The rise of ‘empowertising’: How to successfully use feminism as the starting point of a solid marketing strategy
I’m in a good mood today. Excellent in fact. I’ve reached my goal weight, I’ve discovered a fabulous new conditioning treatment, and I’ve mastered three new tricks to please my lover in bed. What more could a girl ask for? Oh wait. We’re asking for a hell of a lot more. And advertisers are finally clocking on.
For far too many years, women have been bombarded with far too many clichés by advertisers pushing their wares. Some more dangerous than others. But now there is the slightest whiff of change in the air. Advertisers are getting braver. They are starting to treat women as, well, people. Though it’s not as easy as it looks. Advertisers like Dove, Always and Verizon are being complimented and criticised in equal measure for throwing these tired clichés aside.
Critics find these brands guilty of ‘empowertising’. It’s a new term coined by Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, based on a much older concept – commodity activism. Defined by Henry Jenkins, author of Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, this is “a process by which social action is increasingly understood through the ways it is mapped onto merchandising practices, market incentives, and corporate profits.”
But today’s feminists are questioning the effects of commodity activism. They rightfully ask if this approach is actually empowering for today’s financially viable and highly desirable demographic of females. In other words, some feel that using messages of empowerment to sell beauty products is a sneaky state of affairs.
On the other hand, surely the fact that advertisers have finally recognised that feminism is not going anywhere, that women have different needs, viewpoints and priorities, is a very good thing indeed.
And the industry seems to agree. From the same city that banned flats from its red carpet, Cannes has now produced the Glass Lion, created in partnership with LeanIn.Org, which recognises work that addresses issues of gender inequality or prejudice through the conscious representation of gender in advertising.
“I think that commodity activism can be an important form of social activism, if the goals of such activism are not primarily organised around the accumulation of profit or building a corporate brand,” writes Jenkins. “For example, activism about girls’ self-esteem is hot right now – a whole industry has been built around it. With the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, the company encouraged a sort of ‘co-production’ with consumers, and called attention to the exclusionary (and often racist and classist) norms of beauty culture.”
Sure, brands are trying to shift products. No shocker there. But that doesn’t stop me from embracing campaigns like Verizon’s ‘Inspire Her Mind’ which focuses on gender equality in STEM and Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, which aims to take away the negative stigma of something that happens to every woman, every single month. They join the welcome ranks of Unilever’s Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which, at the time, was a bright light in the world of over sexualised, brutally photo shopped supermodels.
And now, Unilever is at it again. And its reasons for doing so are as much ethical as they are economical.
“Over 70 per cent of the people making the decision to buy our brands are women. Our future growth depends on meeting their needs and aspirations and on supporting an increase in their livelihoods by fully and formally participating in the economy,” state the powers-that-be at Unilever. “We consider the advancement of women’s rights and women’s economic inclusion as a priority.”
In 2014, Unilever stated its ambitions to empower five million women by 2020. On Do it Day, my team’s goal on its behalf was a little more regional. We wanted to work with Unilever to engage female millennials in Brazil, one of its biggest markets, in entrepreneurship via a social community which inspires, informs and connects budding entrepreneurs with potentially valuable connections and content. In a country were 95 per cent of women would change their bodies if they could, we are doing so with the message that the beauty of their brains is at least as important as the beauty of their bodies.
As for how Unilever deals with the potential contradictions of using empowering messages for women to sell beauty products, it says it is all about the confidence its messages and its products help to encourage: “We believe self-confidence is a powerful enabler for women to achieve their ambitions,” says Lucile Tardy of Unilever. “So if we can offer products that answer their needs while making them feel more confident and ready to go after their goals, it makes sense for our brands to communicate empowering messages.”
I’m admittedly treading cautiously on this issue, but I do think there are worse things to be deemed guilty of than using feminism as a starting point for a solid marketing strategy. That’s because my expertise lies in telling the right stories to the right audiences. And lately, it is starting to feel as if those stories can be told more honestly, and with better intentions. After all, successfully marketing products to women means truly understanding them, not painting them with the same sexist, condescending brush.
Call me an optimist, but in the not-too-distant future I’m hoping gender will play a far less significant role in marketing altogether, no matter how positively it’s spun. In the meantime, Laura Jordan Bambach, co-founder of SheSays, summed it best when she begged the question: “Are campaigns such as ‘#LikeAGirl’ good pieces of work? In my opinion, yes. Am I cynical about where it comes from? You know, I just don’t give a shit. In a time when everything seems marketed at young men, telling them how they are going to be superstars, girls can at least have their own their own point of view.”
Founder and head of content for Incontext Creative Marcie MacLellan is also content director for SheSays. You can follow her on Twitter @marciemaclellan.