Capes, cars and credit cards: Strong women and the brands that power them

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman / Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Wonder women, unite. Last summer’s mega-blockbuster (and last night’s ubiquitous Halloween costume) has become a rallying cry far beyond Hollywood. 2017 has been a remarkable year for women: thousands marched, dozens spoke out against sexual predators, and several have told women’s stories on big and small screens.

According to The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, there are more female protagonists on screen than ever before. These characters are far more diverse than ever before, too, moving beyond the tropes of love interest or doting assistant. Robin Wright and Carrie Fisher appear in a popular internet meme celebrating their character evolutions from princesses to generals (Buttercup to Antiope and Leia, respectively).

Selina Meyer, the titular Veep played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has become the sitting president in the HBO comedy. Series like 'Younger', 'Fuller House', 'Casual', and 'How to Get Away with Murder' showcase female characters in a bevy of powerful professions including doctors, lawyers, publishers, and professors. Savvy brands are embracing this uptick as an opportunity to showcase how they can fit into these women’s diverse personal and professional lives.

Women account for 85% of all consumer purchases in the United States, spending over $7bn annually. While fashion and beauty categories have always catered to women, companies are recognizing that strong female characters have needs far beyond their appearance.

The Gilmore Girls run on never-ending cups of coffee, while Jessica Jones prefers whiskey. Dr. Mindy Lahiri of “The Mindy Project” gets around in a Lexus, and Scarlett Johansson’s Major rides a custom Honda motorbike in 'Ghost in the Shell.' 'Will and Grace’s' Grace Adler uses a Microsoft Surface Studio to power her design firm, and Reese Witherspoon’s Alice Kinney uses Wix to jumpstart her small business in the film 'Home Again.' Each of these brands helps power these characters through what they need – and want – to achieve.

Notably, many of these properties are helmed by women, who bring their own perspective. The SDSU study found that films with a female director were far more likely to have a female protagonist: 57% v just 18%.

Jessica Chastain, Sarah Jessica Parker, and 'Madam Secretary’s' Lori McCreary touted the importance of hiring female creators — and crew — at last weekend’s Produced By Conference in New York. 'Transparent' and 'I Love Dick' creator Jill Soloway discussed a need for the “female gaze” in a Cosmopolitan interview earlier this year. Jenji Kohan places unique females at the center of her binge-friendly projects, including 'Weeds', 'Orange is the New Black', and the upcoming Lifetime series 'American Princess.' Powerhouse Shonda Rimes is behind 'Grey’s Anatomy' and 'Scandal', and has just signed a development deal with Netflix. While female producers and directors are still underrepresented and statistically paid less than their male counterparts, they do appear to be gaining momentum.

Brands ranging from financial services to automotive to technology are trying to align with strong females.

American Express has tapped Tina Fey as the spokesperson for their credit cards for years. Mattel’s iconic Barbie encouraged girls to “imagine the possibilities” of their future careers in a recent commercial. Keds touts their “run the world” women’s sneaker.

The messaging of these campaigns is progressive, but it will be lost entirely on the growing population of women who aren’t sitting through 30-second spots or pre-roll ads. A better way to reach these consumers is to be a part of the content itself. When 'Insecure’s' Molly Carter uses dating app The League to try to find a high-profile partner, it speaks more to that brand’s appeal and effectiveness than another brand ever could.

And when 'Odd Mom Out’s' Jill Kargman relies on Amazon Prime to help her multitask, it places that product into a context and storyline to which many of that brand’s target audience can relate. Given the continued rise of ad-free platforms, we predict that leading brands should continue to look for in-show opportunities to reinforce their messaging.

Hopefully, by the time the girls trick-or-treating as Wonder Woman or playing with Barbies are in the workforce, or at least have their own Netflix accounts, the need to refer to a powerful woman as a Girlboss will be obsolete.

The expanding library of female-centric content – and the powerful imagery attached to each of these women’s stories – may just help us get there.

Jenny Olson, Director, Strategy & Partnerships, BEN.

Jenny Olson

Jenny Olson is director of strategy and partnerships at Branded Entertainment Network (BEN) in Sherman Oaks, California.

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