As part of Omnicom, I was one of a select group of people yesterday invited to attend a panel discussion on the ability of brands (or lack of, depending on which angle or brand you’re coming from) to speak to a female audience.
Along with Omnicom UK CEO Philippa Brown, on the panel were Carol Potter (CEO, BBDO China), Joanne Lao (Managing Director, TBWA Hong Kong), Mark O’Brien (President, DDB North America) and Dianne Wilkins (CEO, Critical Mass).
We all know the score: as much as there are some companies that strive to be human, very frankly they’re not enough. You still have the likes of Bic pens’ ‘pink it and shrink it’ attitude as Philippa said, referring to Belinda Parmar (Ladygeek)’s rallying cry. It’s high time such insensitive brands woke up to smell the coffee, and we’re a long way off from an ideal situation. No wonder then that 90% of women feel that advertising in general doesn’t understand them.
As a proud feminist myself, it amazes me sometimes how clueless people can be. Some of it is, to be fair, probably coming from the right place but expressed really badly, such as Ogilvy’s ‘Digital Divas’ session also on Monday which looked at the influence in modern business of urban women who depend more and more on digital devices to control their multi-faceted lives, from using mobiles as digital shopping lists to asking friends for opinions on prospective purchases.
Let’s get the facts straight: a ‘diva’ isn’t really someone who you want to be spending a lot of time with if you met them face-to-face, at least in the modern sense of the word. I just wish the people conducting the research were a bit more sensitive to the audience when they come up with descriptors.
Back to the Omnicom panel on women and diversity, one of the interesting things mentioned was about the Chinese market: 20% of high-end cars costing over $300,000 are sold to women in the age group 25-40, and yet you have car manufacturers who think producing pink cars is the appropriate nod to the rising influence of that audience. So it’s not geographically-focussed, this problem of ‘pink and shrink’ brand mentalities – sad but true. In such a scenario, I think we as an industry have a lot of introspection to do to try and understand why this happens time and time again. The easy answer is that it is probably because men hold the reins in these campaigns, but I think that’s too simplistic. Whether it’s men or women at the helm, trying to produce answers to problems that are based on almost no insight to the audience will trip you up whichever part of the world you’re in.
As Joanne Lao said, in the olden times if you wanted to be seen to be independent, the image you’d go for is that of Mulan, the fictional warrior princess of Disney fame charting her own path to success. Today though independence is more associated with strength of character – neither of which have anything to do with specific colours (pink!) or for that matter physical outfits. Adidas #allofmygirls campaign and of course Dove’s recent work are all testimony to the power of true insight.
Philippa also mentioned the importance of understanding that people shouldn’t be stereotyped and easily labelled. Omnicom’s Ethnic division in the UK is about respecting the fact that there are multiple ethnicities living in the country; December 25th may be Christmas but there are tens of other Christmases to be celebrated across the UK year in and year out, from Chinese New Year to Diwali. People belonging to these different cultural groups contribute a lot to the economy and businesses looking to grow should acknowledge and act on this fact before it’s too late.
At the end of the day though, whether male or female, Indian or British, what counts is the authenticity of the message. Technology serves us today to the point where a brand’s message can fall apart under the kind of scrutiny that is so easy for anyone with an internet connection to carry out; if you’re not prepared to defend your statement then don’t say it (that applies to individuals as much as it does to brands to be honest!), as most of the panel said.
Mark O’Brien made a valid point about a key charge levied against brands today: most marketing budgets would do well to very simply be diverted in aid of improving the product to be more useful to people, as for example Starbucks did when they shut down all their stores for 3.5 hours a few years ago so that baristas could learn to make coffee properly.
Carol Potter also said something that made me think: women, and mothers in general, are always made out by the media to be these incredibly worthy people when in truth they probably appreciate a glass of wine as much as anyone else at the end of a long day. On the one hand I thought of P&G’s Thank You Mum campaign which was beautiful and touching, a great example of a positive brand gesture. On the other hand I thought of Sarah Silverman in Droga5’s The Great Schlep campaign, which was targeted at grandparents I know, but a rare example of a female comedian in a sponsored campaign. Now it may be just me (maybe the sun made me a bit sluggish, good excuse right…) but there really are very few examples of women in brand campaigns I could think of that are funny and easy to connect with. That’s something for you to think about, all you brands looking to speak to women.
The panel’s closing advice? In the end, the companies that gain success with women will be those that are authentic, connect what they say with what they do both online and offline (or are ready to be found out thanks to social media), and are not patronising, because God knows we all have enough of that anyway.
The article first appeared on Campaign Live