For a long time, marketers believed targeting women was as simple as “pinking and shrinking” a product. Over the years, this practice has affected the marketing of everything from toys and athletic wear to tool kits and even firearms.
Inspired by movements like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and increased national dialogue about gender equality, companies and consumers alike are challenging that longheld notion.
Last year a number of companies created powerful, pro-female ads and videos designed to inspire, motivate and strike an emotional chord -- an appealing approach that seems to be winning with women.
In a survey conducted by SheKnows, 52 percent of the more than 600 women surveyed last fall indicated that they purchased a product based on the marketer’s portrayal of women. Messages and videos for companies such as Nike, Always and Under Armor have achieved wide viewing. The Dove Real Beauty Campaign was even recently named the #1 ad of the 21st century by Advertising Age.
With more companies using this tactic, we have to ask: Is capitalizing on this trend with viral videos enough? At what point is jumping on the women’s empowerment trend to sell more product as empty as "pinking and shrinking" once was?
The short answer is this: Marketing exists, in part, to help consumers understand product and service benefits so they can make informed choices. When companies neglect to communicate in empowerment ads those benefits (intrinsic or extrinsic, subtle or overt), audiences are not empowered with the information needed to make choices and the advertising tactics risk falling into the category of empty pandering.
The companies that do both well -- inform and empower -- are best positioned to support the cause and the consumer.
Here’s our take on a few companies that successfully leveraged the trend in last year and some that missed the mark.
Always's "Like a Girl"
The “Like a Girl” video created by Always is an excellent example of a company approaching the empowerment trend the right way.
The company shined a light on the role puberty plays in shaping how women come to terms with gender perceptions.
The company demonstrated prevailing misconceptions that accompany this stage in young women’s lives and then promptly debunked them, increasing positive associations with this time frame and their product.
Always ultimately tells a powerful story that’s both real and relevant to the company’s overarching message.
Under Armour's "I Will What I Want"
Under Armour's "I Will What I Want" ad leverages the insight that women are pushing back against the idea of perfection and embracing themselves. In the spot, Under Armour beautifully depicts an athlete who defied opposition to reach her goals.
As much as the video celebrates the female star, the ad also showcases the product, demonstrating that it played a role in supporting the persevering athlete to success.
By finding a genuine tie to the product, Under Armour's creative spot seamlessly and successfully brings women empowerment to its marketing.
Verizon's "Inspire Her Mind"
While the content of Verizon's "Inspire Her Mind" ad fits within the category of female-empowerment marketing, this ad focuses more directly on the opportunity women have to affect the future of science and technology.
A message like this could easily fall into the category of the generic public service announcement=. Instead, the ad tells a powerful story that feels as much like a recruitment effort as anything else, leveraging the topic to communicate Verizon’s authority in innovation-related fields while showcasing the important role that women can have in shaping the future of the industry and, in turn, the company.
Verizon’s ability to demonstrate the significance of women’s empowerment in a way that also communicates its authority in innovation-related fields makes this ad successful.
Pantene's "Not Sorry"
Authors and influencers alike have been challenging the longheld perception that women apologize more often than men. Pantene leveraged this conversation by creating a powerful video, "Not Sorry" addressing the overuse of the word “sorry” in women's personal and professional lives.
The video might make viewers pause to reflect on the societal implications of this behavior and this may have achieved the company’s goals of challenging gender norms and identifying what holds women back. But it doesn’t communicate the product’s benefits or its relevance to the issue.
While the spot's execution makes for a powerful video, it seems to miss the mark as a marketing tactic.
CoverGirl’s recent #GirlsCan spots leverage the empowerment trend with a message that girls can do anything. While it’s important to encourage young women to follow their dreams, that's an extremely broad message.
The spots' conclude with the company's pre-existing tagline "Easy, Breezy, Beautiful" and that feels disconnected from the themes of having courage, challenging stereotypes and girls feeling free to just be themselves.
So, although the company does support organizations that help women break barriers, the creative spots don’t effectively communicate this and provide no direct tie to how CoverGirl and its products support women to overcome obstacles.
The outdated tagline and disconnect between the company’s products and message within the spot, ultimately distract from the goal of empowering women. Unfortunately, this women-focused product company missed the mark.
If a key goal of empowerment marketing is to recognize women as intelligent consumers and communicate to them as such, marketers should use this approach in a way that honors their company's message rather than simply jumping on a bandwagon.
Failure to do this reduces what could be a meaningful piece of marketing to something more closely resembling the "pink it and shrink it" gimmicks of years past.
To avoid this, marketers must present a message in which the company or product has a clear and relevant role. This is, of course, easier said than done, but marketers can start by focusing less on the nebulous objective of empowering women and instead push themselves to identify a real insight about the female audience that can be tied back to the company or product in a meaningful way.
If there’s a way to weave in relevant themes of strength, perseverance, power and equality, even better. But as powerful as the empowerment story in a campaign is, the company story has to be just as strong.