Six marketing lessons for International Women's Day

Soviet Women's Day poster: Life is merrier with every day!
Soviet Women's Day poster: Life is merrier with every day!

As International Women's Day approaches, brands are lining up to jump on the feminist bandwagon, but consumers are already tiring of 'pinkwashing', writes Nicola Kemp

Feminism is in the midst of a marketing moment. From Always' marketing tour de force 'Like a Girl' to Chanel's spring/summer runway show, which included placard-wielding models declaring "Ladies first" and "Feminist but feminine" feminism is at the top of the agenda.

There is, of course, something faintly ridiculous about the notion that a concept as intrinsic as the social, political and economic equality of the sexes is having a 'moment'. 

Yet there is little doubt that, over the past 12 months, feminism with a small 'f' has become a growing focus for the business world. For the marketing industry, where any conceivable networking event is always only a click away, feminism has fast become a vibrant talking point.

We should not be surprised, therefore, to see a growing tranche of brands, agencies and organisations attempt to co-opt the focus of International Women’s Day for their own ends, with differing degrees of authenticity and integrity.

Jane Cunningham, co-founder of strategic consultancy Pretty Little Head, says that before jumping on International Women’s Day, brands should actively participate in the conversation for the rest of the year.

"Brands like Nike can do it because they have developed legitimacy. It is the brands that declare women are fabulous on International Women’s Day and then ignore them for the rest of the year who are lacking."

In the social-media age where brand reputations rise and fall in 140 characters, the risk is that we are in danger of creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland. Of course, no marketer wants to be vanilla, yet co-opting the ideals of feminism to promote your business without due diligence and authenticity is not only disingenuous, but extremely damaging to a brand’s reputation.

With this in mind here are six key ways to avoid 'pinkwashing'.

1. Beware of tokenism

After a decade of being told not to 'pink it or shrink it' marketers would be forgiven for believing this is a moot point. Yet you need only look at the forthcoming general election and the patronising pink (or magenta, or cerise or whatever other shade politicians declare it to be) "women to women" van touring the UK, promoting the Labour party, for a telling reminder of the shortcomings of tokenism.

All too often, campaigns, press releases or events targeting women appear as an afterthought or an add-on. After all, it is far easier for businesses to maintain their existing structures and simply bolt on a token effort, campaign or programme specifically for women, rather than ensure equality across all areas of their brand.

2. Practise what you preach

All too often brands are guilty of complacency when it comes to ensuring equality in the workplace. For those companies attempting to use feminism as a marketing platform, the first question should be: how are you ensuring equality within your own business?

Companies need to address their own shortcomings in order to legitimise their role in this debate. Millennial women have placed the gender pay gap firmly in the firing line, yet businesses remain on the back foot. According to research from Bauer Media, the top three issues concerning women between the ages of 25 and 44 are the gender pay gap (83%) gender inequality at work (81%) and the lack of flexible working opportunities (65%).

3. Women are not a homogenous group

Brands who view women as a generic group with linear interests and attitudes risk relying on outdated and often irritating stereotypes.

Pretty Little Head’s Cunningham explains: "Marketing loves simplicity but our research reveals a lot of skepticism with the role models and stereotypes of women." In the post-recession world these consumers are increasingly rejecting the aspirational images of women and ironed-out, airbrushed versions of beauty. Yet, while consumers have become more accustomed to the myriad facets of women’s lives some brands appear unable to let go of outdated assumptions.

4. Authenticity is everything

Indeed if Fourth Wave Feminism has taught marketers anything, it is that truth, honesty and authenticity are crucial to establishing meaningful engagements with consumers.

Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums, who is launching Channel Mum, a YouTube network for mothers, says brands must beware of celebrating and promoting an airbrushed view of the reality of women’s lives. "It is fundamentally wrong on so many levels, I will never forgive Pampers for selling me that idealised view of motherhood."

Instead, Freegard believes brands must embrace authenticity. "Authenticity is everything, this is why the YouTube generation has cut the traditional TV networks off at their knees."

5. Beware of your own inherent bias

Just as men can be ardent feminists, women can be inherently sexist; the challenge for all of us is to question our own assumptions every day. This includes helping to create an inclusive culture for all employees. As Katherine Zaleski, president of remote-working company for women PowerToFly, explained in Fortune magazine, in an apology to all the mothers she used to work with: "I know there are still a lot of people like my 28-year-old self – they undervalue mothers’ contributions because they count hours logged in the office and not actual work. Most mothers lose if that’s the barometer for productivity."

6. Listen to diverse voices

The resurgence of corporate feminism has brought with it a focus on individualism. Inevitably, International Women's Day will bring with it a focus on the women in the marketing industry who have successfully made it to the top.

Yet, while the success of individual women should be celebrated, the industry has a responsibility to address the underlying diversity crisis. For at the heart of the 'talent shortage' that the recruitment industry is at pains to promote is a phenomenal retention issue. Marketing leaders need to do more to address why so many women are quitting the industry. International Women's Day presents the opportunity for businesses to listen not just to the women who have reached the pinnacle of their profession, but to those who have been unable to reach their goals. Uncomfortable questions need to be asked.
I have watched women I admire at their most vulnerable stand up to agencies that should know better, which have shunted them out, undermined and diminished them at the very point when they should be supporting their transition back into the work place. They deserve better; we all do.


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