Surekha Ragavan
Nov 23, 2021

How brands are failing to connect with millennial mothers

Millennial mothers in Asia are voicing their needs, accomplishments and worries unlike any previous generation. Yet brands are not sensibly tapping into this group.


As gender roles become more fluid in Asia, so have parenting roles. Women with children are more likely to share equal parenting tasks with their partners. This shift, compared to their parents’ generations, is resulting in more progressive marketing of kids’ products that is less likely to single a mother out as a child’s sole or primary caregiver.

For example, Ariel’s much-talked-about #ShareTheLoad campaign, which picked up multiple Cannes awards, is an impactful PSA about equal share of workload in household chores.

Despite shifting perceptions, millennial mothers possess unique attributes and aspirations that are valuable for brands to be familiar with. According to a report by R3, millennial mothers have a growing awareness of the economic hardships of motherhood, as well as a growing desire for career progression. Caring for their children may also often clash with their desires and interests outside of their role as a mother. Plus, they are more aware that these challenges are a reflection of a lack of structural support and an increase in societal pressures on working mothers.

Based on the report, the five things millennial mothers are most concerned about are the health and nutritional needs of their children, employment and career progression, climate change, personal economic growth, and the safety and quality of products for their children.

Malena Gong, regional head of insights at TheAsianParent (TAP), told Campaign Asia-Pacific that one of the major differences between millennial mothers and their parents is tech-savviness. Based on research from TAP, this group is three times more likely to buy smart ‘famtech’ products such as multi-function breastfeeding devices or ‘smart’ washable diapers. One example that has taken off in the ‘famtech’ category is Nestle’s beverage machine that makes infant formula milk using pods, the same way a Nespresso coffee machine does.

TAP recently conducted a study on top-ranking formula brands in Southeast Asia, and one area where all brands fell short was uniqueness. The research showed that mothers in the region feel that formula brands are “telling them the same thing and using the same channels”.

“Innovation is still the key [differentiator],” said Gong. “Your brand has to be special; you have to keep finding new unmet needs because the lifestyles of mothers have changed.”

Not your mother’s marketing strategy

Gone are the days where parents look to TV or traditional press for brand recommendations. Based on research from TAP, for example, mothers in Southeast Asia preferred online versus offline shopping, and Shopee appeared to be the top channel, earning 47% market share across the region.

Manasi Trivedi, Southeast Asia strategy director at McCann Worldgroup, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that while ecommerce platforms seem to be the retail choice for millennial mothers, not all categories of childcare products are the same. While mothers preferred to buy diapers online, items such as food or infant formula are “still very much offline purchases” because of a sense of guilt of buying them online as well as uncertainty about online resellers.

Buying from ecommerce platforms can feel transactional for mothers. Trivedi said that these platforms prefer to use a blanket approach of discounts and low prices to woo shoppers, but there is an untapped opportunity to leverge mothers’ unique digital behaviour. For instance, new mothers are often awake in the wee hours of the night to feed their child, and they are often browsing their phones to stock up on products at that time.

“The ecommerce sites could be doing a lot more to specifically leverage these nuances and behaviours of moms to be able to drive higher levels of loyalty,” she said. “There’s so much tiptoeing and no sense of loyalty, because they tend to go towards whichever brand gives them the lowest price. The mother actually has multiple apps open and looks at the same brand on different apps to see which one has a slightly lower price or has a steeper discount. So there’s a chance there for brands to build on that.”

The tiptoeing between brands that Trivedi mentioned applies more so to ‘lower-risk’ items such as diapers and wet wipes. For items such as baby shampoo and vitamins, mothers prefer to stick to a brand they are already familiar with.

When it comes to influence, recommendations from family and friends are found to be the top source of awareness as well as a top purchase driver, according to the TAP study. Other sources of awareness and influence are fellow mothers’ recommendations via social-media, parenting apps and IM apps. Meanwhile, recommendations from healthcare professionals (HCPs) rank slightly lower for influence.

“Many of these conversations are happening online, in mum circles and larger parent communities, swapping stories, tips and unfiltered reviews. These are the spaces that demand listening,” said TAP’s Gong.

Trivedi shared Gong’s sentiment about closed groups and conversations happening online around parenting. In Vietnam, for instance, mothers in closed Facebook groups are influencers in their own right. On average, a Vietnamese mother would be part of between 12 to 14 Facebook groups, which are segmented by categories such as ‘wise moms’, ‘smart moms’, ‘moms who believe in natural parenting’, and ‘breastfeeding moms’.

Because brands are not welcome in these closed online communities, there’s a growing trend where mothers in the group who have influence will expose participants of the group to branded content.

This method, according to Trivedi, is a smart way for brands to enter these closed spaces without being shouty. This way, brands are able to utilise micro-influencers and form genuine relationships with mothers without pushing their products in an inauthentic way. So if a brand organises a pre-natal class and uses a micro-influencer to promote the event, mothers in the group are more likely to participate. As a bonus, brands can also have passive access to what mothers are discussing in these groups; much like a consumer focus group, they are able to listen to their consumers and gather feedback.

Yet, it’s a delicate line for brands to enter into these spaces. “It’s all about getting involved in the right time and in the right place," said Trivedi. "There is a higher fear of backlash for brands as even one negative impact can snowball into something worse."

One example of a brand deftly enaging with the community is Friso, a formula milk brand that ran a campaign called #BeautifulShit to educate mothers about their children’s bowel movements. The campaign utilised HCPs as KOLs to drive home the message that poop is an excellent indicator for children’s gut health. 

On Instagram and TikTok, however, the approach from brands and influencers is less thoughtful. While these platforms are great for awareness, they rarely convince a millennial mother to convert their dollars.

“Brands are literally just working with PR agencies and asking them ‘give me the top 10 influencers and let's get them to put up a post’ and then the next day that same mother would be posting about another brand," said Trivedi. "Customers can see right through that. It lacks authenticity.”

Leanne Low, a millennial mother based in Kuala Lumpur, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that there is a tendency on Instagram to show parenting through a rose-tinted filter. Low prefers to seek out other mothers with smaller followings who are not ‘professional influencers’. She might find baby meal recipes, toy recommendations, and general shared experience from them.

“Many of the parents I follow are honest, at least to a degree, about challenges,” she said. “For example, maybe they’ll post a photo of a meal they prepared which their kid didn’t like and refused to eat. I don’t think I could stomach an influencer who was 100% upbeat all the time.”

A paradigm shift in maternal values

An inevitable reality for mothers is the often-unrealistic societal expectations set upon them by default of being a mother. Yet, these pressures are rarely tackled by brands in their storytelling or purpose-driven messaging. Or at least, that seems to be the case in Asia.

Trivedi said that millennial mothers in Asia do care about how others judge their parenting abilities, hence the need for one-upmanship to promote their ‘good deeds’ as a mother on social media. There is also a need for mothers—particularly in Hong Kong, according to a study by McCann—to appear calm and collected on the outside despite managing childcare and other life stresses.

In the West, more brands are pushing out ‘imperfect parenting’ as a narrative, such as Tommee Tippee and BabyGanics (see video below). In Asia, mainstream parenting brands are not yet committed to this idea, said Trivedi, for fear of alienating a segment of mothers who might not buy into the idea.

“There is a sense of empathy from brands but I don't think there's as many brands that are fully embracing and showing the real side of parenting," Trivedi said. "Perhaps in a year or two, we might start seeing that a bit more.”

Malati Afridi, chief experience officer at Wunderman Thompson Singapore, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that parenting brands are increasingly taking on the role of an ally to mothers so that these difficult conversations remain relevant and authentic.

“We see it across a bunch of categories whether it’s pregnancy or a child’s nutrition. More brands are recognising what mothers are going through,” she said. “While a brand may be offering just a particular solution, they are recognising that a woman is going through many more experiences, and therefore, they are more open to larger conversations.”

Another area that’s capturing the attention of brands is wellness. While reflective of a larger, more universal movement, wellness has naturally become important for millennial mothers. Based on R3's research, most mothers in Southeast Asia are increasingly concerned about the health and nutrition of their children and are seeking healthier alternatives of products. Of course, in this context, the definition of health and nutrition is largely reliant on conversations in the wellness movement rather than science-backed conclusions from HCPs.

“Millennials are making [different] food choices compared to the previous few generations,” said Afridi. “From an early age, they have been more conscious of health-related diets. Of course, their motivators might be about looking good or losing weight, but there’s an understanding of healthy foods.”

This ‘understanding’ has undeniably trickled down to how millennial mothers feed their children. TAP’s Gong said that mothers now are more concerned about ingredients such as palm oil in formula milk.

McCann’s Trivedi said that another motivator could be mothers using their feeding habits as a brag-worthy point to peers or on social media.

“It’s validating," she said. "She can say that she is a good mum because she chose a low-sugar version of a product. It’s become a strong barometer of how good you are as a parent. But this is reflective in a mid to high economic strata. It’s not as pronounced in the lower segment.”

Regardless of the choices and values of millennial mothers, one thing remains clear: Brands in the region are not crafting enough clever content around this community’s complex needs and preferences.

Campaign Asia

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