From Cone Bras to Cancer Detection: What women want from their bras

When I was growing up, I wanted to be Madonna. I went to her concerts. I watched all of her videos on MTV. She’s one of the first female superstar I remember, and along with Annie Lennox and Debbie Harry, showed me what a strong, creative, modern woman could be. Madonna gave me a sense of liberation, of empowerment.

Watching Madonna was also the first time I remember thinking deeply about underwear. From her “Like a Virgin” corset to her Jeal Paul Gaultier-designed cone bra on her Blonde Ambition tour, Madonna’s look was often defined by the look of her breasts. Bras and corsets (or lack thereof) were a significant part of Madonna’s ascension to style icon. And because I wanted to be her, I shunned my lily white plain-Jane bras and started wearing super sexy black push-ups. They weren’t comfortable and they didn’t fit, but I didn’t care—I had the look.

For better and worse, breasts are a potent symbol of femininity in the public imagination. And our relationship to the products we buy for them can tell us a lot about what our culture thinks of women, and what women think about themselves. For marketers, bras are a fascinating lens on how consumer expectations change over time. Our recent Brands in Motion study set out to quantify the idea of brand motion and analyze how consumer expectations and external forces shape brands over time.

For the lingerie industry, no external force is stronger than the cultural zeitgeist — in fact, it may be the defining force that moves this industry.

From women’s lib to Victoria’s Secret

I was born in 1968, the year that the phrase “women’s liberation” first gained national attention. It was protesters at the Miss America Pageant who brought the movement to national attention—and a mis-reported story that alleged they burned undergarments in a trashcan that popularized the idea of bra-burning feminists.

These women were protesting the treatment of women’s bodies at the Miss America Pageant, but they were also reacting to decades of bullet bras, Jane Russells and Jayne Mansfields, of Hollywood starlets photographed in impossible undergarments and form-fitting sweaters. Women in the sixties and seventies may not have burned bras, but they did change the lingerie industry—helping shift it away from what men thought looked good to what women actually wanted to wear.

Victoria’s Secret was founded by a man in 1977, as a place for men to feel comfortable buying lingerie for their significant others. He sold the brand in 1982, and in 1983 the new owners flipped the business model and began marketing to women. The store took off and really hit its stride in the nineties. It made sexy achievable. Sexy was something you could buy—and for many women, that was empowering, especially when, in the early 2000s, the brand softened (but didn’t eliminate) their semi-pornographic marketing style and pivoted toward a more upscale femininity. Less Playboy, more Vogue.

Like Madonna, Victoria’s Secret appealed to women who wanted to achieve a certain look. Consumers expected a high level of style and sexiness, and Victoria’s Secret provided. By 2006, the brand had 1,000 stores and accounted for 1/3 of all intimate apparel sales in the U.S. But the good times were not to last.

The start of something new: Real conversations with real consumers

In 2006, the “Evolution” video turned Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty into one of the most talked about marketing moments of all time, and an external force that every brand in the industry needed to reckon with. A response to the newly ubiquitous Photoshop—a twenty-first century update to the kinds of retouching photographers had been doing to women for 150 years—and reality TV’s focus on authenticity and real people as viable subject matter, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty changed the way brands market to women forever.

Dove’s campaign worked so well because they were able to look ahead. They saw the motion coming, the move toward a more holistic view of health and beauty product marketing, and they were the first ones to capitalize on it. Dove argued that sexiness does not exist in a vacuum. It’s tied up with unrealistic societal expectations, and it’s connected to health, happiness and women’s images of themselves. Consumers responded and brands jumped on the bandwagon immediately. Within years, plus-sized models were gracing the covers of Vogue and Sports Illustrated. Unilever banned size zero models from its brands’ ad campaigns. More and more celebrities refused to allow their images to be Photoshopped.

Victoria’s Secret, with its statuesque models and heavily designed catalogs, did not fit well into this paradigm. They simply didn’t see the shift in consumer expectation coming, and they didn’t adjust their own actions to account for this motion. Even as late as 2014, the brand was drawing backlash with campaigns like “Perfect Body,” featuring uniformly tall, thin, busty models, and responding halfheartedly to consumer demands for change.

Thankfully, Victoria’s Secret seems to be an outlier. The intimate apparel industry is changing to reflect a more holistic view of female beauty. I’m seeing this play out in at least three ways.

1. Body positivity is the new sexy

While Victoria’s Secret growth is mostly stagnant, American Eagle’s Aerie brand reported a record-high 38% increase in same-store sales in Q1 2018. AE plans to grow the sub-brand into a billion-dollar business, and women are on board.

Part of Aerie’s success is due to its body positivity. Aerie’s ad campaigns feature women of all shapes, sizes and colors, sometimes with visible disabilities or illnesses. None of their models are ever airbrushed or photoshopped.

This is working really well with women consumers, and driving an expectation that we’ll be able to see ourselves in the models brands pick to market their bras. Other brands have followed suit. This month, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, H&M has launched a line of bras designed by breast cancer survivors, for breast cancer survivors, bringing awareness to what the bra shopping experience is like for women who’ve undergone mastectomies or invasive surgeries.

2. The rise of athleisure

The focus on wellness has brought new life to women’s athletic wear. More than 40 years after the first sports bra was introduced, they’re now everywhere: on runways, red carpets, Pinterest boards, and in every woman’s wardrobe.

And they’re eating into the traditional lingerie market. In the same quarter Victoria’s Secret’s parent company’s profits dipped 25%, Lululemon’s climbed 20%. Statista predicts that the “sports intimate wear” category will generate $41B worldwide by 2019, up from $23B in 2014.

3. Intimate apparel, integrated

What’s next for our bras? A greater integration into the health and wellness lifestyle.

Many forward thinking brands are looking past today’s emotional expectations of wellness in advertising—body positivity and thoughtful, inclusive marketing imagery—and imagining how wellness might be built into the product itself in a rational, functional way. Sports bras like the Mi Pulse Smart Bra come equipped with sensors to monitor heart rate and Bluetooth transmitters to connect to your device. The OMBra tracks a number of biometrics, including breath rate.

And sensing technology is becoming more sophisticated. New products like the iTBra and the “auto exploration bra” include built-in sensors that could help detect breast cancer. It makes me wonder: how many years will it be before we just expect this out of our clothing?

Madonna turned sixty this year, and she’s still rocking underwear-inspired costumes—most recently at the MET Gala. I’m glad she’s still out there, but she hasn’t really kept up with women’s expectations. Nobody’s rushing out to duplicate the sterile, haut-couture inspired corset and gown she performed in. Women have a different set of expectations now—I want bras that look great, fit me perfectly, and allow the whole me to shine. It’s about me, not my underwear. The market is always in motion, and it’s moved on.

Thankfully there are brands out there responding to the needs of women with lightning speed, making sure our undergarments work for us, reflect our bodies and our images of ourselves, and help us live healthier lives.

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