Welcome to Marketing’s Changemakers, a new series from The Drum that tells the stories of brands trying to change the world in ways both big and small. Here, Smirnoff’s global senior brand manager Neil Shah discusses the latest installment of the brand’s ‘Equalizing Music’ initiative, which aims to promote equality for women musicians around the world.
Just like the advertising industry – and most industries, for that matter – music has a gender problem.
It’s a problem that spares no genre, and one that caused a Twitter storm earlier this year when the hashtag #GrammySoMale began trending after Alessia Cara became the sole woman to take home a major award at the Grammys. Last month, country singer Cam called out the iHeart Radio Music Awards for including zero female nominees in the Country Artist of the Year category.
The numbers show just how bad things really are: according to a recent study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that analyzed 600 popular songs from 2012-2017, females represented only 22.4% of all artists and a mere 12.3% of songwriters.
While it will surely take more than a brand effort to solve an issue of this scale, Smirnoff is doing its part to raise the profiles of and give exposure to female artists through its ‘Equalizing Music’ campaign, an effort that began in 2016 with a documentary featuring New York-based female DJ collective and booking agency Discwoman. The documentary was created via Smirnoff’s international music platform Sound Collective, which the brand says is committed to fostering an inclusive electronic music culture.
The following year, the brand took things up a notch on International Women’s Day when it announced its plans to double the number of woman-identified headliners at festivals by 2020. Its commitment stems from research conducted by Thump, Vice’s electronic music and culture site, that found that women only made up an average 17% of headliners in 2016 at music festivals around the world.
In partnership with Thump and Vice’s women-focused site Broadly, Smirnoff put together a list called Top 50 Women Making Noise that features influential producers, DJs, and collaborators that electronic music fans can explore. The Diageo-owned vodka brand also asked a number of industry stakeholders – including Spotify, music website Pitchfork, DJ publication Mixmag, UK nightclub venue owner Deltic Group and festival producer Insomniac – to sign a pledge to advance gender representation, whether it be through performance bookings, exposure in media or music availability.
As a result of the pledge, Mixmag committed to making 50% of its magazine cover stars female DJs moving forward. According to Shah, the hope is that actions like this will help Smirnoff meet its goal of increasing the number of women headliners at festivals.
“We actively work with partners who share our vision on gender parity,” he says. “We believe in bringing inclusive good times to more people, and music is something that we’ve been inextricably linked with for a very long time. Smirnoff’s point of view on music is it’s better when it’s equal.”
Ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day, the brand is broadening its scope beyond electronic music to support women musicians in all genres through a tie-up with Spotify. Starting today, Spotify listeners can utilize a tool dubbed the Smirnoff Equalizer that provides users with a percentage breakdown of the number of men versus women artists they have listened to in the past six months. For those whose listening preferences skew male, the Equalizer provides users with an “equalized” playlist tailored just for them and their music tastes.
“It’s very much based on the user’s listening habits, and that’s really key. It’s not just a random playlist," says Shah. The tool also includes a “personalized slider” that lets users increase the number of women artists in their playlists.
The Smirnoff Equalizer was created in response to the fact that none of the top 10 most-streamed tracks on Spotify were performed by women artists or bands in 2017, according to the streaming service's data. After seeing this data, Shah says the brand was inspired to create the Equalizer to not only raise awareness of the extreme gender disparity in music, but also give listeners an easy way to do something about it.
“This is really about actually empowering people to actually understand how their behaviors are subject to gender biases, and allows them to address those behaviors in a way that is natural to them,” Shah says. By exposing listeners to more women artists, Smirnoff hopes it can help these musicians grow their fanbases and increase their opportunities to perform.
To promote the Equalizer, which is available to listeners in the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, Mexico and Argentina, Smirnoff has paired up with transgender DJ and producer Honey Dijon, who will appear in the platform to share her experiences facing gender bias in the music industry.
The brand also held a launch event in New York City this week to spread the word about the initiative. The event included a panel moderated by singer and ‘The Real’ host Adrienne Bailon-Houghton, which featured women from different industries discussing their personal experiences. At the event, Smirnoff unveiled its special edition ‘Phenomenal You’ bottle, which Shah says is being sent to 100 influencers. For each bottle, Smirnoff is making a donation to She Runs It, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women advance in their careers.
As for why Smirnoff has chosen to align ‘Equalizing Music’ with International Women’s Day – a day on which many brands vie for the attention of women, well-intentioned or not – Shah says the holiday only helps draw attention to the many talented and accomplished women musicians in the world.
“We believe that we should be having this conversation throughout the year, and we do, but what better time to celebrate great women artists than during the run-up to International Women’s Day? It’s a time when the world looks to celebrate the impact of great women across everything, so it feels like the right time for us to do this,” Shah says.