The branded hits and misses of International Women’s Day

Mar 09, 2018

More brands than ever seem to be adding their voices to the International Women’s Day conversations this year. GDR’s John O’Sullivan runs the rule over the best and the most vilified and ponders what we can learn from these.


A week that fittingly started with best actress Frances McDormand popularising the phrase “inclusion rider” at the Oscars drew to a close with International Women’s Day yesterday.

Emboldened by the expectations of activist-minded millennials and Gen-Zers, brands are being more political than ever before, and one would think that supporting an event that champions women and promotes gender equality would be a fairly safe bet.

But, as many brands are finding out, consumers are adept at spotting the difference between genuine campaigns and hollow marketing stunts that are simply jumping on the bandwagon – and they’re not afraid to call out brands that get it wrong on social media. So while some brands have successfully extended their support of women’s rights issues this week, others are probably wishing they hadn’t bothered.


Aer Lingus Priority Boarding

One of my favourite executions this year came from Irish airline Aer Lingus, which, for one day, offered priority boarding to all of its female passengers on domestic flights. A simple gesture, yes, but the brand got the emotional feel-good factor just right and it makes sense in the context of the brand’s history.

Aer Lingus was the first airline in Europe to employ a female pilot in 1979 and it backed up its support for women yesterday by sending an all-female crew on its transatlantic flight EI 105 from Dublin to New York.


Penguin Like a Woman

International book publisher Penguin found a meaningful way to celebrate the impact that women have made in the literary world with an on-point pop-up in London’s Old Street Station. At the Like a Woman store, run in partnership with British bookstore Waterstones, only books written by female authors were available to buy.

The sheer volume of classic books from many eras available to buy made a powerful statement about the talent of female writers, and the role Penguin has played in nurturing them.


Contributions for causes

Many brands this year are putting their money where their mouth is and are creating limited-edition products that support relevant causes.

La Ligne, for example, has created the AccountabiliTEE t-shirt in collaboration with artist Cleo Wade and is donating 100% of proceeds to Time’s Up. And they’re not the only one. The likes of Soul Cycle, Off-White, Net-A-Porter, Sweaty Betty and many more are giving to causes like Step Up, Women for Women International and Movement Foundation.

Some of these brands have a long-term history of supporting women’s causes, and some are relatively new to the party, but the beauty of this sort of execution is that, by putting in a little bit of effort and giving to worthy causes, these brands are sending out the message that this isn’t all about them and their marketing. They are also giving consumers an easy vehicle to support causes that they care about. Because of this, their motives are unlikely to be questioned.

But even this approach isn’t foolproof and brands have to be careful that their limited-edition products themselves don’t pander to stereotypes or alienate their target audience. Many of the above examples do this by keeping it really simple with slogans such as: “Support women, support the world.”


Jane Walker

Diageo-owned whisky brand Johnnie Walker took a bolder approach by replacing its striding man logo with a striding woman. The rebranded Jane Walker product contains the same whisky inside, but aims to make the category “less intimidating for women”. The brand will give $1 from each of the 250,000 bottles to women’s causes but, despite this, opinion has been split at best. Many have embraced it but many more have suggested that it alienates the very audience it is trying to empower. “I didn’t realise whisky was unladylike and intimidating” said one female Twitter poster, and “Eh, not feeling it. Women can’t drink normal @johnniewalker_ ? Just seems patronising to us. #scotchfail” said another.

As Entrepreneur’s Susan Gunelius quite rightly points out here, the issue isn’t necessarily the rebrand itself, but with the lack of context ahead of the launch. As Gunelius says: “For casual observers, one day Johnnie Walker was a scotch enjoyed primarily by men. The next day, Johnnie is Jane and the brand claims to be all about women’s rights. There was an obvious disconnect between the brand promise, and you can’t be surprised that most people didn’t instantly make the leap.”


Pink IPA

Moving from whisky for women to beer for women and the usually PR savvy craft brewery BrewDog thought it was being clever by satirising lazy marketing stereotypes when it rebranded its “Punk IPA” as “Pink IPA beer for girls”.

The problem is, most women don’t think this is a laughing matter and the reception has been pretty scathing in some quarters.

However, what has been applauded is the brand’s commitment to sell the beer at a reduced rate in its pubs to promote conversations about the gender pay gap.



McDonald’s, by contrast probably thought it was playing it pretty safe by celebrating International Women’s Day by flipping the “M” sign outside some of its restaurants to create a “W”. But the Twittersphere had other ideas. The dissenters were less concerned with the fact that MTV effectively did the same thing last year, and were more concerned with the perceived contradictions between the brand supporting women with one hand, while not making a commitment to providing a living wage for its workers on the other. The feminism by numbers approach was quickly branded “McFeminism”.

This demonstrates a very important point for brands looking to get political. You’re exposing your brand to increased scrutiny and if there is an inconsistency between the message you are putting out and your everyday business practices, there will be backlash. In other words, your brand has to be seen to be walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

In a world where everyone with a Twitter account can voice their opinion, none of these campaigns have been universally praised or slated, but its clear that the ones that resonate the most are the ones that appear genuine and consistent with a brand’s broader behaviours and messaging.

Going back to the Oscars and using that as a frame of reference, if brands want to be taken seriously as political players they need to be a lead actress, or at least a supporting actress. But they’re never going to win any credibility awards if they just make a cameo appearance in these conversations when it suits them.


Barbie’s Role Models

That’s why I’m happy to give the benefit of the doubt and my thumbs up to Barbie’s Role Models range, which was released yesterday. The new doll range celebrates 17 inspirational and ground breaking women from around the world. It has received a bit of flack because the thin body shape of each doll isn’t representative of the individuals they celebrate or the wider female population.

This is a valid point, and there is room for improvement, but for me this doesn’t take away from the brand’s attempt to, as Lisa McKnight, SVP and GM of Barbie, puts it “shine a light on real life role models to remind [girls] that they can be anything”.

Over the years Barbie has consistently supported female empowerment and gender equality and this release marks a continued commitment to these causes.

In my opinion, this is what brands should be doing on International Women’s Day: renewing long-term and genuine commitment to the cause in a way that makes sense to the brand and their customers. Brands hoping to make an impact with sporadic tokenism when it supports their marketing strategy need not apply.

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