I have never met Sudeshna. She came into my compass late last year at our IIM Calcutta silver jubilee reunion. Balding, beer-bellied and families in tow, one of the first things you do on such occasions is visit the hostel room you stayed in. Perhaps you had left a marker somewhere: Kilroy was here.
My room was very much there, unchanged. But a dainty collage on the door now read: Sudeshna. A nearby board informed us that this was the ladies' wing. The number of women in the IIMs is increasing and they have begun encroaching on male territory.
A few years ago, at another reunion at IIT Kharagpur, we were greeted with the strange sight of women students giving their male classmates a ride on bicycles. They were on men's bicycles; cycles designed for women don't have a front rod for you to sit on. We found that the moralistic institute authorities had felt that students of opposite sexes were sitting too close together on cycles and had banned it.
With the technical ingenuity that has made them the stars of Silicon Valley, the IITians came up with a solution. What was forbidden was men giving rides to women; they would do it the other way round. It couldn't last, of course; even one idiot is heavy. But there were two somewhat permanent effects. First, ladies' bikes disappeared from campus. Second, jeans gained popularity. Try riding a men's bicycle in a sari.
Jeans and T-shirts were amongst the first unisex products in the world. Hostel rooms and bicycle rides aren't really products; they are better categorised as services. But they are all joining a range of offerings in which traditional lines are getting blurred. If fairness creams are good for the goose, they are good for the gander too. There is a Rs 200 crore market for brands such as Fair & Lovely Menz Active, Fair & Handsome, and Nivea for Men. This is largely an Indian market. In some other categories too, India is leading the way. The Harlequin Mills & Boon imprint has found that in India, a large number of men read these romantic novels. In other countries, bodice-rippers are mainly read by those who wear them.
"Do brands have a gender at all?" asks brand consultant Harish Bijoor. "I believe they don't, except for some very niche feminine hygiene products. Brand gender is really a creation of the marketing man. One of these days, you might enter a restaurant and be asked if you wish to have a Male Biryani (with a macho egg to top; two would make it an Ayesha Takia biryani) or a Female Biryani (rose petals and silver foil)".
Take the case of the metrosexual. In an earlier generation, he nicked his wife's perfumes. Today, there probably is a Revlon's She for Men, a Shahrukh Khan's Sheep's Eyes (the Tiger Eyes for women was not amenable to line extension) and an Amitabh B pour homme (pour femme was a hit). As product categories — cosmetics, beauty parlours, pedicures, gyms, hookah bars — become unisex, brand variants become more sharply positioned.
Is there a contradiction somewhere in all this? Certainly. And it is typified by the metrosexual. He was always married. So what are moisturisers and lip plumpers doing in his closet which he doesn't need to come out of? A metrosexual is essentially marketing himself and he wants to appeal to a wider audience.
You will find him in Mumbai parties, where wannabes chase has-beens. In Delhi, strange things happen at parties. Amar Singh kicks fellow politician Mani Shankar Aiyar in the posterior. Years later, Singh drops his pants in public. However; he had his knickers on. Aiyar had earlier written a book Knickerwallahs, Silly-Billies and other Curious Creatures. Knickers are feminine; knickerwallahs — soldiers of the right — are masculine. Courtesy Singh — kicker and knicker — they came into the same frame.
As male and female products start coming into the same frame, there is another trend. Services were always customised; now this feature is spreading to products too. Everyone wants everything, but they want it tweaked to their own needs. The Internet is a great enabler in this context. From the Cloud (which is actually nothing more than the establishment version of the Apple iTunes Store) will come the next revolution – PaaS (Product as a Service).
The writer is Managing Editor, Business India.