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Charlotte Willcocks, Head of Strategy at Impero on why now is the time to shift from empowerment to meaningful change in marketing to women.
“We have passed the point of brands simply reflecting women’s anger or raising awareness.” Charlotte Willcocks, Head of Strategy at Impero is unpicking the catastrophic unravelling of women’s human rights in the wake of the overturning of Roe vs Wade and the implications this might have on the future of communications and gender dynamics.
The ruling has seen a swathe of the world’s leading companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Gucci make public statements about enhanced healthcare coverage for women and outline commitments to tangible support such as reimbursements for travel expenses should they need to go out of state to access medical services.
Describing the current climate as a ‘perfect storm’ Willcocks explains that the transparency surrounding these tangible actions has been the most authentic response to Roe vs. Wade being overturned. She explained: “Brands coming out and saying they were going to pay for women to travel, that is how they are showing they value women. Not simply by amplifying their anger or raising awareness of a problem.”
It is this approach of admiring or amplifying the challenges of inequality that has perhaps been the mainstay of marketing to women in the past. An approach which is in danger of becoming something of a creative ‘femvertising’ Groundhog Day, adding to the growing sense of a corporate ecosystem that talks about change while steadfastly retaining the status quo.
The fault-lines between this awareness raising approach and women’s lived experiences are increasingly playing out in the public domain. Consider for example the disconnect between companies' self-congratulatory tweets about their International Women’s Day events and the stark reality of those same companies’ gender pay gaps brought to life by the Gender Pay Gap Bot.
Yet, it is at the sharp edges of these tensions and friction points that both change and innovation lie. For if empty empowerment messaging dominated marketing to women in the past, its future lies in action, accountability and transparency. It is a future that Impero has been actively building towards and a theme that a panel of experts will be discussing in its forthcoming Gender Dynamics event
We have passed the point of brands simply reflecting women’s anger or raising awareness.Charlotte Willcocks, Head of Strategy at Impero
There is no question that empowerment fatigue is more than just a pithy quote; it is a reflection of a growing frustration with the exclusionary nature of much of the corporate feminism of the past.
This frustration is eloquently brought to life in Impero’s Gender Dynamics research by 20-year old London based Sara who explains: “I am kind of bored of hearing about women empowerment and issues that women are facing because it is just repeated with no change, it just goes viral then it becomes a trend that everyone forgets about in a week then you never hear the brand speaking on it again.”
With the backdrop of this frustration in mind, Willcocks is clear that innovation lies in action, not empty brand promises. “Increasingly how companies treat female employees is part of the public discourse. These actions speak much more loudly and we will see more initiatives and less campaigns,” she explains.
She continues: “Brands have a duty of care, a platform to make change.” It’s an approach which means when it comes to marketing to women brands need to take a forward facing stance and recognise their power to change not just the narrative, but the lived experiences of women.
We have all been guilty of talking about the generic topics and we know that women don’t all fit into the cis, white woman box. The reality of women’s experiences is much more fragmented.Charlotte Willcocks, Head of Strategy at Impero
This need to call time on the generic statements on gender equality and instead create tangible and meaningful change is a key theme in Impero’s research. As Willcocks explains: “We have all been guilty of talking about the generic topics and we know that women don’t all fit into the cis, white woman box. The reality of women’s experiences is much more fragmented.”
It is a sentiment underlined by the qualitative research and that London-based Joy eloquently voiced frustration on. She explains: “Any time a brand wants to speak on ‘women’ issues it always comes from a very white, middle-class women’s perspective. They highlight ‘her’ struggles as though they’re universal, they’re not and other types of women exist.”
Willcocks believes intersectionality and moving beyond the ‘equality as box-ticking campaign’ approach is vital for positive progress. “Women's experiences are not the same, we have to get so specific to create change and connect,” she adds.
She points to the example of the Speedo Swim United campaign, a brand platform aimed at breaking down the barriers to swimming faced by many families in the UK. Rather than relying on generic statements the campaign comes to life through the depth and specificity of its storytelling. From the story of Cathy the single mother to two young children with dwarfism who shares the joy of the physical connection of being in the water, to Remi which follows the story of a mother of Caribbean descent who shares her childhood memories of swimming at Brixton’s leisure centre. “It is such a beautiful message and it's not experienced by everyone but it's really underpinned by authenticity and experience,” adds Willcocks.
The you go girl playbook does not mean your organisational failings can be overlooked. Brands need to ask if they are speaking from a really authentic placeCharlotte Willcocks, Head of Strategy at Impero
The strength of these authentic stories, backed by brand action, stands in stark contrast to the backlash around the ‘girl boss’ era. "These super Millennial brands are getting dragged because a brand can never be said to be an empowerment brand if it's not empowering its own employees” explains Willcocks.
“The you go girl playbook does not mean your organisational failings can be overlooked. Brands need to ask if they are speaking from a really authentic place”, she adds
The second big shift Willcocks identifies in this post-‘girl boss’ era is a move from a narrative of ‘empower me’ to a more collective approach of ‘empower we’. She believes there is a big role for agencies in helping brands navigate what that means in practice. She points to the Natwest Back Her Business programme as an example of a brand embodying that straightforward and sincere approach. An initiative backed with tangible investment in women’s businesses rather than empty statements on the need for equality.
Midlife women are really misrepresented in advertising. It is a really powerful time of life and yet in advertising that time of life is represented as past it or old.Charlotte Willcocks, Head of Strategy at Impero
Frustration with the status quo can be a phenomenal tool for both change and meaningful connection. Willcocks is both passionate and eloquent on the need to shift the dial in marketing to women towards a more inclusive approach with true intersectionality at the core. She explains: “It is hard finding advertising and brands which are actively including women of colour. The solution lies in making sure that those voices are in the room.”
A fundamental lack of representation is also in play when it comes to the dearth of older women in advertising. “Midlife women are really misrepresented in advertising. It is a really powerful time of life and yet in advertising that time of life is represented as past it or old.” adds Willcocks. She continues: “We need diversity at every level and we need to be accountable as an industry. We need to get those women who left the industry back.”
There remains a misconception in some parts of the industry that diversity, equity and inclusion must stay in one lane; that in essence if you are featuring a ‘real woman’ that in itself is the creative idea, not simply a statement of fact.
The reality is the opposite is true; the lens of lived experience can fuel creativity, allowing brands to benefit from a multifaceted, three dimensional understanding of humanity. What is clear from Willcocks' approach is that inclusivity is key to innovation and honest portrayal; a truth beautifully brought to life by Impero’s creative work for Asda’s clothing brand George.
“Inclusivity allows you the freedom to show the textures and depth of life, not depict people in one dimension, defined by just their body,” says Willcocks.
Far from closing off creative possibilities, true diversity and inclusion opens the door and prevents us personally and professionally from becoming closed off to experiences of the world which are not our own. “That to me comes from the voices from the communities you are representing. You have a duty of care to these voices. When you have these voices in the room you can prevent it from becoming a box-ticking exercise.”
Inclusivity allows you the freedom to show the textures and depth of life, not depict people in one dimension, defined by just their body.Charlotte Willcocks, Head of Strategy at Impero
The danger remains as we rush to the next deadline, the next pitch, in the cacophony of Slack notifications and Teams reminders we miss prioritising the important in constant search of the seemingly urgent.
“Creativity never comes from speed and safety,” warns Willcocks. She continues: “Never let a campaign come out without that time, understanding and consultation process. That is where you get the nuance and texture and the creative freedom.”
Perhaps the industry, with its love of NFTs and the Metaverse, is guilty of looking for innovation in the wrong places. As Willcocks notes: “There is human innovation in the whole way gender is being represented in society. Advertising is just so removed from the fluid role of gender in culture. You can’t future proof your brand if you don’t recognise that change.”
With the faultlines of gender inequality continuing to come to the surface of our news feeds and lives ensuring that we are regularly bursting the bubble of our own lived experience is business critical. “You have to look outside yourself and not be afraid of getting it wrong. The only way to progress is to get uncomfortable,” adds Willcocks. An uncomfortable progression that has never been more necessary, or vital, to the cultural relevance and creative effectiveness of marketing to women.
To hear more about how to market to women and future-proof your brand sign up to attend Impero’s free event on Gender Dynamics. The presentation and panel discussion will explore what brands need to consider to effectively market to women in today's world. Sign up to attend here.
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