Brands need to soar past the sea of clichéd visual codes if they want to legitimately connect with real women, said Allison Koller, Executive Creative Director at brand agency CBX, in a recent TEDx talk in Scotch Plains NJ. All too often, even top brands seeking to connect with women fail to overcome the tired visual clichés that have marred such efforts for generations, Koller noted. “How quickly we become a sea of eyes, bellybuttons, breasts, and beautiful booties,” she said. “Messages and images with the power to break through that sea are unexpected. They are something that makes you look twice. They shift the cultural conversation.”
During the talk, Koller described herself as a swimmer, illustrator, daughter, tennis player and wife who pays keen attention to the content and subtext of brand messages aimed at women. Her visually rich presentation included multiple examples of successful campaigns that legitimately connect with female audiences via creative and respectful messaging. “Last summer, Carli Lloyd and the U.S. women’s soccer team broke through and redefined the power and reach of female athletes and what it means to throw or kick like a girl,” Koller noted, as images from Always’ action-oriented “Like a girl”campaign appeared on screen behind her.
Other collages in her presentation, however, highlighted tired imagery drawn from traditional and social media as well as product packaging used to address women. “Whether women are buying as new moms, looking to get in shape or just considering some new lip-gloss, it’s amazing how cliched the communications often are,” Koller said. These visual codes hinge on imagery full of clean, sleeping, happy babies; magical skin care products; nutrition bars that encourage women to “think thin” and the like, Koller explained. “It’s the promise of perfection: blissful mommy-hood, women with flawless skin, and a Zen-ed out approach to fitness,” she said. “The magic continues with products that perform miracles to make you gorgeous, or make you forget you even have your period.” Tropes include the blonde ingénue: fresh faced, innocent and unassuming; the golden goddess: perfect in a slinky ball gown or while working out; and the modern miracle mom whose home is clean as a sanctuary, with Pinterest-worthy parties and cupcakes, Koller noted.
Fortunately, some brands understand the need to keep it real, Koller said. She cited CBX’s work with Kotex. “When Kotex first started working with us, the cultural conversation around femininity had shifted,” she explained. “Kotex wanted to transcend the cliched codes of feminine hygiene: Girls back-flipping on the beach while having their period, levitating tampons twirling in front of a sea of flowers. They recognized a need to create a new conversation with young women.” CBX helped Kotex kill the butterflies and flowers and create packaging designs for its U by Kotex brand that broke through what Koller described as the “pretty-princess, flowery noise” of the category. “We launched with something undeniably code- and cliché-breaking: the black box with a touch of fun in the brightly colored wrappers,” she said. “No flowers, no high-tech performance claims.”
As forward-thinking brands seek to connect with women, they should continue to innovate with empowering and realistic visual counterpoints to the prevailing clichés, Koller advised. These new codes are already emerging. “Perfection is being replaced by imperfect expression, the ingénue by graceful aging, the golden goddess by the warrior,” she said. “Magic is taking a back seat to hard work. The modern miracle mom has shifted to home-making, with everyday dads and gender role reversals; instead of exoticism, we have true diversity.”