Brands must ditch the notion of having it all

The continuing debate on whether women can achieve a truly successful work-life balance belies a fundamental shift in consumer aspirations, writes Nicola Kemp.

A recent ad for Clinique lipstick proclaims: "Have it all", suggesting that a simple cosmetic product is the answer to one of the most complex questions of our time; that ever-elusive quest for balance in our ‘always-on’ world.

Yet, somewhat ironically, the brand’s own research suggests that more women than ever are rejecting the empty rhetoric and bluster implicit in this strapline. In fact, according to its ‘The Truth About Happiness: What Women Want’ research, 77% of women in the UK feel that trying to have it all has actually served only to make us more unhappy.

Branded happiness 

At a time when happiness is becoming viewed almost as a product to be acquired, rather than part of the natural ebb and flow of life, this research should ring alarm bells with marketers. What is often badged as female empowerment in marketing is frequently promoting a message that, instead of inspiring consumers, creates unrealistic expectations that stifle them.

From the advent of ‘chief happiness officers’ to our collective fascination with the practice of mindfulness, how consumers can achieve balance in their lives has, in effect, become a key marketing platform in its own right. But is there a risk of it being perceived as just another stick for brands to beat consumers with?

Of course, the tendency to ask solely women about how they achieve work-life balance – as if 50% of the population is alone responsible for keeping the world spinning – only adds to this mounting sense of suffocation. Yet I can’t escape the fact that this question, and the debate as to whether women can indeed have it ‘all’ (whatever that all really means), preoccupied many of my conversations with Marketing’s Digital Mavericks.

We desperately need more honesty – in ads themselves as well as the industry

Having it all

Their integrity and the honesty of their answers are in stark contrast to the airbrushed images of perfection that still permeate the lion’s share of marketing aimed at women. It’s an honesty that we desperately need, both in the content of advertising itself and within the walls of an industry where women remain woefully under-represented at senior levels.

Perhaps by asking these questions, I, too, am guilty of adding to the pressures and expectations faced by women in the workplace; particularly working mothers. Yet, as I write this, in the final furlongs of pregnancy, I cannot help but believe that more honesty in and about the workplace can only be a good thing. The pressure to continue like nothing has changed in your life after having children is oppressive and should be challenged.

Embracing this honesty will require a significant shift in approach from brands and businesses that are finding their own ideals of what constitutes ‘success’ bear little resemblance to the reality of either their employees’ or consumers’ lives.

Consumers may have rejected the notion of having it all, but that doesn’t mean they lack the courage to challenge the status quo. Technology affords us a previously inconceivable level of flexibility; the challenge is to use it not to add to the relentlessness of the ‘always-on’ working day, but to free us from its constraints.

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