News & Views

Indians get Tongue-in-Cheek on Tradition

by Contagious Contributor

Contagious' strategic lead in Asia Pacific, Tara Hirebet, on how Indian youth are responding to traditional culture

Every brand is trying to understand the next generation of Asian youth. Especially Indian and Chinese kids. What they all have in common, is that they’re adapting culture to fit their paradigms, needs and lifestyles. It’s cultural convenience vs. what culture has been for many years: a mutually understood group doctrine to follow. In contrast, this new attitude is more like a “pick n’ mix candy bag,” where teens to 20-somethings are collecting and curating cultural ideas, objects, aesthetics and symbols that resonate and fit in with their lifestyles and personality. In India, in particular, there is a rising casualness, nonchalance and irreverence to culture that the generation before didn’t have. This is in turn pushing national culture into new avenues and directions.

Don’t get me wrong, traditional culture still exists in India, and that’s not going to change, and neither is the importance of faith to an Indian youth’s identity (73% of young Indian millennials surveyed want to keep traditional or inherited religious observations despite globalisation. JWT Intelligence, September 2013). Indian kids by and large will always adhere to inherent values and show that level of cultural respect to their parents, elders and for traditional occasions. But alongside that, they’re adapting and creating a more relaxed day-to-day version of what being Indian is. That, in turn, is pushing youth brands, collectives, agencies and big brands to change the way they’re putting culture in and marketing it out.

Designers and beauty brands are the first to have understood that certain traditions have outgrown their hip factor. Years ago, no teen to 20-something would consider a sari a cool or sexy fashion choice, it was what your solo-hair-on-chin aunty would wear. Satya Paul changed all that when he began digitally printing on sari material. Taking it a step further, he started getting playful with patterns. One of the most memorable was a sari with a Google search printed all over it. Following on from him was young designer, Masaba Gupta, and her label Masaba (she is now the fashion lead for the Satya Paul label). She rose to fame creating long kurtas (indian tops) and saris with polaroid cameras and kitsch cows and under Satya Paul: Indian electric fan patterns, lipstick tubes and more. Yogesh Chaudhary, another young designer has a standout blue and yellow sari with a Pacman pattern all over it. 

Clearly, youth brands and creative collectives made up of young entrepreneurs (the very target market themselves) are taking a cue from these designers and creating product lines that are more accessible to the growing middle and upper class cool kids. Happily Unmarried was started by 2 young Indian entrepreneurs, when their software firm went bust back in 2003. They created it because they felt there was no brand at the time that catered to today’s independent, opinionated youth. They understood the idea of being tongue-in-cheek, quirky, functional and unmistakeably Indian at the same time. They’ve become home grown successes – In 2012, they had 80 stores across 24 cities, a turnover of US$900,000 and they’re now opening their third outlet at the Delhi airport, who see them as showcasing the best of Indian contemporary (alongside other modern “Indian souvenir” style design stores.)

Launched in 2008, but massively teaming up with bigger and bigger brands of late, Play Clan’s clothes, accessories, home décor and stationery, take traditional Indian graphics and make them into East-West mashups or humorous caricatures. They’re loved by youth and hip up and coming Bollywood celebrities. Play Clan now have stores across nine major cities in India and as well as one in Russia. They often choose to set up in atypical areas like Kalagodha (Mumbai’s art district) and Pondicherry (the French-influenced town in South India featured in the book and film, Life of Pi). They’re being clocked by brands who want to creatively collaborate with them: from Paul Smith and Absolut in 2011, to Levi’s Denizen. They design Elle’s yearly hip city guide and NYC’s School of Visual Arts collaterals. More recently, they’ve created limited edition travel cases for Vogue’s 2013 Fashion Night Out and in Feb 2014, they collaborated with adidas to celebrate the return of the original Stan Smith shoe.


But nothing shows true cultural change, than when a big FMCG brand that caters to the masses, like P&G, starts taking note of this change in cultural attitudes and uses it to create a fresh, quirky approach to an otherwise dry female teen category – sanitary pads (no pun intended, sorry). Whisper's recent Touch that Pickle campaign (featured a few weeks ago on Contagious I/O), alludes to the increasingly old-fashioned, irrelevant and somewhat “out there” set of superstitions Indian women have followed for generations during their time of the month. P&G has opened up discussions on the taboo and given young girls and women a voice to vent, laugh and discuss these taboos and their feelings around them. At the centre of the campaign is a lighthearted, exaggerated spot featuring a girl flaunting period freedom, from touching a pickle jar to wearing white while exercising, all the while being cheered on by a group of elderly women. Other spots in the series focus on the embarrassment that women face when buying feminine hygiene products. And it’s clearly resonating with its audience, with the first spot generating over 1.8 million YouTube views.

So what’s the take-away here? Indian tradition isn’t going away, it’s just getting a postmodern upgrade. Teens to 20-somethings today live in a plugged-in, globalised world, where they are exposed to cultural changes, identities, creativity and design from every country and kind of individual. They are a mashup of cultural references themselves – old and new, Indian and global, traditional and modern. And they’re looking for the brands, products and people that get that, and reflect who they are back to them. As India rapidly changes and this group navigates that shift, rigid tradition makes them feel like they don’t fit in. That’s the last emotion that your product or brand wants to bring to the surface, in what is already a challenging time to grow up in in India.