Who designs the culture we live in? It's everybody, right? We all contribute. Except that when it comes to the machinery that promulgates ideas, women and people of color have limited access. That machinery includes the marketing departments, creative agencies, tech companies, and film companies where cultural stories and icons are created and sold to the public.
According to Jamie Gilpin, chief marketing officer of Sprout Social and moderator of a 2019 SXSW session called “Women Are Building the Brands We’ve Always Wanted,” only 30 percent of marketing agency heads, and 28 percent of corporate CMOs, are women. And yet, statistics show that women are responsible for between 70-and-80 percent of the purchase decisions, either directly or through their influence.
When so many key consumers are women, why are men in charge of messaging and marketing to them?
We can all see the result: a long history of marketing and advertising designed to appeal to a female caricature who hangs out around the house in sexy lingerie and gets super excited about shopping or using cleaning products. You know, it’s fast food ads featuring busty women eating hamburgers while perched on cars; memes about how an ugly girlfriend can make you look hotter, and so many other horrifying ads that are offensive to the very people they’re supposed to appeal to. The message is often: “Buy this product and men will find you more attractive.”
One example is the tone deaf 2010 Stayfree commercial based on the 2007 Porn for Women book. In the ad, shirtless, supposedly sensitive “hunks” cook dinner while discussing the efficacy of various menstrual products with “a date.”
‘Cause that’s what women want.
Ironically, the movie What Women Want addressed this topic 20 years ago and we’re only just beginning to make progress.
Like a girl: fierce and decisive
Four years after the Stayfree commercial, Always feminine products came out with an award-winning “Like a Girl” campaign that has garnered tens of millions of views on YouTube. Conceived and shot by a female film team, it features filmmaker Lauren Greenfield asking teens to show what it means to run, throw, and fight “like a girl.” The teens all demonstrated “girlness” with ineffective, flailing motions and whining. But when Greenfield asks pre-pubescent girls to show what it means to do things “like a girl” their movements are fierce and decisive. The ad points out that girls lose confidence and change after puberty. We become a version of ourselves that aligns with what the culture seems to demand, rather than expecting the culture to reflect the truth of who we are.
The message has resonated. The Super Bowl version has been viewed on YouTube roughly three million times. The follow-up ad, “Unstoppable,” has been viewed more than 39 million times.
AJ Hassan, vice president and executive creative director for R/GA, the agency that created the ad, spoke on the “Brands We’ve Always Wanted” panel. She said they had considered creating a script and hiring actresses, but decided to use authentic voices and let girls tell their own stories.
“It was really important for that piece of content, which is rooted in something so visceral, to be truly represented from a woman’s point of view,” Hassan said. “From client to creative it was 98 percent women and that had so much to do with the integrity of the work. They were champions of the work, guarding it through the entire process.”
On another panel, “Girl Culture,” VR and AR pioneer Nonny de la Pēna of Emblematic Group noted that there has to be diversity behind the camera, as well as in front of it. Brands’ efforts to be connected or empathetic come across as inauthentic and tone deaf when only created by a small, homogenous group of people—mostly white men—without the input of women or people of color or different life experience.
“If the stories are coming from true empathy and knowledge and insight it would be almost impossible for those stories to look the same,” she said. “When you have women telling the stories, Black people, Hispanic people, they can be so rich and profound”—and reflective of the depth and complexity of society as a whole. These stories can really touch people.
That message is getting through. In 2018, Stayfree came out with its own ad addressing social strictures on women. Very different from the “sensitive hunks” ad, this one featured interviews with women in the sex trade in India about the fact that their only ‘days off’ are when they are menstruating. In India, menstruation is considered taboo and women are sent into a kind of exile for a few days. Stayfree’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, uses this time of exile as an opportunity to help the women who want to leave the sex trade by offering free vocational training that they can take advantage of while menstruating.
The campaign champion is a woman, Dimple Sidhar, who is vice president of marketing, Consumer Products Division, at Johnson & Johnson. The goal was to help women in India, and to normalize the idea of periods, which are currently so stigmatized.
[Read also: What women leaders bring to contact centers]
The power of feeling seen and heard
Gilpin pointed out that what women actually want from their lives and from their brands is different from what has been traditionally believed. Nearly 70 percent of female consumers say they want to feel connected to a brand, and that they feel connected when they believe the brand understands them and their desires. Nearly 50 percent of male customers say the same. Nearly 80 percent of customers say they will buy the brand that “gets” them over a competitor.
Now, brands are embracing attributes “we consider female,” Gilpin said, “like emotion, connectedness, and transparency.” Accordingly, the cultural statements fed to women and young girls by menstruation industry marketing have changed dramatically. And that’s not the only industry the revolution is hitting.
Ukonwa Ojo, CMO of consumer beauty at Coty Inc., spoke on a panel called “Girl Culture” with Lauren Greenfield, Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer with Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and de la Pēna. Ojo told how, “I grew up never seeing a picture in a magazine that showed the hair growing out of my head.” Under her leadership, CoverGirl began to broaden its perspective on beauty. The brand now features women in their 70s, race car drivers, totally jacked fitness trainers, and a model with Vitiligo—uneven skin color—in a way that celebrates the possibilities the condition presents. “In the past, women were the objects of the advertising and we never knew anything about them except that they were beautiful,” Ojo said.
But beyond advertising, Ojo has changed the way the company launches products. Historically, she said, brands launch ‘general market shades’ first and then, six months to two years later, the product will launch in other shades. But when she talked to influencers about using the products in order to persuade others to use them, a few asked her: “Do you know what it’s like for something hot to launch in the category, but you thought I wasn't important enough to put it in my shade?"
So CoverGirl launched its TruBlend foundation line in 40 colors—all at once. It was the most successful product launch ever in the history of face makeup, Ojo said.
And what about more mainstream products? In the session on “Brands We’ve Always Wanted,” Amanda Clark, senior vice president of North American Development and general manager of Taco Bell Canada, talked about the correlation between having a predominantly female C-suite and the choice to make big changes to the product to satisfy customers rather than trying to sell something inauthentically.
Taco Bell, has two women presidents, a female CMO, a female chief legal officer, and a female Chief Innovation Officer. Clark explained that, a few years ago, customers were beginning to ask, “What the hell am I eating right now?”
And, she said, she was asking the same thing. So although it is difficult for established brands to make big changes, Taco Bell was one of the first long-standing fast-food chains to respond with healthier, more sustainable, cruelty-free sourcing. The company switched to chicken raised without antibiotics and cage-free eggs, and significantly reduced the use of sodium, preservatives, additives, and high fructose corn syrup.
“We’re still Taco Bell,” Clark said. “We’re still going to bring you that beefy, cheesy goodness.” But a restaurant interested in healthier food, with transparency around sourcing and ingredients, “is what I want,” she said. “That’s what I want for my son.”
Technology for good or evil
Bottom line, according to some of the female panelists at SXSW, having women in charge can make a huge difference in what the larger culture promotes, from healthier food to healthier messages about our identities.
In the “Girl Culture” panel, Goodby Silverstein’s Johnson said she was the first woman the company made partner, back in 2012. Since then she’s worked to increase the number of women partners and now they have four men and four women.
“It changes the way we work internally; it changed the type of business we pitch; it changed the work we put out into the world,” she said.
One such piece is an augmented reality app called Lessons in Herstory, inspired by Johnson’s daughter’s noting how few women were included in her history books. When held over a passage in an American history book that profiles a man, Herstory uses augmented reality to overlay the man’s story with a story of a woman who made history around the same time.
Johnson asked other panelists to talk about the role of everyday technology in promoting or suppressing a more equal and authentic culture.
Greenfield responded with a story about the movie Captain Marvel which, for the first time, turns a traditionally male superhero into a woman—and does not sexualize her. She’s not scantily clad or hapless. The screenplay was written and directed by a woman.
Even before the movie was released, Greenfield noted, it garnered more than 58,000 scathing online reviews from “viewers.” Because of these trolls, the movie was released with a very low viewer rating, which can affect its success. Fortunately, in this case, the trolls were exposed and the movie has done very well. (Greenfield also pointed out that about 80 percent of legitimate movie critics are male—leading to a very skewed perception of what a “good” movie is.)
De la Pēna, as a filmmaker, talked about the fact that only two percent of venture capital money goes to female entrepreneurs, even though research shows that they tend to have a higher return on investment than their male counterparts. She also related the tale of Amazon making an effort to hire more women, but consistently and bafflingly hiring men instead. The company couldn’t figure out what was happening until it turned out the algorithm they’d written to vet incoming resumes was looking for the words “capture” and “execute.” De la Pēna said she didn’t know how men knew to use those words, but evidently the algorithm (probably written by men) weighted them as important.
One of the biggest barriers for women, Ojo pointed out, is the narrative that women are jealous of one another, competitive, petty, and catty. People who oppose women having more power often recite this stigmatic narrative as an argument against women rising. In the old days, some of the older panelists admitted, women were more competitive with one another in the workplace because they understood that men had only made room for one or two token women at the table. They were all fighting for that spot. But today women don’t have to do that as much. We’re making our own tables. And proving that diversity and empathy is good business.
“What #Metoo taught women all over the world is that there’s power when we get together and fight against what’s coming against us,” Ojo said. “We need to band together and say that together we will remove this obstacle and change the way the future is for us.”