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Ahead of International Women's Day, how brands can play a positive role in the women's empowerment conversation

The call for greater equality of opportunity for women in all areas of life, from the workplace to politics or the sports field and beyond, is growing louder and will be a defining movement of the 21st century.

Hand-in-hand with the demand for greater equality is a desire for more positive representation of women in media and marketing – 53 per cent of women believe that "ad campaigns have a strong influence on how women are perceived in society" (Google Consumer Survey).

Given that marketing has the ability to mould perceptions, challenge received wisdoms and 'nudge' people towards new ways of thinking, there is an opportunity for brands to contribute positively towards the equality debate with relevant initiatives and content.

One focal point for raising awareness is International Women’s Day, almost upon us on Tuesday 8 March. It is celebrated every year and searches for 'women empowerment' peak just after the event. But interest in gender equality stretches far beyond one day of activism; UK searches for 'feminism' grew 27 per cent from 2014 to 2015, with queries such as 'what is a feminist?' and 'what does feminism mean?'

Interest in the topic is fuelled by high profile debates and the involvement of cultural icons like Taylor Swift, who told Maxim magazine last year: "I didn’t have an accurate definition of feminism when I was younger. I didn’t quite see all the ways that feminism is vital to growing up in the world we live in."

Other prompts have included actor Emma Watson’s passionate speech on gender equality at the UN when launching the HeForShe initiative designed to enlist men and boys to support the movement, and the controversy around the original ads that prompted the #ilooklikeanengineer hashtag, which helped fuel a 45 per cent jump in searches for 'girls who code'.

Search is a powerful tool for the spread of information, inspiration and ideas. It allows everyone to discover and join in the passionate conversations regarding the advancement of women. For instance, a recent study showing that there is a 'sexist surcharge' for essentially the same product (like razors) depending on whether it targets women or men, and the surrounding conversation, is easily surfaced by search.

Women are hungry to see content that reflects their hopes and concerns and forward-thinking companies and organisations are trying to help by developing pro-female campaigns and platforms for discussion. Five such ads – Dove's Choose Beautiful, Sport England’s This Girl Can, Nike’s Better For It, Always' #LikeAGirl and Mattel’s Barbie – featured prominently in the monthly YouTube ads leaderboards last year and gathered more than 100m views in total.

YouTube launched an initiative designed to encourage and empower young women under the slogan #DearMe in collaboration with 25 YouTubers, which urged users to create inspirational messages for their younger selves. Meanwhile, Google’s Doodle on International Women’s Day celebrated female equality in all professional fields.

Tips for brands looking to be part of the empowerment debate

  • Awareness peaks around International Women's Day so make sure relevant content is surfaced and discoverable around this time.
  • Ensure your participation is authentic and activity stretches across the year.
  • Feature a realistic range of female body types rather than airbrushed, idealised versions.
  • If you champion pro-female values in your content make sure your organisation reflects them or you will look foolish.
  • Consider longer form video so your brand’s story and point of view can be told in more depth.

By positive participation brands can help widen and normalise pro-women discussions. Beyond the fact that 57 per cent of UK women "would rather buy a product for which ads portray women in a positive light", supportive brands will help to build a stronger, more resilient economy and a more cohesive society.

According to McKinsey, if women can realise their full economic potential then it will add $12 trillion to global growth. The movement for gender equality will continue to build momentum and brands who do not recognise the importance of this movement risk being seen as irrelevant and will be sidelined.

Nishma Robb is chair of Women@Google