How marketers can avoid mixed (virtue) signals when putting resources behind supporting a feminist cause
When companies commit to a process of purpose-driven brand-building, they fight a noble fight. With purpose as the key driver, brands instigate a rare opportunity to tap into meaningful opportunities that put human needs and challenges at the forefront, solving real human problems rather than creating false desire. We too easily crave the desire itself and too often experience advertising that suggests we are deeply faulty in some way.
Women are all too familiar with these messages; the hypervigilant fear of being “not enough” has been honed by decades of cynical marketing strategies designed to weaken us. Purpose-driven branding, at its best, breaks this cycle, elevating our vision and feeding our altruism. It gives us a rallying cry that feels genuine at a deep, human level. But we cannot underestimate the obvious stick in the spokes of this altruism, which is capital.
Capital is the fuel of our culture and, like it or not, capital tends to put purpose, and often corporate conscience, lower on the list of objectives. Ironically, tapping into cultural zeitgeist is a powerful way to create interest, loyalty and ultimately capital. This is where feminism enters the landscape of cultural consideration for brands, and where capitalism and feminism begin their conflicted relationship.
In current Western culture, the status of women is less than ideal, despite the grassroots power of the #MeToo movement, and the media fanfare cheering that we are winning this battle. The prosecution of rape and sexual assault is largely flat, with an estimated 31% of incidents reported and a sub-1% conviction rate. Even celebrity sexual assault cases go unreported, unpunished or are minimized. Deregulation has undermined workers’ rights, which statistically increases risk for women in the workplace, where sexual harassment goes underreported and unpunished. Women were statistically still underpaid in 2019, at 74 cents for every male dollar. In lived experience, it manifests as an undermining of our intellectual abilities; fear of not being believed; hesitation to ask for one’s worth; alienation from male coworkers; the distrust of motivations of male bosses in broader workplace culture; and general avoidance of parking lots, dark alleys, Ubers, dating sites and domestic partners. The female experience is not for the faint of heart.
I present these facts not to preach or berate, rather to clearly paint a picture and fill in the intimate contours of a woman’s reality in order to inform the responsibility that brands take on when they decide to ‘plug into’ feminism as a growth opportunity. Telling us we are beautiful and powerful at any age or size, with underarm hair or without, with a partner or single, even telling men that they’re behaving badly (though brave)—these messaging strategies don’t instigate the deep, systemic change our culture needs to dismantle the structures of sexism. To authentically challenge sexism is to interrupt the mechanisms and undermine the very foundations of power that our culture is built on. And in a society where power is capital, feminism and capitalism will forever be at a stalemate.
Still, there are things brands can and should do more of to be responsible advocates and allies—it’s about deeply understanding and respecting their role in women’s lives, and “knowing their place” as marketers.
Guiding Principles for Marketing More Powerfully and Ethically to Women
- Don’t position your brand as a pivotal solution to sexism, or even as a feminist advocate, if the first objective on your brief is to make money. Women will sense this cynicism, so you’ll be best served to save this strategy for a different initiative.
- Honor the lived experiences of women and reflect them realistically in your marketing; as a brand, you are not the solution or the savior. Leverage consumer insights where gaps exist, and really listen. Qualitative consumer learning can be a wonderful teacher.
- Live your purpose and values inside your organization—if there is sexual harassment in your organization, root it out. Pay women equally. Don’t create external marketing messages that inspire women to be more, to take risks, to live their best life, if you are pushing down the talent and potential of women in your own organization.
- Don’t be a ‘brand-splainer’—in other words, don’t explain women’s experiences to them, don’t intellectualize, distance or minimize these experiences, don’t make it funny or silly or saccharine—it’s simply disrespectful, and cynicism doesn’t build affinity with consumers.
- Educate and immerse yourself on the issues. Read until you feel your defensiveness soften and your mind open. Read until you tap into your own empathy. As marketers, this is our job.
- Understand, internalize and evangelize a purpose-driven branding model, and measure all your work against it—it taps into our better angels, and acts as a North Star when decisions are difficult or confusing.
Women make more than 80% of all purchase decisions. They deserve our respect, our deference and our ears. We can all do better, and many are trying, and that effort also deserves our respect and support. Living your brand’s purpose—from the inside out, from HR to policy to marketing strategies—allows your brand to be true to itself and to more readily put human beings first without sacrificing important growth opportunities. It creates a virtuous cycle in your organization that attracts talent, innovation, consumer relationships, growth, possibility … and capital.
Illustration by Bill Murphy.