brand marketing

International Women's Day: Brands Dodge Hypocrisy Bullets

While marketers are piling on International Women’s Day this year, a few are learning that many women — senses sharpened by months of #MeToo and #TimesUp — are calling “bullshit” faster than ad agencies crank out hashtags. 

Turns out hypocrisy is hard to avoid. McDonald’s may be getting a lot of mentions for turning its logo upside down to make a “W,” but it’s also being mocked mercilessly by places like website Jezebel (“Wassive Corporation WcDonald's Tewporarily Changes Its Nawe), pointing out 15 separate harassment complaints last year.



Mattel’s Barbie poured heart and soul into a line of dolls honoring real-live inspirational women, without noticing that they made them all Barbie-thin. And Uber decided to celebrate with a terrific film about its female drivers, but seems to be generating more comments about its widespread harassment scandals.

It’s almost enough to make a less-than-perfect brand think it might be better off hiding, rather than leading with its chin. Almost.

“Authenticity is more important than ever,” says Jennifer Risi, chief communications officer for Ogilvy Worldwide. “People really can sniff out the truth. But even amid the phoniness, they’re causing people to have real conversations.”

“We’re seeing a growing number of brands participating in International Women’s Day,” says Wayne Levings, president and North America country leader at Kantar. “And we’ve all seen a big increase in brands taking a position on any number of social issues, from immigration to gun laws.” While there’s a risk of being called out for insincerity or for taking a stand at all, he says, “there’s also a risk if you don’t do something. You begin to become irrelevant.”

He points out that consumers are only one audience for some of these campaigns. “Many are coming from large international organizations, and the audience is internal. They’re speaking to employees and investors as much as the people who buy those brands.”

He thinks being called out for impartial progress, while perhaps inevitable, isn’t all that troubling: “All companies will have had gender pay gaps,” he says. “People want to see that they are making progress.”

But women are growing impatient with the kind of faux-feminist empowerment if it’s not connected to something larger. “This consumer perception has been evolving over a period of 10 years or so. If all you’re going to do is run an ad, it doesn’t work. It has to be part of a broader holistic conversation. And then you have to build on that positive momentum.”

A few brands, of course, can run on their record. Etsy, for example, where women account for 87% of its sellers, is celebrating with its first-ever global integrated marketing effort linked to International Women’s Day, themed “We’re celebrating all things womanmade.” It includes a shoppable landing page with female empowerment products and specialized content that highlights some of its most successful women. Etsy is also crowing about its own record, with women dominating its executive team and management staff.

But most brands have to settle for celebrating women who are a rarity in their professions, whether it’s Brawny calling out “sheroes” in its #StrengthHasNoGender campaign, or Budweiser celebrating women in the beer business.

Risi says that Ogilvy, which is trying to nurture the next generation with its #WomenofOgilvy and #PressforProgress, will run its campaign all month. In it, the agency’s female executives share favorite inspirational quotes for getting through tough times on the agency’s social media channels.

“We’re focused on people, and diversity of all kinds,” she says. “It produces better results for our clients.”

“There is more cynicism,” says Risi. “But there’s also more opportunity and optimism. Awareness is what drives change, and if nothing else, all these conversations are helping us challenge men and challenge each other to do better.” Of the many programs and events she’s worked on at Ogilvy, “I’ve never seen such enthusiasm and desire to change things.”

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