The tricky art of marketing women's empowerment in the era of Trump
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The tricky art of marketing women’s empowerment in the era of Trump


Just six months ago, millions of Americans thought they were on the brink of electing the country’s first female president. Marketing so-called empowerment to women had already become fashionable; a historic victory by Hillary Clinton would’ve made the strategy a no-brainer. 

Then President Donald Trump happened. 

With his surprising majority of white female voters, you could envision a future in which brands thought it wiser to be more subtle or even go retro, placing more emphasis on Father Knows Best.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of defiant women flooded the streets, offering a staggering glimpse of their political and economic power. The Super Bowl came next with politically confrontational ads, including one about equal pay from carmaker Audi. On International Women’s Day, brands like Stacy’s Pita Chips and Western Union clamored to position themselves as front row cheerleaders in the fight for gender equality.

The snack brand unveiled these limited-edition bags for International Women's Day.

The snack brand unveiled these limited-edition bags for International Women’s Day.

Image: stacy’s pita chips

Basically, selling empowerment looks even more appealing these days. A perfectly timed ad with the right message about equality, after all, may go viral because it’s what consumers want to share with friends and family —  and because it’s a small act of resistance. 

There’s now an audience of consumers desperate to spread narratives that promote gender equality. Many of those storylines will be imperfect. Some may commodify the concept of empowerment, and deserve criticism when they do. But the most effective ones will offer women and their allies valuable currency: Small proof in the Trump-era culture wars that we refuse to go backward, no matter how dramatically our politics have changed. 

There are risks, of course. Landing in Trump’s Twitter sights could tank a company’s stock, even for just a day (see: Lockheed Martin). Pitching a message that amounts to “white feminism” — addressing only the needs and concerns of well-to-do white women — is also bound to backfire with a diverse audience that believes no one is free until everyone is. And peddling equality when it doesn’t exist at the brand itself is a recipe for disaster. Plenty of savvy consumers who believe in gender equality also remain highly critical of empowerment marketing because it pays lip service to a cause without necessarily doing any real or radical work to achieve it.  

When the shoe retailer DSW recently launched its #MarchOn campaign, for example, it lacked a sophisticated message and looked like a bald effort to capitalize on women standing their ground. 

That’s why principled messages that feel authentic to the company pitching them are critical to success, says Jess Weiner, CEO of Talk to Jess and a brand strategist who has consulted for companies like Dove, Disney and Johnson&Johnson. 

“Whether a brand comes out and believes in feminism, they have to engage in marketing that’s reflective of diversity and inclusivity,” she says. “It was heading that way before Trump and it’s emphasized explicitly now because of Trump.”  

“Whether a brand comes out and believes in feminism, they have to engage in marketing that’s reflective of diversity and inclusivity.”

Dove, the company that pioneered empowerment marketing more than a decade ago with its “Real Beauty” campaign, remains as devoted as ever to reaching women with messages about their inherent worth. 

“We recognize and respect that political and social issues are at the forefront,” says Kathy O’Brien, vice president at Unilever, Dove’s parent company. “Our mission to inspire women and girls to develop a positive relationship with beauty — this has not changed or faltered.” 

Under any other president, such a statement coming from a hair and skincare company wouldn’t be political or partisan — and O’Brien makes clear that Dove is careful not to touch that third rail. But under Trump, who has gleefully rated women’s bodies and appearances in public, telling female consumers of every shape, size and background that they are beautiful takes on new meaning in the marketplace. That message gives consumers an opportunity to endorse their personal and political beliefs in the soap aisle. 

It’s also a strategy that reflects an emerging reality: American women make most household purchasing decisions, control trillions in consumer spending and they don’t like it when a company defines beauty narrowly for them. O’Brien says Dove’s research indicates women want to see a more expansive vision of what it means to look and feel attractive. Female consumers also don’t need a company’s definition because they can spread their own on social media, and in many cases, it’ll look a lot more diverse and inclusive than what marketers are putting in front of them. 

In other words, says Weiner, now is the worst time for companies to patronize women or produce tone-deaf ads that reinforce cliches or stereotypes about gender roles and identity. 

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Dove, for example, celebrated the 60th anniversary of its “beauty bar” in January with a 30-second spot that gave a nod to the evolution of beauty marketing since its soap first debuted. It included split-second portraits of an older black woman posing nude, an androgynous person staring confidently into the camera, a woman proudly displaying her mastectomy tattoo, and a young woman wearing a headscarf. 

That montage might not interest hardcore Trump supporters, yet it’s a powerful way to convince some consumers that Dove not only has your back, but also the backs of women who may not look like you. 

At fashion retailer Lane Bryant, promoting body positivity has been at the heart of its marketing strategy for a few years. 

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“This isn’t about a political moment. This is about something we believe is right regardless of the time or era we’re operating in,” says Brian Beitler, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Lane Bryant and Catherines. 

The retailer’s I’m No Angel and This Body campaigns have sparked controversy by unapologetically featuring curvy models, many of them women of color, in its video and print ads. Some accused the “Angel” campaign of “thin-shaming” while others felt it wasn’t nearly inclusive enough. The company responded to critics, and Beitler says consumers can expect more advertising focused on elevating women: “We want women to be treated equally. We want women of all shapes and sizes to be seen and celebrated in the fashion industry.” 

It’s a big leap, however, from good intentions to executing a smash-hit marketing campaign — and the internet is eager to exploit every potential weakness. 

State Street Global Advisors recently pulled off a branding coup by positioning a bronze statue of a defiant little girl to face off with the Wall Street bull that became a viral sensation, a move described by a New York Times critic as essentially a sleight of hand to conceal the firm’s parent company’s fraud charges with the gloss of “corporate feminism.” And when Audi debuted its ad on equal pay, many of the Twitter and YouTube comments either attacked the company from the right for tackling the subject or focused on the brand’s own less-than-diverse board. 

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Alan Abitbol, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Dayton who has written about “femvertising,” thought the Audi ad was an effective way to reach male consumers who may also be fathers while signaling to women that the brand supports equality. Still, he says, companies that don’t have authentic messages and don’t implement initiatives to match their rhetoric will pay the price because consumers are skeptical about their motivation for embracing empowerment marketing. 

“We have to go deeper into what will truly empower women. We are no longer wooed by a product telling us how fabulous we are.”

Underlying all of this, says Jess Weiner, is consumer fatigue when it comes to ads that generically sell confidence and empowerment. The concepts, she says, have been used so interchangeably that they sometimes lose meaning, and that requires brands to be more specific in addressing things like access to opportunity, representation in media and pop culture, and women’s agency over their own bodies. 

“We have to go deeper into what will truly empower women,” she says. “We are no longer wooed by a product telling us how fabulous we are.”

That might sound tricky for traditional corporations allergic to even a whiff of controversy. Weiner, however, believes the rise of Trump is actually a big opportunity for brands that want to reach consumers hungry for portrayals of women as complex human beings. They should also already practice what they plan to preach by having women in senior leadership positions and supporting related community and on-the-ground women’s issues. 

“Brands that will be most competitive [will] take a risk and speak to them about their lives and world,” she says. 

The recent #WomenInProgress Motrin campaign that Weiner worked on, for example, features women talking candidly about their physical and emotional pain as temporary setbacks they ultimately overcame. The moving stories show confident women leading very different lives, but the ads don’t resort to familiar or condescending cliches. 

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Efforts like these can shatter stereotypes, seeding pop culture and the internet with new portrayals of diverse, complex women. Those visual reminders, which hinge on treating all girls and women with respect and dignity, have the potential to counteract some of the creeping chauvinism ushered in by Trump and his policies. 

That kind of marketing may not lead to legislation, erase biases or change the world, but it offers something else: a vivid reminder that we can and should insist on gender equality. 

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March 28, 2017
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