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  • What does ‘authentic empowerment’ look like?
  • What does ‘authentic empowerment’ look like?
    Treefort Music Fest, Creative Commons (2017) ©

What do women want from an empowering brand?

While nearly half of women say they prefer to buy from companies that challenge gender stereotypes, branded feminism in the form of pink-washed products and #girlpower hashtags is often seen as insensitive and unimpressive. So, how can marketers empower women in an authentic way?

Location North America / Northern Europe

For the 2017 Super Bowl, Audi launched an advert that sought to address the gender inequalities women face in their lives. But rather than inspiring viewers, the spot fell flat, in part because it drew attention to the automaker’s own poor record on the matter; women accounted for only 16% supervisory board members at the time, and there were no female executives. [1]

“Women are holding advertisers accountable,” says Abigail T. Brooks, director of the women’s studies program at Providence College and author of The Ways Women Age: Using and Refusing Cosmetic Intervention. [2] This is unsurprising given that women’s purchasing power and influence drive 70-80% of total consumer spending in the US, with 75% saying that they are the primary shopper in their household. [3] Yet while 48% of women in the UK say they prefer to buy from companies that challenge gender stereotypes, branded feminism in the form of pink-washed products and #girlpower hashtags is often regarded as unimpressive, insensitive and inauthentic. [4] Instead, the brands that have proven most successful in reaching women have embraced taboos, celebrated diversity in all of its forms, and created products that empower them in practical ways.

With female-focused issues commonly discussed on social media channels – 45% of American women aged 18-34 have used such platforms to express their views on women’s rights, as have 34% of those aged 35-49 – both good and bad attempts at ‘femvertising’ can quickly draw widespread support or contempt. [5] Canvas8 spoke with Abigail Brooks and Carrie Ingoglia to understand how brands can empower women in an authentic way.


The star of ‘femvertising’
“The industry has long been advertising to women from the point of view of men towards women,” says digital marketer and creative director Carrie Ingoglia. “Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of advertising particularly for women.” She suggests this change has been triggered by “the increase in female executives, the increase in female management, the increase in women in the industry working on creative projects.” [6]

Ingoglia believes that the birth of modern femvertising – the of use pro-female rhetoric and imagery to empower women and challenge gender stereotypes – was marked by body care brands in the early 2000s. In response to a study that found only 2% of women worldwide self-identified as being beautiful, Dove and Ogilvy & Mather launched the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign in 2004. It quickly proved successful for the brand, with US sales rising by 6% and over one million women visiting the campaign’s website within its first year. [7] According to Ingoglia, Real Beauty proved “you don’t have to show a man’s perspective of what a woman might want to see.” [6]

Since then, various other companies and organisations have attempted to engage with women by empowering them and encouraging dialogue. ‘Like A Girl’, for instance, saw feminine hygiene brand Always combat the gendered stereotypes women face from a young age, with the original advert gaining over 64 million views on YouTube. Sport England’s This Girl Can, meanwhile, encouraged women to exercise more with a message of inclusivity and body positivity. And in 2017, State Street Global Advisor’s ‘Fearless Girl’ statue was unveiled as a symbol of female leadership, ambition and strength in the face of the hyper-masculine 'Charging Bull' that stands on Wall Street. Yet while these examples highlight how effective female-centered campaigns can be, 77% of women in the UK find that the way women are portrayed in advertising in general is stereotypical – and 65% of men agree. [8]

Femvertising seeks to empower women and challenge stereotypes
Femvertising seeks to empower women and challenge stereotypes
Yelp Inc, Creative Commons (2017) ©

The power of language
Years after Dove realised the power of embracing real bodies, other brands took notice and made ‘keeping it real’ a priority. Tip-toeing around taboo topics like sex, periods, and menopause comes off as not only unrealistic, but will be called out as disempowering. Women value open dialogue from brands about these topics, especially when the conversation is happening between women. For example, when retailer JC Penney received backlash on Twitter about selling a skirt design that looked like a period stain, navigating around the topic wasn’t an option. The company instead tweeted back with a witty response: “We think it’s a fab skirt for any time of the month. Period.” [9]

In her research on pharmaceutical advertising, Brooks has found that what resonates is “women coming together, sharing their experiences and stories, learning about their bodies from each other and not from men. In pharmaceutical campaigns for the treatment of menopause, you see a lot of imagery of female friends and daughters sitting together and sharing stories, saying: ‘As a woman, let me tell you how it really is. I’m going to tell you the truth.’” [2]

What is seen in [successful] campaigns is language that communicates independence, empowerment, freedom of expression, and self-determination

Abigail T. Brooks, director of the women’s studies program at Providence College

But how can brands show this female-to-female knowledge-sharing in ads in an ‘authentic’ way? One way is by using accessible, honest, and conversational language, which can help consumers build trust as it suggests a brand isn’t trying to hide its real motives behind flowery rhetoric. According to Brooks, brands should use the voice of women themselves when possible. “What is seen in [successful] campaigns is language that communicates independence, empowerment, freedom of expression, and self-determination,” she says. “This is very powerful and reflects exactly what we would call American liberal feminism.” [2]

One example of a successful campaign is ‘Generation Know’ from U by Kotex, which pushed women to “come together to help dispel vaginal health and wellness myths, while creating a generation of girls comfortable asking questions,” said senior brand manager Melissa Dennis. [10] It featured the brand addressing vaginal health myths expressed by young girls, such as the idea that tampons make a girl lose her virginity or that products can get lost in women’s bodies. The ad subsequently saw hundreds of thousands of women share their knowledge, resulting in an 18% increase in sales and 200% increase in brand sentiment. [11]

Women want brands to encourage open dialogue
Women want brands to encourage open dialogue
Treefort Music Fest, Creative Commons (2017) ©

Making an impact
“An ad saying ‘women can do anything’ is great, but it’s not going to make me want to buy your product any more,” says Ingoglia. “If a brand is going to [stand for women], they must do something unique, different, and make it real.” [6In some cases, ‘making it real’ means acknowledging women’s insecurities by either recognising and normalising them, or creating a product that alleviates them. 

The website of period-proof underwear brand Thinx doesn’t explicitly show off its feminist values. Instead, the product speaks for itself. Rather than saying ‘women, you can do anything a man can do’, the underwear sends a different message: ‘Women, we’ll make sure your period doesn’t hold you back from being the best person you can be’. Ingoglia is a fan of Thinx’s advertising, saying that what it has done with its product “is more empowering – changing what you’re doing and not just how you’re marketing it.” [6]

An ad saying ‘women can do anything’ is great, but it’s not going to make me want to buy your product any more

Carrie Ingoglia, digital marketer and creative director

Making a real impact doesn’t always require a new product though. Dick’s Sporting Goods was a winner at SheKnows Media’s 2017 Femvertising Awards with the What Sports Taught Me’ campaign, which was aimed at raising awareness of the importance of high school sports. In conjunction with fitness and lifestyle brand Calia, the retailer brought awareness to girls’ sports programs, with sales from the campaign helping to rescue 1,800 such initiatives through donations worth $25 million. [12]

What do Thinx and Dick’s Sporting Goods have in common? Both brands created a product or campaign that directly aligned with a broader mission. Thinx is not touting feminist rhetoric, but offers underwear that makes women’s lives easier. Dick’s Sporting Goods has stuck to its message of sports, but made it accessible to girls who didn’t have access to programs. “It has to feel authentic,” says Ingoglia. “A brand must find a way for it be to true to their product, otherwise it will fall flat.” [6]

Products and campaigns that directly align with a broader mission have real impact
Products and campaigns that directly align with a broader mission have real impact
Sleekmakeup | Instagram (2017) ©

Reflecting real women
According to research from media agency UM, 72% of British women feel that advertising and brands play a major role in defining social identity, so diverse representations in marketing materials can be key to winning over consumers. [4] “A positive development in the US in the past 25-30 years is the rising tide of intersectional feminism. More women of colour are calling out the intersections of racism and sexism everywhere, and not just in advertising,” says Brooks. [2] Women of colour exist, disabled women exist, queer women exist – and they all expect for their experiences to be seen, recognised, and validated, Brooks adds. But what does this mean for brands? “Women are holding advertisers accountable – especially in cases of under-representation – for not reflecting women of different races and cultures in their advertising,” explains Ingoglia. [6]

Even Dove has seen some of its ads gain a negative reaction for this reason. In October 2017, the brand released a public apology for a body wash advertisement in which a black woman removed her shirt and then appeared to transform into a white woman. After one make-up artist pointed out the blunder on Twitter, nearly 1,000 people responded – some calling the ad racist and others defending it, claiming that critics were overthinking it. [13] Although the ad was subjectively diverse by including women of multiple racial backgrounds, audiences didn’t appreciate Dove’s oversight. As Ingoglia notes: “Any campaign that is slightly off will get eaten alive on social media.” [6]

Representation is also an issue among older women. Research from YouGov has found that 68% of Britons over 50 don’t think that advertising portrays them accurately, while 79% say the same of the wider media. [14] A separate study from 2016 examining the attitudes of women aged 40-89 revealed that 97% wanted to see older models routinely used in all types of advertising, and 65% disliked the kinds of models used in beauty ads especially, claiming they were too young or digitally enhanced, which fuelled distrust and made them less likely to buy the products. [15]

Advertising plays a significant role in defining social identities
Advertising plays a significant role in defining social identities
Glossier | Instagram (2017) ©

Insights and opportunities
While women’s standards for femvertising are rising, authenticity is a common thread between the most successful ads and products. Therefore, brands would be wise to pay careful attention to the way their campaigns portray women, or else they’ll be called out. “There’s been a lot of work of calling out advertising agencies that are targeting women,” says Brooks. “[People want them] to be more inclusive, and to be more diverse – not just with ethnicity and race, but also with size and shape.” [2]

Though all brands can learn from each other, Ingoglia believes that those in the beauty sector will need to be even more creative in promoting empowerment while staying authentic. “Beauty brands find it difficult to take the empowerment route,” she says. “I think a lot of different companies try but I haven’t seen any land it.” The brands that do ‘land it’ are those that aren’t explicitly feminist, but give women the tools they need to run the world, with Ingoglia citing Glossier as a leader in this regard. “They consider themselves not a beauty brand, but a beauty movement,” she says. “Glossier does something different – they emphasise that they’re natural, casual. It’s not explicitly empowering to women, but they are clearly speaking to a specific audience. In a way, it is feminist – it’s definitely make-up for women, not to look good to other people.” [6]

If you’re saying you believe in women or you believe in diversity, what does your board look like? What does your creative team look like? If you’re going to go for it, you’ve got to walk the walk

Carrie Ingoglia, digital marketer and creative director

A key insight is that women want brands to enable choice around identity, rather than prescribe it. Beauty brand Sleek MakeUP, for instance, launched the ‘My face. My rules.’ campaign, promoting the idea that women have full control over how much (or little) make-up they want to wear. [16] Marc Jacobs has similarly tapped into this ‘it’s up to you’ approach to self-care, featuring models with pre-grown-out manicures for its Spring 2018 collection. Considering that 83% of American women skip washing their hair at least once a week in favour of dry shampoo, and that 51% of 18- to 25-year-olds spend less than ten minutes on make-up, it makes sense that women are responding well to brands that normalise and validate how much (or little) time they want spend on their beauty routines. [17][18] It all comes back to women wanting to see other women they share the same reality with – someone with the same busy schedule, strapped budget, and beauty hang-ups.

A big theme is that brands can no longer simply focus on the faces in their ads, but must also focus on the faces of their leadership. In 2016, women made up almost 50% of workers in the advertising industry, but only 11% of creative directors. [19] Ingoglia says that brands must ask themselves whether the people selling their products look like the people who are buying them. “It can’t be all a front. If you’re saying you believe in women or you believe in diversity, what does your board look like? What does your creative team look like? How is that coming through? If you’re going to go for it, you’ve got to walk the walk.” [6]

Kayla Evans is a writer for Canvas8 and student at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She studies Linguistics and Neurobiology, and is particularly interested in organisational behaviour and decision-making. In her free time, she enjoys going to concerts in Boston, running, and singing with her choir, Kuumba.

Related behaviours
Shared Values: People expect brands to rise to society’s challenges

1. 'Why Audi's Super Bowl ad failed', Forbes (February 2017)
2. Interview with Abigail Brooks conducted by author
3. 'Are women being played by 'feminist' ads?', USA Today (March 2017)
4. 'Gender stereotyping in ads could kill brands', OnBrand (August 2017)
5. 'What Americans think about feminism today', The Washington Post (January 2016)
6. Interview with Carrie Ingoglia conducted by author
7. 'Behind Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’', Adweek (September 2005)
8. 'Three quarters of UK women say they are stereotyped in adverts', UM London (July 2017)
9. 'J.C. Penney just gave a perfect response to the skirt 'controversy'', Fortune (April 2016)
10. '10 game-changing beauty ads every feminist needs to see', Total Beauty (August 2015)
11. 'U by Kotex and Generation Know: Creating a movement of women to spread the word about vaginal health', My PRSA (2014)
12. ‘The 2017 #Femvertising Awards’, SheKnows Media (2017)
13. 'Dove expresses 'regret' for racially insensitive ad', NPR (October 2017)
14. 'Those aged 50 and over feel they are inaccurately portrayed in media and advertising', YouGov (October 2017)
15. 'How advertisers are failing to connect with older women', Look Fabulous Forever (February 2016)
16. 'Sleek Cosmetics champions people that contour', Canvas8 (October 2017)
17. 'Dry shampoo: Should you be concerned about hair loss?', Mashable (April 2016)
18. 'Nudestix: The indie beauty brand that’s a case study in consumer behavior', CosmeticsDesign.com (July 2015)
19. 'Brands to ad agencies: diversify or else', The New York Times (September 2016)


Kayla Evans is a third year student at Harvard College in Cambridge, MA. She studies psychology and is fascinated by intersections between culture and cognitive science. In her free time she enjoys traveling, running, and tracking down the best concerts in Boston.