‘Empowerment Washing’

Rachael Smith, Director of Brand Partnerships and Purpose at Fuse shares her views on brand activity around International Women’s Day

Awareness, days, weeks and months have been incredibly successful, last year alone the noise around mental health shifted 179% surrounding Mental Health Awareness Week. From Veganuary to Movember, these campaign windows have been created by charities and not-for-profits to raise regular awareness for their cause in the annual calendar. But like any good cultural moment, be it Valentine’s Day or National Pie Week (that’s this week BTW), savvy brands are ready to capitalise and take a share of voice in the ensuing social buzz.

And so, in the wake of International Women’s Day (IWD) Friday 8th March marks the day that brands from across all categories and industries jump on the ‘empowerment’ band wagon. We’ve seen this all before: from the eponymous ‘pink-washing’ that ensues around Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October to the blast of ‘rainbow-washing’ in the wake of LGBTQ Pride.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll celebrate anything that challenges stereotypes, gets consumers to think outside of their bubble and puts equality on the agenda. There’s a societal and industry imperative within advertising and communications to depict gender roles fairly: both within our organisations and the advertising we create for the brands we represent.

But as International Women’s Day dawned, so did a swathe of ads and comms tactics from brands ‘empower-washing’ what is an important international movement as they try to commercially capitalise on IWD.

So how can brands get it right on IWD? And what are the key principles for success?

  1. Be true to your brand and your product or service

Ever failed to understand the link between fried chicken and breast cancer care, or struggled to work out what a £500 t-shirt has to do lifting women out of poverty? Rooting your product or service in women’s empowerment activity, rather than creating a tedious link between the two, is a key way of driving engagement authentically.

Thinx is a new fully-reusable sanitary product solution that’s changing the way people buy menstrual products. Its partnership with PERIOD, the world’s largest youth-run not-for-profit that provides access to sanitary care to those in need, furthers both the brand and the not-for-profit’s ambition to change the conversation around periods.

  1. Empower women everyday

Do we really need to say it? Women aren’t just for Christmas, don’t make a fuss about us for one day and then move on back to your type-casting, misogynistic social norms, gender pay-gap the next.

Enter publishers like Stylist which is changing the way women are talked about every day through its Visible Women segment, and brands like Stella and Dot, a San Francisco based social-selling business that creates flexible entrepreneurial opportunities for women by selling jewellery.

A long-term commitment to creating a brand and business that values inclusivity throughout the value chain is key to not falling a cropper to ‘empower-washing’.

  1. Be powered by partnerships

Having a tangible impact with any purpose-led brand activity is key to long term success. Brands going it alone will struggle to create meaningful change.

Pepsico’s long standing partnership with humanitarian charity Care addresses one of the main causes of food insecurity — gender inequality. The She Feeds the World Programme helps improve food security in rural communities by developing, testing, and scaling impactful approaches to strengthen women farmers’ capacities.

The power of brands partnering with the right strategically aligned charities ensures that a positive difference is not only delivered but can also be measured.

  1. Don’t just make it about women

IWD is fundamentally about equality for women, but equality for women means better inclusivity for everyone. When typical gender roles surrounding women are broken down, the contradicting male stereotypes are broken down too. Men are just as much victims of gender labels and expectations as women. It’s something Unilever brand Lynx knows only too well, its ‘Is it OK for a guy to…?’ campaign shone a light on the huge expectations that are put on men to comply and fit within negative social norms.

So, whilst IWD is certainly about women, brands wanting to play a real part in consumers’ lives need to start representing their audiences and break away from the polished stereotypes attached not just to men and women, but to everyone.