Wednesday 8th March marked International Women’s Day. We saw waves of support for women across global brand campaigns which, of course, have been subject to scrutiny. With a Twitter bot trending for calling out seemingly supportive companies for their respective gender pay, it is clear that brands need to do more to respond to the continuously evolving socio-political landscapes in which they operate. So, with consumers hot on the heels of disingenuous brands, Director Laura Payten reached out to her network to investigate what brands could do better and shares her thoughts on the matter.
As I woke up on Thursday morning, blearily scrolling through my Instagram feed (don’t judge, you do it too) I breathed a sigh of relief. The tirade of messaging “GIRL BOSS” “FIERCE” “SLAY” “20% off FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS” that flooded social media yesterday, with such ferocity I felt it might make for quite a good drinking game, seemed to have died down.
What caused my phone to spew out such a plethora of empowerment platitudes with as much gusto?
Well, in case you missed it, Wednesday was International Women’s Day. A single but vital day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women and have open discussions about the work that still needs to be done. But, for a lot of marketing departments, it seems, it is a day to flog more (pink) stuff.
Times are changing, and consumers expect more. Brands are under more pressure than ever to prove to audiences that they are truly and authentically inclusive, but for some, something is getting lost in translation. So, how are brands missing the mark? And what can they do better?
The challenge for marketing departments
I get it. I really do. Any CEO worth their salt knows today’s consumers want brands to demonstrate ‘purpose’. This isn’t surprising. Plenty of our own research shows we all feel a little bit guilty about the things we buy and want brands to take some of this bad feeling away. A recent study we carried out for a rail operator highlighted consumers are more likely to recommend a brand they feel aligns with their values and proactively demonstrates social good. What is surprising, however, is that even with the mass of information around us, businesses are driving strategies without truly understanding their audiences. Today, brands that win are the ones who can take continuously evolving consumer insights and turn them into strategic opportunities.
Without this deep level of insight, on days like IWD, Pride month (see my colleagues’ brilliant article about the Rainbow Gap) Black History Month etc., we see brands missing the mark, and risking serious reputational damage by taking (seemingly) inauthentic action.
Integrity, authenticity, and legitimacy
Many brands have built legitimacy and are leading the way with their IWD celebrations. Brands like Chanel, Nike, Fabletics, and Innocent Smoothies have been praised for their efforts on IWD and throughout the year in support of women.
My personal issue is with some of the more … disingenuous… content that was being churned out.
In one day, I’ve been told in the same ad that I am beautiful no matter what, but if I book today, I can get 20% off a tummy tuck. I can get free sushi if I show off a PINK accessory at the counter (cue gleeful clapping!). Money off deodorants, because I really can do it all and still smell great (I can’t help but question whether doing it all refers to working 9-5, then carrying out our disproportionate share of unpaid domestic labour and child care). Even my boyfriend was encouraged to celebrate me through purchasing a tub of 100% grey coverage hair dye (for once they would have done better branding it pink, since I sport a pink bob).
In a world where women are more likely to be unsafe, underpaid, underprivileged, underrepresented (pick up a copy of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez for the hard data on this), pushing dieting books on the front page of your platform is not the best way to show you support the cause. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are).
Calm down dear!
Maybe I am overreacting, and it really is just a bit of fun. It is a fair point that brands probably want to steer clear of some of the more horrifying statistics when they’re just trying to sell some hair dye. Going with “45,000 women and girls are killed every year by their partners or other family members” isn’t necessarily the best strategy either…
But, as I said, I am in no way against brands jumping on the bandwagon (or for IWD, maybe we could make it a sparkly Fiat 500). In fact, I implore you to join us, get INVOLVED, ‘be the change’, just do it in the right way (based on audience insights) for the right reasons.
So, what CAN marketeers do?
Now to action. We’re in the business of understanding consumers and helping our clients to put themselves at the heart of their audiences. So we asked our wider network of women in business what brands can do better. Here are their top 3 tips:
1. Do your research
Nothing screams being out of touch louder than plastering ‘GIRL-BOSS’ over anything it will stick to. This had its moment, and this moment has well and truly passed. (Don’t agree with me? Try saying it to any Gen Z and watch their face screw up in disgust. Still don’t agree with me? Extra reading for you here).
Rhetoric changes, which is actually kind of the point. In business, you need to talk to and listen to the people you are trying to reach. Getting the language or optics wrong in your advertising and pushing outdated stereotypes can be at best cringe worthy, at worst insulting.
“HR had a cake delivered for International Women’s Day. It was a pink Collin the Caterpillar. She was so embarrassed. Brands need to stop pushing what they think we should be, what they think we should like. There are too many things brands assume about us.”
Emma Gilli, Founder of Women in Visual Effects
I asked Dan O’Hara, our in-house Tone of Voice Director for his take:
“Women don’t walk around shouting motivational quotes in each other’s faces, but marketers seem to think that’s the only thing they understand. The advice? Talk to women, understand how your product or service truly benefits them – what it adds to their lives, what challenges it solves – and simply play back what they tell you, how they tell it to you. If you can’t do that, pay women to write for you.”
– Well said Mr O’Hara, and a perfect segue onto my next point.
2. Look in the mirror
Take an audit of your internal team. Is there any representation of the audience you are trying to sell to in it? If you answered yes, that’s great, but ask yourself, is it enough? For example, how many women are in senior roles? What opportunities are you giving for junior colleagues for their ideas. What are you doing to reduce the gender pay gap?
Not only will increasing the diversity of your team help you with point one above, but also help you avoid the wrath of the Gender Pay Gap Bot or other wiley moral levelers.
“As a company, if you don’t have a good representation of women in senior roles and equal pay then I would not say anything about IWD as you don’t have a leg to stand on”
– Mary Gannon SVP Publicis
3. Fewer words, more action
I can buy your oat milk any other day of the year, and if you are on my social feed, the chances are I probably already do. So, if you really do want to demonstrate a more purposeful brand, use days like this to stop pushing your product and instead speak about what positive action you have taken. If you really want to go for gold, try taking that action across the whole year. It was so refreshing to see Innocent smoothies post about how they are improving their gender pay gap, when they could have easily tried flogging a pink raspberry and pomegranate smoothie to us. More of this please:
“A post celebrating International Women’s Day is meaningless if it isn’t backed up by action.”
– Cara Nelson, Senior FP&A Manager Logicor
“What we need to see is consistency in action. Well intentioned celebrations to mark International Women’s Day should be encouraged, but consistent and active steps publicly and privately to address lack of equity for women will be what creates progress. Be proactive, be bold, and be vulnerable in seeing, naming, and addressing any and all issues (warts and all!) to be a demonstratable example of change for the better.”
– Danielle Todd, the Forge Director & WIRe London Lead
Whilst I’m sure many brands have good intentions, slapping a hot pink 2-4-1 offer on tampons isn’t the best way to convince us and I believe they can (and should) do better. The women I spoke to today also hope that next year we might see a bigger shift. We want to see more brands listen, look in the mirror and take action.
So girlz [read: brands] get ready. Use code “you can do it” at check out. Remember that you are brave! Empowering! Inspiring! Continue to slay queens!
And, remember, it just might have a positive impact for your business, too.
We would like to thank the contributors who took time to provide a comment on this piece.