(Image via Shutterstock)
(Image via Shutterstock)

Women are everywhere. No surprise, right? They do, after all, make up 50 percent of the world’s population. Yet, everywhere we look, women are a topic of conversation. Michelle Obama’s outfit choices on a recent tour of Japan are proclaimed to break down female stereotypes. Sweaty, jiggling, and fabulous women exercising on our screens chant “This girl can.” A woman’s mob killing in Afghanistan sparks a global #JusticeForFarkhunda movement. The banning of “India’s Daughter,” a documentary about the gang rape in Delhi, raises hackles across the globe. Meanwhile, Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins sheds light on sexism in Silicon Valley, even if she lost.
Why so much activity stirring around the boundaries of gender? And why now? As cultural insight mavens, we see something fundamental taking place. Some people are calling it the Fourth Wave of Feminism. Fed up with everyday sexism and forged by other forms of activism, women are empowered by social media and other communications technologies. They are speaking up across all sectors, countries, and societies.
This is a cultural movement that is bringing the diversity and complexity of women’s lives to the fore. It is pushing politics, culture, and brands to tackle the thorny issues of educational and job equality, freedom from violence, bias, and so much more.
Of course “womanhood” in India is very different from the same concept in Indianapolis. Women in the U.S. have made tremendous progress in economic independence. The gender pay gap is narrowing. Women-owned firms now account for 30 percent of all enterprises, though you’d never guess it from the make-up of the investment industry. (Just 6 percent of partners at VC firms are women, for example.) The issues in emerging markets like India, Turkey, and Colombia are quite different as women suffer both from inadequate economic and social opportunity.
But the underlying global forces are shifting in similar directions. Solidarity movements like #HeForShe are adopting a counterpoint narrative in order to advance public policy . The movement speaks to male leaders: imploring every CEO to close the pay gap; encouraging every head of state to make sure legislation does not discriminate against women; asking every father to ensure that his girls go to school. And smart brands too are getting in on the conversation—recognizing and honoring the multifaceted nature of womanhood and the complex ways its representations are evolving in culture. When 60 to 70 percent of women feel misunderstood by marketers, there is much to be gained by proving the contrary:

  • Under Armour proposes a motivational mantra reminding us that women athletes “will what they want” and affirming that “the space between woman and athlete is no space at all.”
  • The Celine fashion brand celebrates age and uniqueness via 80-year-old Joan Didion, “the new face of French fashion,” taking a stand that a women’s worth goes well beyond the superficial.
  • Walmart promotes women makers and businesses through its newly designed “Women-Owned” logo on product packaging and online.
  • Always redefines what it means to run #LikeAGirl.
  • And then, of course, there is Dove: Dove Real Women, Dove Self Esteem, Dove Sketches, and most recently, Dove Curls. Note: even Dove’s “arch nemesis” Axe (both Unilever brands) has changed its tune, moving from overt sexism to a subtler form of seduction.

Yet for each brand getting it right, far more are missing the mark. Brands need to realize that “femvertising” missteps represent a real risk for their future growth. A few points to keep in mind:

  1. If you are engaging with an issue, ensure that it is coherent with your brand values and that you can “own” it. Two U.S. brands—Microsoft and Verizon—have recently jumped on the gender diversity bandwagon, both focusing on the female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) gap. Both are urging parents/teachers to encourage girls’ love of science. Both offer up poignant advertising which addresses a pivotal societal topic. Yet, one is likely to get more credit than the other because the issue is more closely aligned with its pre-existing brand equity. Microsoft’s “Girls Do Science” comes across as more legitimate, despite the fact that we find the Verizon “Inspire Her Mind” ad more compelling.
  2. Avoid clichés. The Subway brand took heat last October for suggesting in their ads that women should try to get fit so that they can wear sexy costumes for Halloween. Elle magazine’s response sums up the reaction: “How many eye roll-worthy moments can you fit into 30 seconds? Let us count the WTFs. Subway not only perpetuates the pressure for us to wear slutty costumes on October 31, but also takes it one step further saying we should diet to do it.”
  3. Make sure your tone is consistent with your brand character. Keds has been using Taylor Swift to promote “Brave Girls”—an emotive message to empower young women. But what is the relevance to Keds? Can shoes make you brave? Is it believable when there is no evident link to Keds’s brand character or values? We think instead they could be diminishing the meaning of bravery. A “brave” narrative is best told by a brand that is recognized for its own bravery. One doing this well is Brazil’s Cerveja Feminista beer, tackling the objectification of women in traditional beer and advertising by championing a non-sexist beer culture.

Given the long road that remains to real gender equality, brands do and will continue to play an important role in supporting and even fueling this societal shift.
There are more ways than ever before to begin meaningful conversations with and about women. Brands need to embrace the complexity of this topic, carefully choose the stand they seek to take, and communicate with conviction and authenticity. The ultimate goal will be to get to a place where the need to promote women’s empowerment becomes a relic of the past. But we sure aren’t there yet.
Leslie Pascaud is executive vice president of branding and sustainable innovation at Added Value. This article was written with support by Emma Godfrey, brand project director at Added Value.