Content Strategy

When Marketing to Women, Brand Campaigns Must Be Real, Bold, and Empowering

By Lauren McMenemy on March 8, 2019

When it comes to marketing to women, advertisements have historically gone a little something like this: A women on her period-always, always dressed in white-doing some glamorous activity like horseback riding on the beach. Or the token wife who diligently works to keep the family home pristine, tackling looming loads of laundry, gnarly carpet stains, bathroom catastrophes and you name it-all while wearing a smile and impeccable clothing, too.

It's been this way for decades: Women portrayed as flawless creatures, all cut from the same cloth, and all having their unspoken but understood place in the home, office, and social arena.

But there seems to be a change in the air.

Once a male-dominated industry that either didn't want to or didn't know how to authentically portray women in advertisements, modern marketers are realizing that doing right by women is no longer an option-it's a must. Especially when you consider how the rising tide of new-wave feminism, the #MeToo movement, and the Generation Z girls who are notoriously socially and politically aware are all putting pressure on the industry to either get real or risk losing their business.

But even still, some women remain pigeonholed-especially women over 40, who are either stuck with starring roles in age-specific ads for medicines, senior cruises, and incontinence products, or are completely absent from marketing efforts altogether. Rarely do we see this demographic cast as objects of desire, and only recently have brands begun to embrace the M-word-menopause-in their campaigns. But these women exist, and like their younger counterparts, they represent a large spending force that marketers cannot afford to ignore.

six women of different ages

Image attribution: Clarke Sanders

Women of today aren't afraid to tell it like it is: Out with the blue liquid, and in with commercials that show them as the living, breathing, funny and spirited humans they really are. So why is marketing to women still a problem? And the shifts we are seeing, are they indicative of real change or just another advertising fad?

"To be frank, it's pretty much as bad as it's ever been," Cindy Gallop, advertising industry icon and founder of Make Love Not Porn, said. "Advertising is a male-dominated industry; historically, only three percent of all agency creative directors have been women. We are the primary consumers and purchasers for everything but are constantly played back through the male gaze."

Why Are Marketers Still Ignoring Some Women?

As Cyndi Lauper so candidly put it: Girl's just wanna have fun-but newsflash, so do mature women! Around the same time that men notoriously embark on an adventurous "mid-life crisis," women are entering the wild world of menopause. In general, our media tends to celebrate one of these pillars of the human experience, while portraying the other as tough time or sore subject-a trend which spills over into marketing campaigns, too.

"You have entire movies and TV series made about the male mid-life crisis," Gallop said. "It's reflected in advertising all the time: The car commercial where dad has bought a glitzy sports car. Yet, menopause affects everybody-husbands, partners, boyfriends, sons, families-but nobody knows about it because there's such a lack of education. Nobody's interested until it matters and hits (them)."

The difference between now and say, 10 years ago, is that not only are women are more empowered than ever before to speak up on matters of inequality and injustice, they're also now in prime positions to effect change. In Congress alone, we've seen women shake up things like never before-especially America's beloved, unofficial dancing queen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"The great thing about the last few years-because it really is this recent-is there has been a groundswell of women globally going, to quote the movie Network, 'We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.' (Women) are now speaking up about inequality of representation, of everything. We are very slowly getting into positions where we can make things happen."

And Gallop is among these modern women helping to shift the conversation, to get us all to remember that women of all ages, sizes, and races deserve to be celebrated-not ignored. With her social sex platform, Make Love Not Porn, women are empowered to embrace their sexuality and bodies in all their different forms, at every stage of life. And now she's talking to brands about becoming platform partners.

"There is a huge amount of money to be made out of taking older women in menopause seriously, in all sorts of contexts beyond medications and hormone therapy treatment," Gallop explained. "That's the huge trick the industry is missing. Make Love Not Porn has built a social network that tackles this, but also really understands the business benefits of doing this."

And in a time where so much of marketing to women is still based around their bodies, Gallop's site has been instrumental in shattering the idea that women can only be sexy if they look a certain way or exist in a specific age range. And she's in good company: In honor of International Women's Day on March 8, and as the movement for #BalanceForBetter gains traction, The Content Standard is taking a moment to celebrate six brands who've been able to market to women in an authentic, positive way which celebrates their essence.

1. Bodyform Normalizes the Period

Bodyform did something truly groundbreaking with its #BloodNormal campaign-they ditched the blue "period" liquid and got us all to see red. Described as "a love letter to periods," the brand was on a mission to eliminate the "toxic shame" associated with menstruation by showing what periods look like in a more realistic light.

These common scenarios shouldn't be shocking, but somehow, they still are. So much so that Bodyform couldn't get the commercial distributed, after fighting a losing battle against censorship restrictions which deemed the effort as "indecent" and "provocative."

"The brand had to 'fight for months, scene by scene, frame by frame, to gain the right to air it,'" wrote Marketing Week. "Despite being quite a polarizing campaign, which obviously attracted some naysayers, the overall reaction (to the campaign) has been encouraging, driving 70 percent positive sentiment. The campaign was praised globally for breaking taboos by The Guardian, Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, Buzzfeed, the BBC, and others for its no-nonsense approach, as well as creating a lot of buzz on social channels."

2. Always' #LikeAGirl Breaks Stereotypes

Taking a page from Dove's Real Beauty playbook, sanitary brand Always found a way to appeal to a new generation of consumers with its #LikeAGirl campaign. Formerly focused on a marketing strategy which touted its product's performance while competitors were focusing on building connections on social media, Always decided to shake things up with this award-winning campaign. The message being that gender norms are learned, and that in reality, girls can truly do anything.

According to a British Design & Art Direction (D&AD) case study: "Always briefed its agencies to create a campaign that leveraged the brand's legacy of supporting girls as they make the transition from puberty to young women, while reinforcing why the brand is 'relevant to me' and also one that understands the social issues girls today face at puberty."

"We set out to champion the girls who were the future of the brand," said Judy John, chief executive officer/chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Canada, the ad agency that worked with Always to produce its #LikeAGirl spots. "Girls first come in contact with Always at puberty, a time when they are feeling awkward and unconfident-a pivotal time to show girls the brand's purpose and champion their confidence."

3. Sport England's Body-Positive Message

Much like how Planet Fitness prides itself on providing a judgment-free zone for people to get their fitness on, Sport England launched a campaign that focused on this strong message: That any body type is fit for the gym. With its #ThisGirlCan campaign, the UK wellness-driven organization showed that all women should feel empowered to exercise, without feeling self-conscious.

The original #ThisGirlCan 2015 campaign didn't show pristine, glamorous, made-up ladies doing more posing than exercising while attending a spin class; instead, it showcased women of all ages and sizes unafraid to get sweaty and competitive on the sports field, in classes, and on the road, too. Bonus: The spot was directed by Kim Gehrig, a director who's been getting all sorts of buzz for her positive political messages.

4. Libresse Encourages Women to Get to Know Their Anatomy

Speaking of Kim Gehrig, she was also responsible for this amazing piece of filmmaking for Libresse, another brand from Essity alongside BodyForm. Featuring singing puppets, suggestive angles, and a body-positivity message, this lip sync music video inspired women to embrace and really get to know their bodies.

The aim of the campaign was to hit back against body shaming and help women feel more confident: An especially timely message, considering that based on a number of studies and surveys, many women still believe their genitalia isn't "normal." With the help of singing conch shells and origami, Libresse emphasizes that there is no "normal" vagina, and that all women's bodies are beautiful in their own, unique way.

5. Maltesers Tackles Real-Life Situations

Chocolate brand Maltesers is making a name for itself as a brand which champions diversity. And following its hugely successful and award-winning "Superhumans Wanted" campaign, which made waves by putting disability in the spotlight, the brand then turned the light to under-represented women. These authentic spots were part of Maltesers' "Look on the Light Side" campaign, which used humor to tackle taboo topics-around chocolate, of course.

In addition to showcasing lesbian dating dilemmas, these spots also feature a menopausal woman talking about getting a hot flush while giving a presentation at work-with unintended consequences. The company didn't resort to harvesting low hanging fruit for its campaign-it's way too easy to show women binging on chocolate while on their periods, and they were wise to stay away-instead, the brand took this opportunity to show off realistic scenarios that women are way more likely to appreciate.

6. Pfizer Talks about Women's Changing Bodies

It seems second nature for a pharmaceuticals company to speak out about menopause, right? But what makes Pfizer's marketing effort different is the way the company speaks about this sensitive topic in a non-medical way.

Through its Tune Into Menopause campaign-featuring none other than Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall talking about her personal experiences-Pfizer set out on a mission to "educate and empower postmenopausal women to tune in to their bodies and embrace this new chapter of their lives." Cattrall, who portrayed a woman with menopause on the hit HBO show, used this opportunity with Pfizer to speak about her real-life experience with body changes.

"Menopause can be a complicated time with lots of change, but one I think women can and should embrace by being the leading lady in our own stories," she said as part of the Tune Into Menopause campaign.

Additionally, Pfizer has kept these conversations alive through its Let's Talk About Change campaign, featuring three generations candidly discussing how women's bodies change over time. The focus here isn't on more well-known symptoms of menopause like hot flushes, but instead on vaginal atrophy-defined by the Mayo Clinic as the thinning of one's vaginal walls postmenopause, which leads to dryness, burning and general pain. Though nearly half of menopausal women experience vaginal atrophy, it's a topic that's rarely discussed in the media. Pfizer's campaign finds the sweet spot between engaging this demographic of women while also educating and empowering them. And, maybe most importantly, showing them that they're not alone in this chapter of their lives.

In Order to Succeed, Marketing to Women Must Reflect Real Life

Though Pfizer and company are on the right track, other marketers looking to follow suit must do so with care. For instance, your marketing efforts should feel authentic-not opportunistic. Gallop warned that modern marketers should steer clear of "femvertising," the tendency for brands and agencies to leverage issues surrounding women in a purely superficial way. "There is too much superficial depiction and not enough fundamental change and authenticity behind that," she explained. And, let's be real, women can smell inauthentic platitudes from a mile away.

So how do marketing teams get this balance just right? Gallop suggests looking to the real world for examples: Walking down the street to see how women interact with each other, and how couples really carry themselves in public. Because the real world is too rarely what we see in advertisements or films, and she believes that marketers who are able to close that gap are way more likely to stand out in the eyes of women.

Additionally, she said companies who cast real-life inspiring women in their campaigns stand to make a huge impact with their messaging. Nike, arguably one of the greatest brand storytellers, did just that with its Late Bloomer spot which celebrates following your dreams at any age. Short but sweet, it features 81-year-old Marjorie Kagan as she's about to run her first marathon. "Crazy dreams don't have an age limit," the ad tells consumers.

And at 69, Maye Musk became a CoverGirl in 2017, crushing the idea that beauty is only attainable within a certain age range. Continuing its diversity mission, the brand also started working with James Charles and Nura Afia, the first CoverBoy and first CoverGirl in a hijab, respectfully. "I hope it's (indicative of) a larger change happening," Musk told the New York Times. "People are living longer and enjoying their lives more, and know they don't have to disappear at 65 when they retire."

"Here's the secret to business success: hire older women," Gallop reiterated. "What businesses do not realize is that older people-or as I like to call us, 'experts'-have experience, and experience and expertise is extraordinarily time- and cost-efficient. When you're our age, whatever happens; nothing phases us. We know exactly what to do.

"The other thing I've been banging the drum on for years: Agencies should be hiring mothers. From a creativity perspective, mothers spend every day coming up with highly creative ways to persuade tiny humans to do things they don't want to do-that's marketing in a nutshell."

Women of all ages and all life stages purchase products and services every single day. International Women's Day serves as a great reminder for marketers to ditch the smoke-and-mirrors charade and get real if they want to engage the modern female consumer. We're smarter and tougher than ever, and we're not afraid to say what we need anymore. Will your brand be next to step up?

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Featured image attribution: Loren Joseph


Lauren McMenemy

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.