Guest Blogpost by Kristin James, Director of Strategy, Hornall Anderson
It’s all leading up to a question.
A young African American woman is dining with her boyfriend at a Chinese restaurant. She is visibly nervous, and he’s touchingly sweet. He receives a fortune cookie. Its message alluding to some question confuses him. His confusion grows comically as he compares this whole thing to a scene in a scary movie. Her anxiety and exasperation deepens. At last she kneels, tells him to shut up, and presents him with a ring.
This is Stress Test #5182, wherein Claire ignores centuries of tradition and asks for what she wants: Andy’s hand in marriage. You cannot help but cheer for this refreshing take on your typical rom-com ending, with a woman determining her own romantic future.
And it’s all brought to you by Secret.
Other spots in the unabashedly feminist series includes Stress Test #4528, where a young professional named Lucy “does her part to close the wage gap” by making her case for a raise. The more provocative Stress #8260 shows Dana, who is a transgender person, taking deep, controlled breaths before entering the main space of the ladies room to find herself embraced, not shunned, and we’re reminded that there’s no wrong way to be a woman.
The spots earn their share of reactions, ranging from cheers that women are finally seeing more faces they can relate to, to eye rolling at simplifying an issue as complex as the wage gap. And yes, the expected shock over a transgender person being shown at all, to outright admiration that the brand is tackling a subject so widely misunderstood and demanding of our understanding.
Not surprisingly one asks, why must our deodorant have a feminist point of view at all?
Love the spots or not, in many ways Secret is doing what Secret has done since 1972 when it declared itself “strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” That most famous of taglines acknowledged that yeah, women are tough. To arrive here, with an intersectional view of feminism is not only true to who they are, it’s a sign of the times.
Embracing a Moment
Secret is not alone in questioning what it means to be female. After a slow and steady build-up of bucking standards, like Dove’s Real Beauty initiatives, this past year felt like a breakthrough.
Cover Girl featured a woman in a hijab, and its first male model. Emerging beauty brand Glossier celebrated women’s so-called imperfections. Lane Bryant declared #thisbody to be strong, beautiful and worthy. Thinx celebrated the realities of menstruation. All cast for diversity and relatability. Some chose to illuminate something entirely new to the masses, even if sometimes simplified.
The reflection shown to women, and those who identify as women, is that being female defies definition and knows no shame. And while the inclusiveness may seem aspirational, the images do not undercut realities that are desperate to be shown.
Yet for every brand that’s reflecting some progress, many others still exist to remind women that they should lose a little weight, have straighter, shinier hair, and flawless skin. Not that it’s wrong as women to want these things…but really is that all there is?
Here Comes the Tipping Point
2016 was meant to be the year of the woman — after many other years supposedly being the year of the woman. How much did the possibility of the first female president, and all the conversations surrounding women’s issues, influence marketing — or had those been in the creative pipeline long before? Even without knowing the precise catalyst, that these conversations are gaining steam is increasingly hard to ignore.
Think of Southwest Airlines, who without much ado but to great applause, turned on pink cabin lights for the female passengers on their way to march in Washington, DC. This small and spontaneous gesture became a viral hit within hours. Many women on their own journeys saw it and felt it. A moment declaring loud and clear, “we are on your side whether you’re on this plane or not.” Even though Southwest isn’t a brand for women, they are a brand that’s about loving their customers and showing that love in unexpected ways.
Timing is One Thing. Purpose is Everything.
Politics and feminism aside, selling products to women in a transactional manner without putting their lives at the center is a certain path to irrelevancy. Brands that genuinely meet women on a level they care about earn devotion — as long as it’s coming from the right place and the products and experiences deliver.
But brands have always had the tricky job of connecting to culture, and especially big cultural shifts, in a way that won’t backfire. We saw that boomerang effect with green brands, as many products rushed into marketing, only to be met with criticisms of “greenwashing” when it turned out to be marketing only.
We see this emerging with Audi’s Superbowl contribution, where a father looks on as his daughter fearlessly races, worried about her and her perceived worth. Audi doesn’t stop at the emotional punch: they declare their company’s commitment to equal pay. Women were quick to applaud, then just as quickly challenge the spot as opportunistic while investigating Audi’s own business practices.
Purpose is the difference between amplifying important issues that your brand is tackling in many ways, versus pandering to, or exploiting, a moment for financial gain. Secret has earned trust over decades. That such a mass brand went so deep into intersectional issues will be recognized as a watershed moment for years to come. Audi may be racing too fast, but at least they are staying in the conversation with consumers and answering their critics.
In terms of whether any move into this realm is right for your brand, a better question might be what do you want out of it? If the answer revolves around future-proofing your brand with Gen Y and Z, and increasing sales with purpose-driven consumers, that’s simply not enough.
Champions For Real
While feminism should not be used disingenuously as a trojan horse, if you are making products for women how can you not concern yourself with their lives? This is a question that is larger than an advertising or PR campaign, and it begs you to thoroughly examine if your brand is really committed.
You have to build your brand with empathy for women, and become their champion, for real. That spirit must infiltrate every piece of your process from product development through communications though every minute of an experience they have with you. And yes, your business practices.
Being a champion of women does not have to take on a direct or extreme political message to be effective, either. Consider Ariel’s “Share the Load” spot from India, which merely explores why laundry, and the household in general, falls on the shoulders of women, especially as more and more women work outside the home. The call-to-action for a father to use the product provides an interesting twist that women’s issues are oftentimes a family issue.
Really know your consumer. Know yourselves.
Close your eyes, and conjure up an image of your target consumer.
Did you picture her specifically interacting with your brand, or could you see some other part of her life? Was the situation somewhat traditional? Was she white, middle class, and attractive by standard norms?
If you answer yes to any of these, then it’s time to evaluate. Considering every decision throughout your process will help you uncover where your team, without even realizing it, defines women in a very narrow way.
Beware — some of these behaviors are deeply entrenched. The business of marketing is structured around processes that reward thoroughly validated ideas, delivered with consistency and efficiency, and agencies that know your brand as well as you do. It is not a business that rewards change, or questioning years of insights that have already been agreed to.
Therefore, seeing your brand with clarity and knowing how to move forward, honestly and confidently, can be a challenge. This is why fresh perspectives can help diagnose what’s really happening with your consumer, the market, and what your brand can legitimately say and do next.
And while there may be a risk in changing your thinking, there is most definitely the cost of doing nothing.
Your Own Tipping Point
The most important thing to remember however you move forward — and you must move forward — are the lessons already learned. Don’t shoehorn the message in because more brands are doing it. Be real and true. Back it up with your actions.
Aim to be a force to not just help women feel whatever you want them to feel on a superficial level, but show them they are amazing today, just doing what they’re doing, being who they are. Think of them in all their multitudes. The power is in our hands to be that force for good. Or else 2017 will, alas, be the year “pinkwashing” became the new “greenwashing.”
But yes, fellow marketers, now would be the perfect time to stop selling to women, and start creating for them. All of them.
Kristin James takes on the complex challenges of branding and turns them into perfectly wrapped, digestible pieces of strategy. She has tied in her culinary background with her strategic side by working for clients like World Kitchen, Kraft, and Campbell’s. She has worked on a range of brands including ChapStick, Georgia Pacific, Verizon, Reynolds Consumer Products, Toys R Us, CVS, and Scotts Miracle-Gro. Since coming on board with Hornall Anderson she has worked on many female-focused brands, including Lane Bryant and Cacique.