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Why fashion is talking feminism to customers

Drapers looks at the rise of feminist marketing and why fashion retailers are embracing empowering campaigns.

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monkifesto beadramaqueen

A bikini-clad women ties up her hair and walks towards a swimming pool as the first strains of Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On kick in. What follows is one of the most recognisable marketing campaigns of recent years: a triumphant minute and a half of women running, boxing, dancing and sweating. Sport England’s “This Girl Can”, created to get more women exercising, soared to viral success when it first appeared on TV screens in January 2015. It turned away from stereotypically “perfect” images by showing women of all shapes and abilities, marking a sea change in the way brands talk to their female consumers.

Fashion retailers have been quick to unveil their own campaigns focusing on female empowerment. Swedish giant H&M sought to “redefine femininity” with its autumn 17 campaign, showcasing a diverse group of women to an updated version of Tom Jones’ She’s a Lady.

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Marks & Spencer’s “Spend It Well” campaign, lauched in May, urged customers to make empowering decisions by saying no to dead-end jobs, uncomfortable shoes and staying silent. Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of customer and marketing, described it as a “radical departure” for M&S and an attempt to get people thinking differently about the business.

“Feminism has been packaged up as an incredibly successful marketing tool by brands,” explains Nicola Kemp, trends editor at marketing magazine Campaign. 

 “What they’ve shown is the aesthetic that resonates with a broader spectrum of people is not an unachievable one, but one that celebrates flaws or is more realistic.

“A lot of fashion advertising in the past has been working within a straitjacket of well-worn assumptions as to what sells and what doesn’t. It used to be based around consumers squeezing themselves into a brand’s perception of what they should be. That’s been flipped on its head.”


Underwear label Sloggi is another brand urging its female customers to feel at ease in their own skin. The brand has taken a light-hearted approach for this year’s “Wow Comfort” bra campaign, which shows a woman proudly hiking and cycling in the bra as she urges others to try it.

Consumers now really value authenticity

Anna Stark, Sloggi

“Our latest campaign focuses on the idea of true comfort,” explains Anna Stark, head of marketing at Sloggi nothern Europe.

“We’re saying that true comfort is an emotional state as well as a physical one, so feeling secure in yourself and having nothing to prove. We’re saying to our consumer that you should be able to live your life freely, spontaneously and have some fun. Consumers now really value authenticity and are less inclined to support brands who make them feel inadequate or pressured to look a certain way.

“There’s been a cultural movement, particularly among millennials. They’re saying: ‘Enough already. Show me something that’s relevant to me.’”

This kind of marketing is not necessarily new. “Real women” have long been used in fashion campaigns. M&S showed a size 16 woman running naked up a hill in its “Exclusively for Everyone” advert 17 years ago, and brands such as Curvy Kate and Ultimo have since followed suit. Monki celebrated its 10th birthday in September 2016 with the “Monkifesto” campaign, which aimed to start a debate around “the confining view of female identity” through 10 statements on everything from body hair to sisterhood.

However, Kemp points to the rise of online influencers as a factor behind the renewed interest in a more realistic and less polished aesthetic. Many influencers – particularly on YouTube – give their audiences a look into their everyday lives, appearing without make-up doing mundane tasks such as unpacking shopping and cooking.

Beyond rhetoric

It is easy to see why fashion retailers might want to try their hand at their own feminist campaigns. The original This Girl Can campaign received more than 95 million views and 733,000 mentions across social media platforms. A 90-second film from the project has been viewed more than 37 million times on YouTube and Facebook alone, and its Instagram account has 67,000 followers. But businesses who use feminism as a marketing tool often tread a fine line between empowering customers and alienating them.

Savvy customers can sniff out inauthentic campaigns, says Kemp: “There has been some criticism of brands co-opting feminism. It tends to happen when the approach has been heavy handed. If you look at the most successful examples, they are from brands who are really invested in being responsible.”

Kate Dale, campaign manager for This Girl Can, stresses that the advert became such a success because it was based on real insight from its target audience.

“As an organisation, Sport England had previous initiatives urging everyone, but particularly women, to do more sport but we weren’t getting through,” she tells Drapers.

“We went back and looked at what women were actually telling us about why they weren’t engaging and focused on that. Everything we did had authenticity: we used everyday women who didn’t have a script and came up with their own mantras [which appeared in the campaign]. Your audience can tell the difference between some clever copy and something that really speaks to an emotional truth.”

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Another successful example of a brand backing up an empowering campaign with social responsibility comes from Italian clothing brand Benetton, long famed for its advertising campaigns. It sought to challenge male attitudes towards women in India, its largest international market, with the “#UnitedByHalf” campaign for March’s International Women’s Day. The brand also worked with partners in the region on projects to support female factory workers in India.

“Women in India receive less than half the years of education of men and have the half their share of gross national income,” explains Benetton India managing director chief executive officer Sundeep Chugh. “Even India’s metro has been wracked by issues of women’s safety and sexual assault. We believe that women should already have had an equal place in society. Unless the issue of women’s equality enters popular debate, the situation in India will remain far from ideal.”

Taking a fresh approach to marketing can be an opportunity for fashion businesses to connect with the customers. However, it is not as simple as jumping on the feminist bandwagon – retailers need to think carefully about how best to speak to their consumers.

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