a series of three black cars, featured women. “We noticed an almost immediate uptick in number of women booking the car,” says Amba.

But there is a long way to go. Bike companies such as Royal Enfield are doing their bit to get more women bikers but perception that men are their main target continues to rule. The notion is that if automobiles are marketed to women, men will not be interested in buying them. Akshaya Vijayalakshmi, Professor of Marketing, IIM Ahmedabad, says historically, when women have endorsed a product, there is an assumption that it is for them and not a gender-neutral product. “If an SUV is advertised to women, it suddenly becomes less aspirational,” she says.

Marketers need to change their tone, says actor-entrepreneur-pilot Gul Panag. Panag, an avid biker and driving enthusiast, says she doesn’t need a product specifically designed for women. Instead, the messaging by car and bike marketers shouldn’t have gender stereotypes. “It is a given in our society that women can ride only an automatic scooty and a bike with gears is for men. That’s not true. I have driven every kind of car and bike with ease. Who says broader dials are for men and a woman can only wear a watch with a small dial? It is high time marketers get out of this habit of creating stereotypes.”

This is exactly what companies such as Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M) are trying to do. With 12-15% passenger car buyers being women, it became imperative for M&M to not just relook at its messaging but also innovate for this target buyer segment, says Veejay Nakra, CEO, Automotive Division, M&M. “Women not just love to buy SUVs, they also have a very strong view of what they want in their SUV. While some prefer an automatic car for ease of driving, there are also adventure-seeking women who look for a manual transmission vehicle. There are women who like to drive to work in an SUV and ask questions like what’s the floor height so that they can easily get in and out of the car in a sari.”

The automaker’s recently launched XUV 700 is not particularly designed for women but they were certainly kept in mind during the planning stage, says Nakra. “There is an advanced driver facility which helps the driver stay in a lane. If a vehicle ahead stops abruptly, the car stops automatically. Women consumers look for practicality of design, ease of driving and safety. We make sure that we focus on all those elements. Also, our communication, which is built on product value and offerings, clearly brings out the message that it’s meant for women,” says Nakra.

An April report by UNICEF, based on a review of 1,000 advertisements in 2019, says while women are well represented in Indian advertisements, they are stereotyped in potentially harmful ways. Women, it says, are more likely to be portrayed as young and attractive as per traditional beauty standards, or as caretakers and parents. They are also mainly shown in private, rather than public, spaces.

Alpana Parida, Founder and CEO of Tiivra Ventures, which makes designer helmets, says products targeted at women often don’t take into account their behaviour, which is different from men. “The same products are repackaged for women.”

Experts blame some of this on economics. A significant number of women leave the workforce once they get married or have children and lose their source of income. In categories such as cars and smartphones, they often receive hand-me-down products. IIM’s Vijayalakshmi says products such as a refrigerator that women need are often given lower preference compared to products that men may prioritise.

Bridging Gaps

Sectors such as automobiles, which are perceived as male-dominated, are certainly finding it difficult to break out of their unconscious bias towards women consumers. However, there is lack of innovation even in categories where women are clearly decision-makers. Take female hygiene, where legacy companies were just revamping existing products, mostly sanitary pads. It has taken feminine hygiene brands such as Sirona Hygiene, Nua Woman and Carmesi to innovate menstrual and feminine hygiene products. “If you give solutions to women, they are more than willing to try them out,” says Deep Bajaj, Founder, Sirona Hygiene, which makes a portable urination device for women. Sirona also has products around feminine hygiene such as menstrual cups, rash creams and period pain relieving patches. Bajaj says his company was profitable within the first year of its launch.

In healthcare, the other area where women are hugely neglected is menopause. “It is an important stage in a woman’s life. There are hardly any solutions around that,” says Anjali Bansal, Founder, Avaana Capital. She has recently invested in a start-up, Elda Health, which focuses on providing healthcare solutions to women above 35. There is a huge gap in the nutrition space, too. For instance, in protein supplements, a rapidly growing market, there aren’t too many innovations targeted at women. Most of the messaging is, in fact, around men building muscle strength.

The bias is visible in women’s wear, too. There is no standardisation of size and fit, especially in categories such as sportswear. Subramanian of Bohemian Adventure says she prefers unisex brands to women's wear.

Gaurav Dublish, Co-founder, Wildcraft India, which makes clothes and accessories for outdoor activities, may have a solution for her. He says they started investing in designing separate lines for women and girls 10 years ago. Aggressive marketing started two-three years ago. “We could see an opportunity. We realised that women bought unisex clothes because of supply-side constraints.” Wildcraft’s WIKI backpack collection, for girls and young women has been a huge hit.

In beauty too, it has taken new-age companies that are innovating for women with darker skin tones or making clean, natural and environment- friendly products to shake up the big brands. It helps that women today are educated and aware about what they want to put on their skin. “They are aware about ingredients that are good for their skin and updated about global trends and concepts. They are super conscious about what they apply on their skin and are at the same time open to new products,” says Disha Shanghvi, Director, MyGlamm (The Good Glamm Group). She claims the company has access to 100 million women users with whom it interacts to understand what they want.

Changing Narrative

Millennial women are increasingly becoming more independent. They have a say in the car or the financial product they buy. They also have no qualms in enjoying an alcoholic beverage in public. Brands can’t afford to ignore her.

British alcoholic beverage company Diageo India has decided to have 50% women representation on its management committee. After all, it is important for a company’s leadership team to mirror its consumers. While the team at Diageo says the company is in the process of launching beverages for women, it has already started positioning its communication towards women. On International Women’s Day this year, it released a film which showed three women enjoying brunch over Black & White whisky.

Diageo India’s Chief Marketing Officer, Deepika Warrier, says the company is focussed on covering the entire gender spectrum in its communications.

Royal Enfield has an initiative STRE (She Travels on a Royal Enfield) for including women in riders’ community. The company says STRE has been actively involved in encouraging more women to join the Royal Enfield community. It has also been organising the Himalayan Odyssey-Women in which women riders participate in a 12-day ride through the Himalayas.

Tata Motors’ Amba says the average age of their women buyers has dropped by 10% to about 32 years from 36 years over the past few years. The percentage of working women buyers has risen from 50% to 65%. Interestingly, since 2019-20, the weekly usage (number of kilometres driven) by women has almost tripled.

Chinese smartphone maker Realme has launched products such as hair dryers and smart scales for Gen Z women consumers. “With more pur- chasing power and influence, young women consumers will be a driving force in product creation and development,” says Madhav Sheth, President, Realme International Business Group. But global research says mobile phones are designed to fit a man’s palms. Most handset manufacturers get away by saying their products are unisex.

One of the categories which innovated as per the needs of a woman is perhaps bicycles. Remember ladies’ cycles (which didn’t have a rod in be-tween, making disembarking easier)? But new-age companies are going a step ahead. AlphaVector makes unisex bicycles which are comfortable for both men and women. They use anthropometric data on average heights to create products friendly to both men and women. The frame height (dis- tance between pedals and lowest point of a seat post), says Sachin Chopra, Founder & CEO, AlphaVector India, is kept low so that men may adjust the seat higher and women can keep it lower. He says their engineers ensure less stress in wrists, elbows lower back and knees by using a design tool for simulations called SolidWorks, made by Airbus.

“Before Covid, women in 20-35 age group were our consumers, but now, even 50-years-olds are showing interest,” he says. The company has designed pleasing saree guards to prevent the saree from getting stuck in the rear wheel. Chopra says this product, Venus, has done well not just in Tier II-III cities but also in metros. “We wanted to make it look like a fashion element added to the bike,” he says.

Money Matters

Banking and financial services is another segment which has ignored women for a long time. According to the Oliver Wyman 2020 Women in Financial Services report, financial services firms are missing an almost $700 billion revenue a year by not fully meeting the needs of women customers.

Financially independent women are showing an increased interest in investing and are ready to take risks. In a survey by fintech start-up Groww, Gen-Z women, aged 18-25, were the most independent cohort. The start-up says almost 60% women in this age group wanted to make final decisions on their investments. They were also thrice as likely to choose a high-risk, high-return asset class like stocks.

In 2018, Priti Rathi Gupta, Managing Director, Anand Rathi Share and Stock Brokers, launched LXME, a financial planning platform for women. It helps women plan tax and invest in mutual funds and gold savings funds. Gupta says she started LXME after she noticed the lack of financial services for women. “Only men were actively participating in investing and using financial products. Women were completely left out. Women have different financial needs, which are being overlooked by the industry,” she says. “Most women would consult their father or their husband before taking investment decisions. LXME, therefore, has been deeply involved in educating women about financial planning,” she adds.

IIM’s Vijayalakshmi says the BFSI sector has a great opportunity to reach more women consumers, especially since the Jan Dhan Yojana has brought a large number of them into the banking fold. She sees companies such as LXME as niche attempts. The real change will come when bigger banks and financial institutions also offer these services, she says.

Big banks have, of course, started doing their bit. Kotak Mahindra’s has Silk, a savings account for women. Elizabeth Venkataraman, Joint President - Consumer, Commercial & Wealth Marketing, Kotak Mahindra Bank, says their surveys show that women want to understand finance and investment but without jargons. “They want it to be goal-based rather than product-based,” she says. The bank has a community, Silk Money Matters, which holds monthly webinars with industry experts on various financial topics. “We have taken baby steps but we want to strengthen it and make it big,” says Venkataraman.

Axis Bank has a women’s savings account, which offers low opening deposit, low average monthly balance and a personal accident insurance cover. Praveen Bhatt, EVP and Head, Retail Liabilities and Direct Banking Channel, Axis Bank, says, “It simplifies banking for the independent women of today.”

Catching Them Young

LXME’s Gupta says the company is targeting women in the age group of 22-40. These are not just professionals but homemakers, and constitute 30% of the client base. “We target women not demographically but psychographically, women who are used to online transactions, maybe online banking, e-commerce, wallets, those who have a smartphone, have the same kind of access to apps or lifestyle that I might have sitting in a metro city,” she says.

Nimisha Jain, Managing Director and Partner, BCG, says it is critical for companies to use digital and social media to reach out to women. “We have a very high penetration of smartphones among women. Targeting them via different digital media is very important.”

Organisations are realising that they are missing out the larger picture and have started making amends. Launching a pink colour laptop or phone isn’t enough. A serious innovation pipeline is the need of the hour.

(With inputs from Ajita Shashidhar)

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