Why, if women make 85% of the consumer decisions, do 85% of us feel under-represented, and under-estimated, in marketing? And what does that say about the associated challenges and opportunities ahead?
It's a complex conversation, but one I often have both professionally and personally as a female strategy director for a brand consultancy. And I think there are two things at the heart of the issue.
Firstly, women are over-stereotyped. No fresh news here, but women are most often defined relationally. We're the mother, the best friend, the good girl – even the bad girl. We're portrayed within a family or social hierarchy.
On the other hand, men are more comfortably defined and valued as individuals – an absolute entity in their own right. They are the professionals, the drivers and the owners.
Secondly, women are over-sexualised. Particularly in categories that are considered ‘male'. Cars, technology, men's grooming products… often position women as sexual trophies and play on the perceived attraction of power. We're treated similarly to the products being marketed – objects to desire, conquer and own. Strange, considering women still make over half of the decisions in male-dominated categories.
BMW Greece's attempt to equate a second-hand car to a “de-flowered” woman puts into question the integrity of the brand. Not only did they stray far from their territory of engineering and excellence, they left a lot of people repulsed by the principle. This ad never left Greece, but sadly sparked many copycat iterations.
Women's identities defined in this way make it too easy to dismiss the sheer variety and value of the female experience. But more importantly, this casual acceptance of objectifying women is a reflection of too many real world experiences.
Thankfully, we're starting to hear more women speaking out. Everyday sexism is a great example of how even calling attention to these daily behaviours, both professionally and personally, gives women ways to take their power back. One by one, women are finding the confidence to speak up and stand up.
Stories of stereotypes
I'm usually a big fan of Nike Women for its sense of strength and self, but the recent Better For It campaign has turned a strange corner. By reducing its characters to stereotypes, it has rendered them two-dimensional and weak. What we are left with is Margot and Lily – a party-girl with no professionalism and a high achiever with no social skills. I guess there's a lesson about balance here – but one for Nike, not their audience.
Thankfully, it's more irritating than insulting. If only the same could be said about Nine West. Their ads sell women's shoes fit for every occasion – as long as the occasion is ‘starter husband hunting', ‘the walk of shame' and (presumably if the first two are successful) ‘the first day of kindergarten'. The narrative is clear: it's the epitome of womanhood as a 'role' to be performed.
What's more, these relationally driven stereotypes simply don't ring true. 85% of female buyers research products online before purchasing. They aren't driven by impulse buying, still less by the desire to 'snare' a man. What these ads do instead is cause real damage to their self-identity and self-esteem.
The next generation of gender roles
While some are missing the mark, a few brands are pushing for positive change. I never thought I'd say this, but Barbie is finally making a positive contribution to female identities. The recent re-positioning around ‘You can be anything' dramatises the importance of role play in a child's life. Barbie isn't about playing house; it's about playing president – or scientist, or veterinarian, or professor. Their clear, defendable territory is the power of imagination and its ability to positively affect the potential of every girl.
Oddly, it's more aligned with what Lego used to stand for, but more recently lost sight of. The launch of Lego Friends, featuring five girls living in 'Heartlake City', was a commercial no-brainer. But it also sparked a backlash from parents and children alike. It may have taken a seven year-old girl's letter to remind Lego that girls don't need different choices from boys, but Lego quickly responded with a range of all-female scientist characters.
There's now a real conversation going on about what young girls should be taught in terms of their roles and value in the world. The ‘Toys should be Toys' movement has changed the way we think about how toys are conceived and marketed – advocating that boys and girls should have the same choices. And retailers such as Target have followed suit by combining boys and girls toy sections and designing gender-neutral kids ranges.
Campaigns that target younger women are challenging attitudes. The Always ‘Like a Girl' campaign and Sport England's ‘This Girl Can' campaign brilliantly question expectations of what it means to be female and answer with strength and confidence.
A new, inclusive feminism
We're in the midst of re-defining feminism and female identities for a younger generation. There will be exciting times ahead based on confidence, diversity and inclusivity.
Because it's not just about women taking action and creating change. It turns out that men don't see their own portrayal as accurate, either. By stereotyping women, we've created a flip side of masculinity that's equally restrictive. And by polarising the genders – men for men and women for women – we're dramatising what in reality is a false conflict.
The media industry has tended to characterise men as macho guys, skirt chasers and inept at parenting and relationships. This is a world away from their self-perception. Today's men cite their top three qualities as ‘good-hearted', ‘a good friend' and ‘well-rounded', trumping ‘stylish' and ‘good in bed' on a list of 12 characteristics. *
It suggests an opportunity to also reconsider how we market to men. But more importantly, it's an opportunity to recognise and embrace the role of men in the solution. He for She, the UN programme with Emma Watson as its spokesperson, and It's on Us, the anti-domestic violence programme, both suggest that men are an important part of the answer rather than the problem.
What's the answer?
These behaviours reflect a cultural and social pattern of gender codification that won't change overnight. It's why the examples of children's brands getting it right are incredibly powerful.
Will the next generation live in a genderless society? I doubt it, nor do I believe that's really what we're talking about here. For me, change will come from setting equal expectations of success, encouragement of achievement and the resulting effect on self-esteem.
At a systematic level, the most important things happening right now are the business cases being put forward for gender (and ethnic) diversity. A Harvard Business Review study just reported that “going from having no women in corporate leadership (the CEO, the board, and other C-suite positions) to a 30% female share is associated with a one-percentage-point increase in net margin — which translates to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm”.
As brand & marketing people, we're constantly talking about the power of stories to create reappraisal and real change right now. And that's exactly what Makers does. In 4 short years, Makers has grown into a platform with over 3,000 stories being gathered and told both live and through video. It's a diverse collection and showcase of ideas, personalities, viewpoints and backgrounds. It's people that share one belief: women already drive difference in the world around us, we just need to make it clear.
If we're serious about shifting our sense of self and want to see real stories played out around us, we need to start to tell our own as individuals. Each one of us has a clear, defendable territory to establish – we need to contribute with confidence and curiosity. Not wait until we're certain we're perfectly correct.
Collectively, stopping stereotypes is not simply about rejecting them. We need to value and portray diverse perspectives, not sameness or singularity. That's when thoughts leap forward and behaviour follows fast.
Sources: Marketing Magazine, Karmarama, She-Economy, Greenfield Online, Forbes - The Acumen Report, Harvard Business Review
Nicole Griffin is Strategy Director at The Clearing