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Valentine's Day Love Economics: India needs an inclusive rainbow touch

India's path to becoming the world's third-largest economy must recognize the valuable contributions of the LGBTQIA+ community. Their potential can significantly boost both labor productivity and spending power. Companies need to move beyond lip service!

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India’s galloping march to the world’s third largest economy in the next decade or even earlier can ill afford to bypass the LGBTQA+ community that has potential to add billions, both in terms of labour productivity as well as spending power. In the month of love, the society and companies need to move beyond lip service.

In May 2023, about 10 months ago, an advertisement turned into a viral sensation in India. 

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A middle-aged couple is shown sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for someone. The man calls a number, shown as Arpit, but it goes unanswered. The mother pleads with him to be patient. The next sequence shows a young woman walk in and sit down. The woman greets her, as only a mother can, while the father remains distant. The young girl tries to talk to her father, her interaction indicating that they are meeting after a long gap. The father gives a reluctant smile, orders her a coffee. The silence, heavy with inter-personal tension, is broken with the barista announcing coffee for “Arpita”. 

 “For me, you are still my kid. Only a letter has been added to your name,” he says composedly. Aprit’s decision to become Arpita through a undergo a gender change surgery has found the final societal recognition, from her father. Nothing could have been bigger than her father’s cuddle of her new pronoun.

The advertisement, launched by coffee retailing major Starbucks India under the hashtag #ItStartsWithYourName, starring trans actor Siya, broke the Internet, but not before splitting the universe of views vertically in the middle: there were those who said it represents India’s coming of age as a progressive society, and there were those who said it smacked of wokeness. 

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Around the same time, jewellery brand Bhima, released an ad for wedding ornaments, featuring a similar storyline, with a trans woman as the bride. She also finds acceptance from her family. The reaction to that ad was also similarly polarising. 

India’s youth demographics is a well-documented global story.  With better spending ability they will decide on products—style, utility, need and affordability. This is where the market is.

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But, for too long there has been a missing slice in India’s potential product market analyses. It was mostly said that a country where parents in many pockets still treasure boys over girls, tapping the wealth of women talent, that potentially account for half of India’s workforce, is critical for reaping the demographic dividend. 

The ‘total addressable market’ analyses broadly passed over the potential of the 'pink economy’ or the slice of the market potential of the LGBTQ+ community. Pink capitalism, also known as rainbow capitalism, is the LGBTQ+ movement’s appropriation by capitalism and the market economy. 

Beyond Gender: Unraveling the Untapped 'Pink Economy'

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Varying estimates of India’s LGBTQ+ population have also muddied the waters. There are about 2.5 million gay people in India, according to the government's submission in the Supreme Court; another report, The birth of pink economy in India, released by public relations firm MSL in 2012, put the figure at 2-13% of the population – that is between 20 million and 130 million. Global research firm Ipsos released a report on LGBT+ Pride 2021 Global Survey conducted between 23 April and 7 May 2022. The report shows that 17% of the Indian population identify as homosexual (Including gay and lesbian), 9% identify as bisexual, 1% identify as pansexual, and 2% identify as asexual. 69% identified as heterosexual (excluding 'do not know', and 'prefer not to answer').

Unlike women, however, where more and more of them are taking over as corporate bosses breaking through the glass ceiling in industries that were earlier considered male-only bastions in India, no such distinctive data is available for India’s factory floors and corporate towers.

Pride 2021 Global Survey

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Education has been a primary vehicle for this change. The enrolment ratio of girls is now at a healthy 75%+ (in 2020), compared to about 35 per cent in the turn of the century. This is enabling girls to join the workforce, raising their income levels and, more importantly, their affordability. This has a bearing on consumer behaviour, consumption patterns. 

Contrary to a dominant perception, India is no longer an urban-male focused market. That said, it hasn’t translated into greater attention from companies to the potential of the pink or the rainbow economy.

WEF's Reality Check: The Real Economic Cost of LGBT Discrimination

A 2014 World Bank study, The Economic Cost of Stigma and the Exclusion of LGBT People: A Case Study of India, indicates that in India Homophobia causes 0.1-1.7% GDP loss. 

“Stigma and exclusion of LGBT people are likely to generate economic costs, particularly from lost productivity as a result of workplace discrimination, and health disparities (in HIV, depression, and suicidal ideation). Evidence suggests that educational outcomes might also be lower for LGBT people because of discrimination and harassment in schools and universities. Each of those forms of exclusion results in the loss of potential human capital or the underutilization of existing human capital,” the study said.

In 2016, a World Economic Forum (WEF) study “The Real Cost of LGBT Discrimination” cost India an estimated $32 billion a year in lost economic output.

“Altruism and self-interest both point in the same direction. Tackling discrimination is the right thing to do – and essential if the human rights of LGBT people are to be properly protected. But it’s also the smart thing to do for any business that wants to maximize the productivity of its own workforce – as well as for any country that wants to harness the full economic potential of its people,” the WEF study said.

In 2018 the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling decriminalized homosexuality. The move was anticipated to provide a major shot in the arm of India's economy. As diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), many believed, would move beyond narrowing the male-female opportunities’ gap to encompass the LGBTQ+ community’s potential too.

While most consumer marketing campaigns involving LGBTQA+ have remained concentrated around June, the pride month, the focus on the community is mostly missing when the `love’ economy blossoms assumes magnificent values in the month of love.

There’s something about February in India. There’s a buzz. Always. It starts with the Union Budget, which is presented on the first of the month. Millions track the finance minister’s speech very closely for cues and announcements on tax and policy changes. 

pink

Love Economy Blossoms: The Untapped Potential in February's 'Month of Love'

Vasant Panchami, a Hindu festival that marks the onset of spring, falls in February every year, mostly. In some parts, particularly in east India, the faithful worships goddess Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, on Vasant Panchami. Forty days from Vasant Panchami falls Holi, the festival of colours, where the country comes alive in a resplendent merry-making of smearing of colours, special food and community and family get-togethers.

In between the Union Budget’s presentation that shave off or add to people’s incomes, Vasant Panchami and Holi falls Valentine's Day, February 14, the global festival of love. 

Among all of this, young Indians who are falling in love, has also created a whole new world of opportunities for brands, products and services.

Last May’s Starbucks campaign, the company said, aims to look at personal connections and relationships with “a renewed lens”.

“The unique Starbucks experience where everyone feels welcome is what drives our growth. At Starbucks, we are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee, nurturing the limitless possibilities of human connection every day.”

For both Starbucks and Bhima, it also translated into a healthier top line – the best result that any business would want by recognising and serving an underserved and downplayed market segment.

India’s galloping march to the world’s third largest economy in the next decade or even earlier can ill afford to bypass a community that has potential to add billions, both in terms of labour productivity as well as spending power. The economy’s sun needs to brighten up the rainbow economy too.

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