How Brands Can Make a Meaningful Impact on Empowering Women

Aside from a few breakthrough campaigns, International Women’s Day 2016 was perhaps most remarkable for the sheer volume of content. Companies and nonprofits alike used the day in March – as has become the norm – to engage their consumers, supporters, and other stakeholders in a myriad of social and digital activations, most of them with the goal of “empowering women” in some form.

And to what end?

In recent weeks an interesting and related debate has emerged online, starting with an April 12th New York Times Magazine article, “How Empowerment Became Something for Women To Buy”, author Jia Tolentino cites a range of products and activities whose promoters claim to be “empowering,” and argues that in recent years the term has become trivialized and corporate, a “glossy, dizzying product” devoid of substance. She sites Aerie’s lingerie photoshop-free #AerieReal campaign and Dove’s #RealBeauty* campaign as prime examples – but unfortunately, inaccurately so.

This was just the beginning. A couple of weeks later, AdWeek  weighed in with “Ads That Empower Don’t Just Break Stereotypes, They Are Also Effective,” in which Susan Wojcicki highlighted recently “brave” advertisers, such as Always’ #LikeAGirl and Nike’s #BetterForIt, for launching campaigns that encourage and celebrate women for what they can accomplish, not for how they look. And it works: women ages 18-34 are twice as likely to think highly of a brand in an empowering ad. Even Mattel is jumping on the bandwagon with a new spot for Barbie, “Imagine the Possibilities,” in which young girls imagine their future professional selves as they role-play with the iconic dolls.

The Huffington Post chimed in a few days later with “Charged Up, How Big Brands are Fueling Empowerment,” in which Alanah Joseph cites that women drive 70-80 percent of all consumer purchases, so women should be a priority to consumer marketers, and lists Microsoft and Facebook’s recent announcements end to the gender pay gap in their companies as recent examples of corporate engagement, as well as American Express’ sponsorship of Beyonce’s Formation world tour.  Acknowledging that there is skepticism around corporate motivations, Joseph weighs in that these new partnerships are making the women’s rights issues more accessible to a wider audience. Ultimately, they are a good thing.

However, the pendulum swings back in the other direction in Time’s May 3rd, “Modern Feminism is Selling Out,” in which Andi Zeisler argues that feminism’s trendiness is superficial; that “making us feel good about what we buy is not the same as making us feel purposeful about what we do.” She also sites Dove – again, without understanding the full extent of the initiative — along with Always and Verizon, as brands that have realized that “flattering women with overtures to and images of female empowerment” offers a better return on investment than traditional advertising tactics, but that this “marketplace feminism” doesn’t ask much of consumers.

So what to make of all of the back and forth?

At Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose Practice, we fundamentally believe that companies have an important role to play – on gender equality and on the full range of social issues.

No longer is corporate social responsibility a nice thing to do. Today’s “citizen consumers” expect more. In fact, recent research released in Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows that 80 percent (up from 74 percent in 2015) of consumers believe business can both make a profit and improve the economic and social conditions of the community in which it operates.

Specific to gender equality, it is now widely understood and accepted that empowering women and girls creates a multiplier effect that benefits individuals, entire families, communities, economies, and society as a whole. This once uniquely-held view — that investing in women and girls is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do — has become a common mantra. And increasingly and importantly, it is becoming a business imperative.

However, in order to move the needle on any of the issues that continue to impact women and girls, a corporate campaign must do more than pay lip service. It must be more than a communications platform of inspiring messages and a catchy hashtags.  Any purpose-led campaign should engage consumers, but it should also make an impact — through programs and often times nonprofit partners — in communities in sustainable and measurable ways.  The real story is that the Dove mission is a prime example of these best practices.  For over 12 years, the company has touched consumers with inspiring content and social activations which have expanded the definition of beauty.  This commitment inspired the establishment of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, and through the brand’s partnership with organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of America and Girl Scouts of the USA, Dove is making a notable and lasting impact, reaching more than 19.4 million young people globally with self-esteem programs and curriculum.

So ultimately, regarding the “empowerment debate,” the answer is somewhat in the middle: companies can and should engage on gender and equality issues. There is tremendous power and potential to do so. But the initiatives need to be substantive and authentic, driving toward real impact. A celebration of International Women’s Day or any other occasion, should be an opportunity to highlight a more deeply rooted, action oriented campaign – not the campaign in and of itself.

Jennifer Simon is a senior vice president in Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose practice in New York. Jennifer joined Edelman from the White House, where she served as the director of international affairs for First Lady Michelle Obama.

*Edelman client