Feminism in branding is the portrayal of a product, service or organisation as advocating for equality between the sexes and in the process, capture consumers who share this ideology. This form of advertising, known as “advertising” is due to the increase in the change of favourable consumer behaviour, especially among women towards brands that encourage female empowerment.
According to Brennan (2015) alluded to in Hunt (2017), advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages and imagery to empower women and girls has proven to be effective considering that women control 70 – 80% of household purchasing decisions and are prone to connect to social issues. “Everything related to a brand represents a common brand identity, which marketing managers strive to keep consistent as they grow and consider feedback” (Lury, 2011).
This has given rise to the portrayal of women and girls as more than just weak and sexual objects into independent and successful individuals with the ability to have a proper work-life balance. In an effort to ride on this growing trend, an increasing number of brands now create marketing campaigns geared towards the “independent woman” or the “we should all be feminists” ideology. This has led to controversial marketing campaigns as several of these brands actually contradict what their campaigns communicate, with some barely have female employees in management and executive positions, which is in itself an irony.
There are several thoughts and forms of feminism and female empowerment that can help to understand the rise in femvertising among both local and global brands. They include but are not limited to the feminist theory, brand activism, commodity feminism, an idealised female body image.
This is the founding principle on which femvertising is built. Feminism is the advocacy and social movement for equal human rights and opportunities between both sexes. Feminists believe women are equal to men and should not be viewed as less. With the rapid growth for equality between both sexes and the simultaneous increase in female consumers’ purchasing power over the past decade, brands came to the realisation that there was a need to have campaigns targeted specifically to women.
Coupling this with the change in purchase behaviour, which included women preferring brands that depict them in a more prominent way and not just sexually or weak, femvertising was born. Brands such as perfume brands that would naturally depict women in a sexual manner being seduced by the smell of the man, now use women who portray independence and high social status. A popular phrase in advertising is “sex sells”, but now it seems that brands are adopting an “elegance sells” approach to branding.
As an example of how feminism has changed the world of branding, Dubai which is one of the emirates of the U.A.E has now adopted more women in their marketing campaigns. As is customary in Islamic or Middle-East nations, women are not given as much freedom as men and are taught to be subjective to them. Nevertheless, Dubai in its stride to build its economy by attracting the global market has adopted more women in order to portray Dubai as a place where everyone can live and not be subjected to harsh restrictive laws, especially for women. As is seen in television adverts for Dubai Healthcare City, Dubai Smart City and several other projects within the Emirate, women are now depicted as free individuals with the ability to decide what their future will be. Besides the luxury the city represents, this has helped in making Dubai one of the top tourist destinations in the world. This would never have been attained if feminism in any of its forms was not incorporated into their branding activities.
The idea behind brand activism is that brand positioning (quality, quantity, pricing or use of the product) is no longer enough to persuade consumers, especially millennials. According to Kotler & Sarkar (2017) alluded to in Abdallah, Jacobson, Liasse & Lund (2018), millennials, being one of the main target groups today have higher expectations towards brands and value companies that care more about the community than only about profits. As a result of this, brands now tailor their advertisements, packaging and even their unique selling point towards a societal issue.
For example, Audi recently ran a campaign supporting equal pay and rights among both sexes. The underlying problem with Audi’s campaign is in the fact that the company is still predominantly male-dominated with no woman on their board of directors. Other companies such as Dove run campaigns on female empowerment usually with the underlying message of “Be your real self” which transcends race, religion, ethnicity, beliefs, while still producing and marketing bleaching soaps and creams. Some brands try to show their support for “all women” alike, but in their campaigns fail to feature for example fat or disabled women. This form of advertising is a complete disconnect from the ideology behind feminism and instead of being seen as championing a cause, they end up getting criticised by the same consumers they are trying to reach.
Take for instance the beauty industry, this is an industry founded on the premise of hiding blemishes and spots that women want to conceal, be it through make-up products, skincare products. How can they then ask her to be her true self while persuading her to hide the part of herself society does not want to see? What then is the essence of your true self? Some modern feminists will argue that being able to decide what you want, whether or not it conforms to societal rules is in itself an embodiment of feminism.
The approach to brand activism also gives way to the argument against commodity feminism. As alluded to in Hunt (2017), McRobbie (2008, 533) states that “commodity feminism leads to a feminist fallacy; that the mass consumption of feminist language and the increasing representation of feminist ideas in pop culture translates to feminist action in the real world”. This waters down the importance behind the ideology of feminism. So rather than taking a proper stance and action on feminism, brands would rather just try to identify with it. As recently as 2018, a report was done in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) on the gender pay gap in businesses with over 250 employees. Data from the report revealed that men were paid more than women across over 10,000 companies.
Another aspect of the commodification of feminism is that rather than to genuinely support the ideology behind feminism, brands rather try to connect the idea of feminism to capitalism. Some organisations identify their feminist campaigns as their CSR initiative. This form of branding by businesses has led more women to believe they truly support feminism, thereby driving up sales. These brands then try to associate purchasing of the product or service with female empowerment. This has then helped in growing the idea that increased consumerism among women is another way of female empowerment.
The premise on which commodity feminism is built to a large extent supports the idealised female body image. “The general consensus on what makes a woman beautiful in this day and age is down to being young, slim, natural, sensual and sexual (Wykes and Gunter, 2005) alluded to in Hylander & Svanberg (2016). Solomon (2009) cited in Hylander & Svanberg goes further to state that “the ideal body of a woman is not only thin though, but it is also big-breasted, hair-free, has shiny voluminous hair, long eyelashes”.
This theory supports the notion that everything in advertising is good and as such women should purchase these products to attain the level of this societally accepted woman depicted in the advert. The issue with this advertising is not its intention, after all, advertising’s main purpose is to persuade consumers to purchase. It is a fact that the companies who create marketing campaigns such as this still go-ahead to create social campaigns advocating for the same women to embrace their flaws. The brand is therefore contradicting itself. Due to the compelling campaign, it convinces them that this is the best product for them, not just because of its use, but also because the brand cares about women rights. When analysed distinctly, femvertising only favours the brand or organisation as it generates a huge amount of revenue.