People around the globe observed International Women’s Day (IWD) last Wednesday to honour women’s struggle for rights, and to call for gender equality.
While more companies are speaking out about gender disparities, there is still a lot of work to be done. A study released last week revealed that, in 2016, women were at the helm of just four per cent of U.S. Fortune 500 companies. And the trend is regressing: only 21 companies of the Fortune 500 list had female CEOs last year, down from 24 the year before.
This year’s International Women’s Day was the perfect opportunity for companies to analyze how they may be perpetuating gender disparities and what they can do to address them. In this climate, companies know they have a duty to change deeply ingrained beliefs about women; the magnitude of the challenge, however, is often underestimated.
Though we have seen an increase in feminist advertising — ads centered around female-positive images and messages — it’s still precarious territory. It can come across as a marketing tool capitalized upon by companies for fatter bottom lines. Take the National Film Board of Canada’s 2011 documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” as an example, which took aim at corporations that have seen financial gains and improved brand value from promoting the pink ribbon culture.
So, how can companies successfully promote female-positive messages and images?
The answer lies in brand authenticity.
It’s no secret that storytelling is an incredible business tool for scoring strong brand value. But appealing to consumers in an honest and natural way — without being disingenuous and overbearing — is tough to do.
Two campaigns released around International Women’s Day demonstrated that feminist advertising works best when rooted around real people with diverse experiences.
In the third year of its MakeWhatsNext campaign, Microsoft released its newest ad to inspire girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. The video shows the lack of awareness young girls generally have about female inventors, and encourages them to become trailblazers in these fields.
Taking a more localized approach, Nike unveiled a series of advertisements in three specific markets: Russia, Turkey, and the Middle East. All three spots made a powerful statement about women’s unique insecurities in sport due to cultural, societal, and gender pressures. The videos were all part of Nike’s larger global campaign, which encouraged women to be active regardless of any and all barriers.
Companies that talk the talk need to walk the walk. Consumers want to buy from and work with genuine and inspiring companies, and need to see brands’ inner practices reflect the same values they preach. As this post says, “Don’t say you are authentic — be authentic.”
On IWD, Calvin Klein took a step in that direction, as CEO Steve Shiffman signed the Women’s Empowerment Principles — an initiative from UN Women and the UN Global Compact that provide guidance to businesses on how to empower women. More than 1,100 business leaders have signed the principles so far, which outlines steps for improving training, development, and corporate leadership for women.
Perhaps the most notable commitment came from State Street Global Advisors, which installed a bronze statue of a bold young girl directly in front of the Charging Bull statue on New York’s Wall Street. The Fearless Girl statue, created in partnership with artist Kristen Visbal, aimed to draw attention to women in leadership and gender disparities. The sculpture was part of the firm’s larger campaign that called on 3,500 companies to increase the number of females on their corporate boards.
That a large player on Wall Street pushed for accountability sends a loud message to the corporate world about the need for progress. The campaign drew buzz from major outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, and The Guardian, and was extremely successful in provoking emotion, encouraging debate, and igniting a larger conversation about gender issues.
As more and more business leaders create strategies to tackle the issue of women empowerment, it will only become more critical for brand authenticity to be at the forefront of companies’ marketing efforts. The line between shallow and genuine advertising is kind of like history — it’s worth it to be on the right side.