Feminism: The Latest Marketing Strategy Making Waves in the Lifestyle Industry


“I want to empower women, I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.” — Alexander McQueen

Feminism: a topic that has gained a lot of attention within pop culture and the fashion industry, has taken a latest turn and is now also being used successfully as a marketing tool. Especially when, in celebration of the International Women’s Day on 8th of March, many brands take this chance to launch empowering campaigns. This might give the impression that feminism has become a hot topic in today’s marketing strategies, but contrary to how it may seem, feminism is not a trend. Sparked by the suffragettes in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is a matter that has been up for discussion since gender politics came into question.

In the fashion sphere, Coco Chanel is the perfect example of a woman wanting to change women’s rights through something as frivolous as clothes. Although she never identified herself as a feminist, she designed clothes that liberated women from corsets and hobble skirts. She actually played a big part in introducing pants as a female item of clothing, which were considered unladylike at the time. The designer managed to use fashion as an instrument of provocation, and became an icon of female independence —maybe not intentionally— when she set up her own business in 1910.

Fashion designer Coco Chanel in 1962. Photo by Getty

Fashion designer Coco Chanel in 1962 – Photo by: Getty

That being said, why exactly has it reemerged as a trend today? Feminism didn’t end with Coco and her lack of corsetry, with the Spice Girls taking the reins and popularizing Girl Power in the 90s, and many celebrities continuing to do the very same today. Jennifer Lawrence is demanding equal pay in Hollywood, Lena Dunham is about to direct a TV series about the feminist movement in the 60s, and actress Emma Watson spoke up for gender equality in the United Nations. Back in 2014, Beyoncé appeared in front of giant neon lights that said FEMINIST and made it clear that this is a new era, where feminism is not only fair and necessary, but also cool. But could feminism be the new “cool” way to sell?

Beyoncé performing onstage at the 2014 MTV Music Awards - Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Beyoncé performing onstage at the 2014 MTV Music Awards – Photo by: Getty

Three Marketing Campaigns Opening the Debate

It’s not only celebrities, but also companies that have been doing all they can to ride feminism’s digital fourth wave. With the boom of social media, companies have changed their approach to marketing,  now making female empowerment an advertising staple. The success of an advert or a campaign today relies on its ability to go viral, especially since women are the most active users on social media — representing a whopping 58% of Facebook’s users.

1. Bringing “real women” into the picture

Beauty giant Dove already opened the debate a few years ago, when they launched the “Real Beauty Campaign”, a billboard campaign that featured “real” and diverse women in their underwear, without airbrushing or photoshopping, something that was previously unheard of. The goal was to debunk the stereotype that only thin is beautiful, trying to widen the definition of beauty and body standards. Behind its empowering message, the campaign certainly proved to be highly profitable. Samantha Skey, chief marketing officer of SheKnows, a digital media company aimed at women, said that Dove “really broke some boundaries” and, since then, the beauty brand has “seen massive growth in terms of its performance at retail”.

Knowing they were on the right path, they continued to use this marketing approach and, in 2013, Dove’s Sketches TV spot took the crown for most-viewed video ad campaign of the year, generating more than 134 million total views. It was uploaded in 25 different languages to 33 of Dove’s YouTube channels and was viewed in more than 110 countries. Moreover, parent company Unilever, which also owns other brands like Axe, stated that in the month following its release, Dove’s US sales jumped by 1% compared to an annual growth of 3% for the full year.

“Regular” size women in their underwear in Times Square for Dove’s ad campaign - Photo By: Getty

“Regular” size women in their underwear in Times Square for Dove’s ad campaign – Photo By: Getty

2. Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign

In June 2014 the feminine hygiene brand Always released the successful #LikeAGirl video, which covered the negativity around the idea of doing things, such as running, “like a girl”. The ad generated considerable global awareness and changed the way people think about the phrase “like a girl”, receiving more than 85 million global views on YouTube from more than 150 countries. Just a few months later, in 2015, the campaign by Leo Burnett and Holler won the Black Pencil 2015 Award

3. Pantene is “Not Sorry”

Hair care giant Pantene opened the conversation in 2014 about whether women apologize too much by overly using the word “sorry”, thus undermining their own strength. The “Not Sorry” ad received 1.1 billion impressions and the United Nations even recognized the brand with the Breaking Gender Stereotypes Award.

The curious case of “granny panties”

If thongs were a synonym for sexy in the 2000s, today the fashion pendulum has swung in a completely different direction. According to the American research company NPD Group, thongs sales decreased by 7% in 2014, compared to a 17% increase in sales of fuller styles (boy shorts, briefs and high-waisted knickers). “The new younger consumer is demanding comfort,” said Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear associate at Euromonitor, about the reason behind this shift.

Julia Baylis, 22, and Mayan Toledano, 27, created the label Me and You, which became a total success thanks to its bestseller: a pair of white cotton panties with the word “feminist” in pink letters. They even went viral on Instagram in the form of “belfies” (selfies for the behind). “This is underwear you wear totally for you. Maybe no one will see it, or maybe you’ll put it up on Instagram to share with everyone you know.”

White cotton pant with the word “feminist” by Me and You

White cotton pant with the word “feminist” by Me and You

Blaze of controversy

But not all the initiatives promoting feminism had the expected response. “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” were t-shirts made by ELLE UK in collaboration with The Fawcett Society, and then promoted by mostly male celebs, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch. However, the Mail on Sunday newspaper claimed the t-shirts were manufactured in a sweatshop in Mauritius, where workers earned 62p (about $1) an hour and slept in rooms of 16 people. Fawcett responded by launching an investigation, which concluded that such assertions were not accurate — their verdict, however, didn’t convince everyone.

Adding to the controversy of feminism as a marketing trick, Chanel’s spring/summer 2015 runway was accused of being too frivolous. No one saw it coming — in the middle of Paris Fashion Week, a whole army of models holding placards with powerful feminist messages took the catwalk with Karl Lagerfeld at the head. Led by Cara Delevingne and Gisele Bündchen, the feminist “demonstration” threw out messages like “History Is Her Story” and “Make Fashion, Not War”. However, the media didn’t seem too convinced with the visually appealing parade, nor that its message was genuine. In words of the Guardian,  it was a “silly show”. British blogger Susie Lau wrote a whole post about it: “Whatever Lagerfeld’s true stance on feminism is, it is difficult to believe the conviction of a uniform cast of women, held up to an unrealistic standard of beauty, waving such banners, whilst wearing clothes that are prohibitively expensive. Why go there, Karl? To court controversy? To get more Instagram likes?”. Lagerfeld defended the show by saying it was “right for the moment,” adding that he likes “the idea of feminism being something light-hearted, not a truck-driver for the feminist movement.” He actually seemed happy and proud with the outcome of his show.

Feminist “demonstration” on Chanel 2015 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show - Photo by: Getty

Feminist “demonstration” on Chanel 2015 SS ready-to-wear collection fashion show – Photo by: Getty

Is a fashion show appropriate for this kind of feminist discussion or does it just trivialize the case? It’s all food for thought… Whether we agree or disagree with the way feminism is being used and/or embraced by pop culture and brands as a possible marketing ploy, or choose to think of it as an honest response to a current problem, one thing is clear: it is certainly helping to kick-start the debate.


|By Laura Antolín Peiró – Intern Content Marketing & Communications Spain|



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