Fact or Fiction: The Art of Feminist Marketing

Fact or Fiction:

The Art of Feminist Marketing

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In today’s world there is no shortage of feminist-slanted marketing initiatives. Huge companies promise to “help women break the glass ceiling” with emotional campaigns that tug at the heart strings.

The equation goes something like this: company X looks to come across as ‘tuned in’ and inclusive so it creates a new campaign. Company X puts out slickly produced commercial featuring an adorably diverse group of young girls dressed in tutus or something of the like, add dramatic piano music, an inspiring female voiceover, and culminates the spot with a tagline like “Women are the future.” (Oh yeah, that’s good). Consumers watching this tear up a bit and think ‘wow, this company gets it.’ But is there substance behind the hype? Are there even any women behind the message?

“I applaud their intentions but I see window dressing initiatives occur so often that I don’t see it having a sustainable impact,” says Barbara Annis, founding partner of Gender Intelligence Group, and author of Results at the Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth. “You must think about it in a much more systemic way in order to affect real change.”

Despite more brands than ever utilizing inspiring pro-women messaging, complete with catchy hashtags and splashy campaigns, with only a tiny percentage of women sitting on boards and holding executive roles, one has to wonder how deep the messaging really goes. Feminist scholars see various reasons for the disparity, which include the rising spending power women hold as well as an anti-Trump bandwagon message that brands feel pressured to adopt. Additionally because the country’s creative directors are nearly all men, Annis warns that many “feminist” commercials may fall short of reaching any real depth.

“I’m certain that when marketing experts saw the power and numbers in the Women’s March, they brought this to the table when pitching ad campaigns,” says Dr. Marika Lindholm, Founder of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere). “Even in the Super Bowl, we saw more politically oriented ads. Whenever advertisers take a stance on a social reality such as, marriage equality, multiracial families and feminism, they’ve done their research and take a calculated risk as to whether this will attract new consumers. It usually works in their favor because controversial and cutting edge ads get attention. Female focused ads in this day and age are not super risky.”

According to Annis, although companies are doing branding, advertising and even recruiting with a pro-female bent, a revolving door has been created, in which firms are losing women five to one, sometimes just months after being hired. The number one cited reason for this dropoff is the lack of an inclusive company culture, as many large companies feel more like a boys club than a female-friendly work zone.

“Women are heavily recruited as they graduate with MBAs into [firms like] Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs, but they don’t stick around,” says Annis. “There’s a big challenge because they leave for ‘personal reasons,’ which creates this assumption it’s because of workload. They actually leave because they don’t feel valued for the authentic skills they bring to the table.”

“Sometimes we put the cart before the horse. [Corporations] think if they just push a numbers game, or a quota on it they will solve the problem.”
-Barbara Annis

Among the recent female-focused campaigns of today are Microsoft’s Girls Do Science campaign; Audi, Godaddy and GE’s emotional commercials, and UBS’s five year plan to “scale up its expertise to better serve female client.” A brief online search of these companies quickly reveals that in no one “leadership” board is there any gender-balanced team (not even close), with most being under 20 percent women. Audi, whose “Daughter” commercial may have caused tears during the Superbowl, also caused a controversy as many women found the ad more depressing than empowering. For those keeping tabs, there are two women on Audi’s “executive team,” which is made up of 14 Caucasian men.

“If you were to search companies that do well by African Americans, AT&T and Aflac score well, whereas, Latino Americans predominate and are promoted in health care and service sectors,” says Lindholm. “For example, Marriott and Kimpton Hotels make the list of best places to work for Latinos. Not surprisingly, information technology companies score well in terms of Asian American employment and promotion. For women, IBM and Johnson & Johnson are frequently cited as actively promoting women to senior management. All the companies mentioned above should be commended for actively promoting diversity. Nevertheless, there is work to be done before most of us work in an organization that truly embraces inclusivity.”

Even Wall Street’s famous bronze bull statue got a female adversary in the form of a “Fearless woman statue,” sponsored by financial firm State Street Global Advisers. But with 23 men and five females on its “leadership board,” one must wonder if the oft-selfied and photographed marketing tool serves as more lip service than a harbinger of change.

“That statue you see has a bit of vestige of that history that says ‘I’m brave, I can get in there, I can do it,’ but what we are missing is it’s not about this young woman making it in the traditional male hierarchy; it’s about transforming the culture of the old male hierarchy,” says Annis. “It’s about creating a culture that is inclusive where everyone can thrive. Having a symbolic statue is not a bad thing if it gets some new conversation going. But if it goes back to the old conversation which says ‘it’s up to the women,’ we can’t fix the problem.”

Embracing inclusivity is without a doubt a powerful marketing message in today’s emotional times, and according to both Annis and Lindholm, is also perfectly self-serving, in that it allows brands to capitalize on today’s unparalleled spending power of women. Appealing to the number one shopping decision maker (Annis says more than 82 percent of all shopping choices are made by women) is without a doubt a positive thing for companies looking to increase their bottom line.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that female-focused marketing campaigns are trying to capitalize on women’s power as consumers,” says Lindholm. “Women and mothers make the majority of purchase decisions in families across America. Campaigns, such as Dove’s Real Beauty and Pantene’s Not Sorry ostensibly incorporate female empowerment emerge because of what’s going on in the national dialogue.”

The blatant woman-focused marketing tactics becomes even more interesting when analyzing the fact that women share their experiences with brands, both good and bad. Men, however, are less verbal about their feelings towards brands.

“Women are the best promoters or not,” says Annis. “Women share like crazy. When men have positive or negative experience they tell three people only if it’s relevant, while women on average tell up to 32 people even if not relevant to the topic, and that’s just verbally. When you add social media the sharing just goes crazy.”

Annis goes on to say that women tend to value the journey to purchasing more than the actual purchasing. In fact, she shares that women have more connections in memory sensors for brain, meaning they are more apt to remember a brand’s advertising, whether it’s a good or bad experience.

“When we started 30 years ago it was all about gender equality but very quickly it has become about gender intelligence,” says Annis. “It’s about understanding the differences and what women want in the market. Many women want a relationship with a brand, not a transactional sale. That’s why companies like Dove, who show authentic communication, have saled exploding and are a beloved brand. They are listening to the women and shifted accordingly”

According to Lindholm, actual progress towards a day when female executives equal the number of men, needs more than expensive commercials and marketing promises. Change can only happen when organizations once and for all resolve the nuanced disparities that keep women from achieving the same levels of success men routinely reach.

“Even when companies are dedicated to diversity, there are subtle mechanisms that undermine their best intentions,” says Lindholm. “For example, given that mentoring is critical to upward mobility, some organizations established mentoring programs but expected senior women to take on too much of the mentoring load. They simply can’t be effective mentors under those conditions. Networking is also problematic because women may have family obligations or they simply aren’t invited to the golf outings or poker games where useful connections are made. I could offer a myriad of similar processes that contribute to the gender gap. Laws and policies are essential but it will take some trial and error on the part of progressive organizations to break down mobility structures based on outdated ideas about gender. And by keeping an eye out for unintended consequences of well-meaning diversity initiatives.”

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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