How brand storytelling has tried to keep pace with, and sometimes redefine, the way we think about masculinity, gender norms and more.

Advertising has always tried to be a mirror to society and to reflect the way people live and think. Even when it comes to a concept as fluid as masculinity, advertising has aimed to stay in step with the shifts we have seen over the decades. Masculinity in Indian society has meant different things at different times. In the 60s and 70s – perhaps even the 50s – it was a lot more rigid and defined. And so ads zeroed in on this by showing men drinking, smoking and largely wearing their toughness on their sleeves.

In Bollywood, actors such as Vinod Khanna symbolized this masculinity, projecting a type of raw macho-ness that was the norm in that era. It was a very stereotyped depiction of masculinity with the angry young man in Bollywood movies spouting lines such as ‘mard ko dard nahi hota’.

Brands used this image to sell everything from soaps to cars. Some prominent brands that reinforced this ideal through their advertising included Marlboro, Old Spice, and Thums Up. They were all talking to the rugged hero inside every Indian man.

But a transition began in the 90s, around the time of liberalization, and storylines began to change. In Bollywood, the angry young man genre of movies died out and was replaced by more women-centric plots.

A parallel shift happened in advertising as brands tried to keep pace with changing social views and mindset. The depiction of masculinity in ads evolved into something softer, leaner, more sensitive. Raymond’s early ads featuring metrosexual and thoughtful men are a case in point.

There is an attempt today to reconcile these two views of masculinity – to blend the old with the new. A brand like Axe might still focus on some of the traditional attributes of physique and sex appeal. But even Axe has tried to make itself relevant to a wider audience by showing a man in heels, in a wheelchair and so on. Thums Up ads have similarly evolved, depicting men as caring partners and members of society. Several other brands – from global ones like Zara and H&M to indigenous ones such as Hero – are attempting to target the new Indian male with a more muted and softer message.

There is also a heightened sense of social awareness that brands are trying to tap into in their storytelling. In the current environment, businesses are expected to be caring and responsible and this has to be reflected in their communication. A brand like Dettol today doesn’t talk about the individual as much as their personal surroundings. Dettol’s Swachh India campaign – launched around the time that the government declared its goals for cleaning up the country  – is an example of a brand staying true to its proposition while timing its message perfectly.

As part of this social storytelling, many brands are attempting to challenge conventional gender norms and rules. Increasingly, brands realize that they have a role to play in making the world a better place and it starts with depicting how men and women are seen in society today.

More and more brands – especially established and iconic ones – are stepping up to this challenge. Nivea, for example, was one of the first to target the metrosexual man with the idea that men can also use cream. Others like Whisper have tried to dislodge old superstitions with its ads targeting period taboos. Clearly, brands have power today – to initiate conversations and potentially make change happen.

Some brands are pushing the envelope even more in terms of storytelling. Nescafe’s heartwarming ads about a comedian with a stammer trying to make it through his acts, were a huge hit and got tremendous traction, especially with a younger target audience. Their theme of getting out and making oneself vulnerable really resonated with this group.

Another groundbreaking campaign with a socially relevant message was Ariel’s ‘Share the Load’ campaign. The ads made the point that gender equality really starts with splitting the workload at home. It was a hugely successful campaign for the brand and surveys indicate that it did influence views and behaviour within its target group, at least during the duration of the campaign. The question is whether such brand-driven communication can be sustained in a way that will truly drive change.

Not everybody gets it right, however. Sometimes, an ad that is supposed to be reflective of a changing society may wind up reinforcing old notions and stereotypes. Kellogg’s urging women to focus on their health so that they can be better wives is an example of a storyline that was not well thought out. Similarly, Airtel’s commercial featuring a woman executive who may be a ‘boss at work but not at home’ was again a poor attempt to connect.

Failing to connect with the target audience is a real concern for brands. Despite the new emphasis on social responsibility, brands still have to focus on their bread and butter story in order to sell. In that respect, it is important for them to look at who is in their core audience and what will resonate with them. But it’s equally important for them to stay differentiated and relevant across a broader group – beyond their core audience.

In the age of social media, a brand is as exposed as any public figure. If they put out or are associated with anything that is viewed as negative, the backlash is swift and can impact the bottomline in a big way. In this environment, they have to be extremely sensitive to people’s motivations and emotions and have to work hard at understanding what drives consumer choice and behaviour.

It’s likely to get harder, not easier, for brands operating in this landscape. They may find it more challenging to establish an emotional connect, particularly with the youth of the country. And with so many choices available to the consumer, no single brand can be dominant and can afford to relax when it comes to their storytelling strategy.

But it’s also an exciting time for brands. They have an opportunity to demonstrate that they care. That they want to participate in conversations on gender relations, norms, equality and more. Now more than ever before – given the power of technology and social media – what they choose to say can really make a difference.

As communicated to Viewpoint.

Vaishali Verma is the CEO of leading media agency, Initiative...