Lessons from International Women’s Day: when is it ok to get involved as a brand?

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Is the real meaning of IWD being embraced by brands?

Gender equality is for life, not just for International Women’s Day. Though with the flurry of feminism coming from brands left, right and centre a couple of weeks ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

If you were engaged with any media at all on 8 March you would have noticed that it was International Women’s Day. A day that celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women across the world. And seemingly a day which many brands have now highlighted in their marketing calendars.

Yup, this year there were notably more brands joining the International Women’s Day conversation, to varying levels of success. Google trends shows a marked increase in interest over IWD in the past five years in the UK. In the office here at Propellernet, we spent much of the day swapping different brand campaigns which sparked a lot of discussion. Here are our thoughts and feelings on when (if ever) a brand should jump on an awareness day like International Women’s Day.

Make sure you nail the message

One thing that became overwhelmingly apparent to me when scrolling through my social media on the day was brand campaigns that didn’t actually have a decent message or purpose. They stuck out like a sore thumb. Take McDonald’s turning their ‘M’ upside down. Yes, I’ll admit that visually it looked pretty cool, but according to a statement from McDonald’s global chief diversity officer, Wendy Lewis it was done in ‘celebration of women everywhere’. That was it. No details on any initiatives or schemes within the company to support their female workers, no information on how they are addressing diversity in the workplace – nothing. Which leads you to think that maybe these schemes and initiatives don’t actually exist; and in that case, what was the point of the whole endeavour? Frankly, I don’t need a global corporation ‘honouring my accomplishments’ – I’d prefer the time, effort and money spent flipping a ‘M’ upside down went on addressing the issues that IWD stands for. And my thoughts were echoed by much of the press and Twitter.

If you want to join in the conversation – then actually have a reason why. Do something, sign up a charity partner, begin an initiative. Purely jumping on the bandwagon just looks tacky – sorry Maccy D’s.

Make sure you nail the execution

So, your brand has a great message that you want to put out there. They are actually doing something that means that you can join the conversation on IWD. Next is the fun bit where you get to come up with something innovative and eye-catching that’s going to grab the attention of the press and the public. As with any PR campaign (and easy for me to say, but) – make sure it’s good, OK?

BrewDog had a pretty decent message to share this IWD, they acknowledged the average 20% gender pay gap between men and women in the UK and decided to donate 20% of profits from their Punk IPA to Women’s Engineering Society and offer 20% beer to all those who identify as women. So far, so good. If they had stopped there I’m sure they would have gotten a fair amount of press pick up (especially as it’s from such a prominent brand) but I see why they wanted a more PR-y slant. The PR-y slant they went for? They made a pink version of their Punk IPA.

…but before you roll your eyes, it’s ironic guys! As BrewDog had to painfully point out with a ‘#sarcasm’. Is doing something sexist and then saying ‘it’s a joke’ really good enough? As any good comic knows (and many commented), if you have to explain the joke then it's probably not a very good joke.

As with all these things, there were some people that liked the campaign execution; but the overwhelming reaction was a negative one. Which, considering I think there was a decent motivation behind it, is such a shame.

I’ll be intrigued to see whether BrewDog release how much they eventually donate to the Women’s Engineering Society. Perhaps this good news story could somewhat placate the masses, to show that something good did come out of the media storm.

The lesson to be learnt from this is a lesson that is not specific to IWD – make sure your ideas don’t p*ss the majority of people off.

Brace yourself for the backlash

Ok, so you have a great message and you have a great execution. Should be smooth sailing, right?

Wrong - this is the age of the internet remember, so it’s impossible to please everyone. But don’t be disheartened, just check and prep.

Check that there are no skeletons in your brand’s closet that basically negate the whole message of your campaign. In the case of IWD, check your maternity offering, find out whether there are women on the board, ask whether there are any diversity programmes and so on. In fact, a handy check list for ‘femvertising’ has been created by Katie Martell that covers off all the main ones:

If your brand can’t answer yes to all of the above, are they really best placed to be talking about women’s issues right now?

Secondly, prep your comms – from your social channels to your customer centres. Ignoring negative comments doesn’t look great, especially if there are lots of them, so get your responses straight beforehand.

Think beyond the day

There’s nothing more disingenuous than a flash in the pan campaign that does some good for a short period of time and then disappears never to be heard of or referred to again. If you’ve done something for IWD then think about how you can carry on the momentum throughout the year, focusing on both women’s issues and other diversity issues such as race and sexual orientation. Someone who is particularly good at this is Lush; regardless of the awareness day they are constantly supporting environmental, gender and diversity campaigns. Basically, be more Lush.

Louise Parker is a public relations consultant at Propellernet

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