Ladies, A Marketing Gimmick Controls Your Clothes During Navratri!
Earlier this week, a colleague asked me: why are so many women wearing red? All of Bandra station looked red! The colleague has recently moved to Mumbai from Delhi. While we were talking, in came our cameraman, Chintamani, wearing red! Deepak from Accounts was wearing red too!
I knew the colours were announced in a Marathi newspaper, but thought it had roots in some religious book. To get more details, I called up Bharatkumar Raut, who was the editor of Maharashtra Times when it all started. The story he told me left me very surprised! This story has not been published so far, Raut told me jokingly, adding he was saving it for his autobiography.
Over the years, wearing nine colours on nine days of Navratri has become an integral part of Mumbai’s culture. So much so that people have either forgotten or are unaware that it was a marketing gimmick started by Maharashtra Times (MT) to boost its circulation!
It was 2003. Maharashtra Times, a Marathi daily run by Bennett Coleman wasn't doing well. Loksatta from The Indian Express group had held the numero uno position for almost four decades. Raut, who had just taken up the mantle from Kumar Ketkar, had made a lot of changes to boost the readership and had to face criticism for "dumbing down" the premium newspaper.
IRS had shown that Loksatta had a lot more women readers; MT was seen as a "masculine" paper. So, after a lot of brainstorming, it was decided to play out a marketing gimmick to woo women. They decided that women will be asked to wear dresses of a particular colour on each day of Navratri, a festival of goddesses. The assumption was: women like to buy and flaunt new dresses, they just need an occasion and hence, MT decided to provide a social occasion.
Nine colours were not part of religion or culture at all, but to make it look religious, each colour was made to associate with a goddess. Stories were woven. For example, ashtami generally belong to Durga. Then Durga's colour was given to ashtami. A picture of a successful women wearing that colour was put prominently on the first page with a bold headline: TODAY'S COLOUR - RED. It followed the story of Durga, the story of that woman and an appeal to women to wear red that day.
MT wanted to target "middle class working women" more than housewives. So, they encouraged women to click pictures wearing the colour of the day in their offices and send it to them. The paper devoted pages to accommodate all those pictures!
As a college student, I thought it was all rubbish! While I was taught ideals of journalism in college, I witnessed the commercialisation of my favourite newspaper. But I was unaware of the practical realities, which I got to know much later.
Over the years, it became a social trend. Raut even told me interesting anecdotes. Once, the Nurses' Union at Breach Candy hospital had threatened to protest if they were not allowed to wear dresses of the nine colours. The hospital management was wary of a scenario where nurses draped purple and red sarees inside operation theatres! Finally, the management allowed them to wear dupattas of different colours on their uniform.
After this unexpected success, the company decided to invest more in the idea. Floats with the colour of the day were sent to middle class societies. Women were encouraged to participate in competitions. Winners were gifted sarees of the colour of the day. Their pictures, draped in those sarees, would appear in the next day's issue.
Then they decided to play with colours. White colour was added, which is generally not worn on auspicious days. To their astonishment, women bought and wore white sarees. Raut remembers visiting Mantralaya (Secretariat), where all men and women were wearing white on the last day of the festival! He told me that women actually didn’t mind wearing white as long as they knew they had "social approval".
In 2012, when I returned to Mumbai, I found that other newspapers and news channels were forced to paint themselves in the nine-coloured rainbow! Interestingly, it had also become a part of regular HR activities of several companies. So, the idea had crossed the Marathi sphere and had become part of larger cosmopolitan culture. I remember when I was working at IBN Lokmat, the non-Marathi receptionist would regularly check MT only for next day’s colour.
The colourful sarees, Ganesha-in-the-masthead, editorial simplification along with a sales promotional campaign made Maharashtra Times the number one Marathi newspaper in Mumbai within a year! It dislodged Loksatta’s Mumbai edition, which had more circulation than the combined circulation of all editions of The Indian Express.
A few days ago, in the morning, 13 years after Raut came up with this brilliant idea, I noticed my maid was wearing a yellow saree. I asked her the reason. “I don’t know, but it’s a religious thing,” she said. I smiled. An idea continues to influence choices of lakhs of people, gives them a way to celebrate a festival within office premises, makes an impact on the garment market, makes people believe that it’s a part of worship and most importantly, helps the paper get female eyeballs! What an idea, sir ji!