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Deep Dive 19 Jul 2021 - 8 min read

Brandsplaining: Dove and Nike's 'sneaky sexism', failed femvertising and the rise of women-led brands like Frida, Third Love and Starling Bank

By Danielle Long - Contributing Editor

Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts say fempowerment is the "marketing arm of corporate feminist thinking".

Femvertising has failed and marketing is still sexist, the British authors of a new book, Brandsplaining, tell Mi3. Former advertising execs Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts say while the overt sexism of the Mad Men era is gone, a new sneaky sexism under the guise of Femvertising and Fempowerment has landed. Cunningham and Roberts explain Brandsplaining and how brands like Dove, Always and Nike have challenged stereotypes and championed women but are still telling women who they should be, not listening to what they actually want. Here's what women want - from brands.

What you need to know: 

  • Brandsplaining, a new book by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts draws on 15 years of research and analysis to explore the ongoing sexism in marketing to women. 
  • The overt sexism of the Mad Men era is gone but instead there remains a sneaky sexism that tells women how to be. 
  • Femvertising and Fempowerment have served as smokescreens allowing sneaky sexism to continue to dominate marketing messages to women.
  • Brands continue to present women in "man-pleasing" roles: attractive, domestic, young, passive and white. They suggest women aspire to look good and find romantic love. These representations are completely mismatched with women's actual aspirations which to be financially independent and comfortable in their skin. 
  • Women broadly feel that brands don't understand them and marketing is patronising. 
  • The lack of female representation in senior advertising and marketing roles and male-dominated creative departments are contributing to the problems.
  • The success of women-led brands such as Frida, Third Love and Starling Bank, reveals how brands that understand women, can thrive. 
  • Marketers need to listen to women and ask the right questions in order to win their trust and grow their brands. 

Many brands [struggle] because they're so busy thinking about what they want women to do and be, rather than actually listening to women and what they want to do and be.

Philippa Roberts, co-author Brandsplaining

Even before the #Metoo movement exploded globally, the marketing community was championing women with Femvertising and Fempowerment. The powerful and emotive advertising held a light up to the stereotypes and the absence of realistic representation and delivered punchy slogans, hashtags and positive branding. There was only one problem; it was still telling women what to do and how to behave, only this time it was even more patronising. 

In their new book 'Brandsplaining', ex-advertising execs Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts draw on 15 years of data from their female-focused research consultancy PLH Research around what women think, want and, most pertinently, what brands continue to ignore. The findings are straightforward: Femvertising failed, marketing is still sexist, and the brands that continue to ignore real women will lose out to brands that are focused on women's needs. 

Marketing is at odds with women's aspirations

Brandsplaining reveals that women in marketing are predominantly presented in "man-pleasing" roles; they are attractive, domestic, young, white and passive, they rarely speak, they listen and laugh a lot but they are seldom funny themselves. Unsurprisingly, this representation is completely at odds with how the majority of women see themselves. On humour alone, a recent Are Media study says just one in five ads featuring women use humour versus more than half for men.      

“When you look at the characteristics that women say define them, intelligence and sense of humour are at the top, while romantic love, marriage and finding someone to look after them financially is very low down the list," says Cunningham. "And that's true across all of the countries that we did the quantitative research. 

“If you took a look at marketing and advertising completely cold, you would say, ‘Oh, it's obvious that female aspiration is all about looking good, finding a partner, and romantic love. Those are the things that women really want out of life. Whereas, actually, the top three aspirations that women have are to be financially independent, to be comfortable in their own skin and to make their own decisions in life.

“The themes of marketing and advertising are completely mismatched with the reality of female aspiration,” says Cunningham. “When we talk to women in qualitative research, there's a feeling the brands don't understand what their lives are actually like. There's just a misunderstanding of what it is that women want.” 

There's nothing new about this misunderstanding and it was the impetus for Cunningham and Roberts to quit their ad agency jobs and start their own consultancy. Fifteen years later, there's been Fourth Wave Feminism, the #MeToo movement, Femvertising, Fempowerment and initiatives such as the Unstereotype Alliance, all of which led people to believe "the problem" of marketing to women had been fixed. 

This "fallacy" flew in the face of Cunningham and Roberts work, and the aim of Brandsplaining is to provide the industry with a ‘state of the nation’ on marketing to women, exploring the positive and progressive and the areas that are lagging – particularly around the male gaze, lack of representation and the systemic bias in the system.

Brands are still telling women how to develop their personalities, to be brave, be strong. And that sort of narrative is as patronising and didactic as the stuff that went before.

Jane Cunningham, co-author Brandsplaining

Femvertising is a smokescreen for sneaky sexism.

By their own admission, Cunningham and Roberts pulled no punches in the book, particularly when it came to Femvertising and Fempowerment, which, they argue, delivered positive messages to sponsor and champion women while also continuing to tell them what to do.

“Initially, we were worried that people would feel that we weren’t acknowledging the good things that the Femvertising movement has achieved,” says Cunningham. 

“Brands like Dove have moved the dial forward in terms of representation of more ethnically diverse backgrounds and showing women who aren't a size six. We didn't want to appear sour about that progress, but it's still very limited progress. Brands are still telling women how to be; it's not only telling women how to look, it's also now telling them how to develop their personalities, to be brave, be strong. And that sort of narrative is as patronising and didactic as the stuff that went before. Instead of telling women how they should look, it’s now telling women how they should be.” 

Roberts calls Fempowerment “the marketing arm of corporate feminist thinking”, “The idea that it’s up to the individual, if they lean in, are resilient, and show grit and determination then they can progress as far as they want. That kind of narrative puts all the onus on the individual and neatly sidesteps the systemic failings that hold women back”. 

According to Cunningham and Roberts, Femvertising and Fempowerment are smokescreens for sneaky sexism, although they aren’t the only culprits. 

“Sneaky sexism is the way brands put women into a secondary space and continue to do what they have always done, but in a sneakier way,” says Roberts. 

Other sneaky sexism includes creating pink coloured versions of products and then charging more for them, like razors and staplers, selling wellness instead of weight loss, or overlooking huge swathes of the audience, including older women and women of colour. 

“All the tokenism and sneaky things seem trivial, in and of themselves, but when you pull them all together and look at the whole, you can see what is going on. We have tried to pull it all out under the floodlights and say, ‘Look, the progress that you thought was being made is not nearly as robust as you thought.” 

The current swell of awareness and examination of sexism within marketing and more broadly in society has no doubt benefitted from Femvertising, but there's no denying these movements also helped created even more obstacles for women. 

“A lot of the discourse over the last 10 years has been quite unhelpful because it hasn't been addressing the problem at its roots. It's just changed the nature of the instruction to women to lean in, be more like men, be brave, be strong. It's still saying it's women's problem. There is a renewed emphasis now on the system and what is wrong in the system. And that getting addressed, rather than the superficial and shallow response, which is to say to women you change, and then everything will be all right.” 

Authors Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts

You could say agencies have flourished through selling these empowerment ideas, and yet they haven't empowered themselves or their staff.

Philippa Roberts, co-author Brandsplaining

Marketers aren’t listening

Many women will not be that surprised by the research. They know this, so too do the marketers (both male and female) who have worked with Cunningham and Roberts. However, more often than not they’ve chosen to dismiss and ignore the evidence, data and even the voices of their customers. 

“In meetings, you get pushback and resistance, and not just from men, but from women as well, because this stuff is really deep-rooted,” says Roberts. 

“We find that brands often are only interested in listening up to the point where their audience is praising them. As soon as there is a challenge in the feedback, we hear, “Oh, they always say that", or ‘they don't understand,’ or ‘if you think I'm going to be told by six women in a sitting room in Birmingham how to run my business”. Once a challenge comes, you really feel the walls go up.” 

The lack of female representation in senior advertising and marketing roles is an ongoing problem and the male-dominated creative departments in advertising agencies aren't helping either. 

“There is definitely an issue in ad agencies and creative departments, as they are dominated by men. But a good place to start would be for agencies to have a lot more women in their creative departments and more older people as well. The current young male culture feels almost bound to result in the kinds of mistakes and missteps that we see in marketing to women,” says Cunningham.  

This also goes some way to explaining why advertising targeting women often isn’t funny or entertaining, whereas the work targeting men uses humour and fun, as explored in a recent podcast by Mi-3

“Look at parenting brands, for example; women get all the boring formulaic ads, then when they target men it’s all singing and dancing, there’s John Legend, and it’s hilarious. There’s this assumption that if men are going to engage in the category, they need to be seduced and wooed into it, whereas women still get the same old messages about absorbency. There’s an assumption that women don't need to be entertained, whereas men do,” says Cunningham. 

It doesn't help, adds Roberts, that agencies are dragging behind other industries in equalising the gender pay gap, which is nearly 30% in the UK. 

“If you wanted to be really harsh, you could say agencies have flourished through selling these empowerment ideas, and yet they haven't empowered themselves or their staff.” 

The future is female-led brands

While it seems bleak, Brandsplaining points to the success of women-led brands that are attracting huge audiences by creating products and marketing that intuitively understands what women want and how to speak to them.

Brands such as Frida, Third Love, Starling Bank and Rodan + Fields, have attracted large loyal followings for their female-focused brands. These brands, all former start-ups that were created and led by women, have also received major funding and high profile backers in addition to their legion of fans.

"What the women-led brands do so brilliantly is genuinely understand the needs and lives of women and respond with bringing products and marketing that acknowledges those needs, and serve those needs in a way that many brands have found difficult to date because they're so busy thinking about what it is that they want women to do and be, rather than actually listening to women and what it is women want to do and be," says Roberts.

The underwear category is especially competitive with Third Love, Lively, Auckland-based Lonely and Adore Me, all shaking up the market and starting to chip away share from the big mainstream brands.  

Cunningham says the success of women-led underwear brands is because they create products in service to women with a focus on comfort and women’s ideas of what is feminine and sexy, rather than brands like Victoria's Secret, which create products for women through a male lens.

“They just have a different approach, they have a female gaze on the market, not a male one. They really understand the lived experience of women in relation to their category. And they're developing products that are in service of the customer and talking about those customers in their marketing.”

“The underwear market is being completely transformed from brands that were all about sex and the male gaze to being all about the women who wear them.”

It’s telling that last month Victoria’s Secret announced an overhaul of its brand, ditching the supermodels that made the brand famous and replacing them with a host of inclusive ‘partners’ in a bid to stem its declining sales.   

Cunningham also points to financial services brand Starling Bank, which is successfully targeting women in a category that has traditionally ignored them.

“Financial Services is a category that has been notoriously bad at reaching out to women or when it has it's done it in a very patronising way. Starling Bank’s founder, Anne Boden, has made great efforts to understand what women find difficult about financial services and gone about fixing that in a really helpful and practical way. She’s also been amazingly successful at getting funding and it's now a unicorn brand.”

Iconic brands will lead the charge

Cunningham and Roberts are clear when they state that brands need to start listening to women. “Proper listening,” says Cunningham. “Which isn't about saying, Do you want product A or product B? Instead say to women, let's look at the category, if it was configured around female needs, what would it look like? Have that conversation and then see how you can reconcile that with where the category is now, and what developments might arise out of that level of understanding.”

“Brands think that they're listening, when they're doing research, but they're not actually listening, because they're not asking the right questions.”

Roberts believes the change that Bransplaining is calling for is not as radical as it sounds. “The truth of it is the really great iconic female brands, like Dove, Always and Nike, they have never been afraid to challenge or take on their categories or companies and say this isn't the right way to do things anymore. There couldn’t be anything more radical than the original Dove sentiment or the original Always sentiment – those brands literally said ‘the way we have been working and doing things is morally wrong, and we're going to change’. The really great brands and companies are not afraid to be radical.”


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