Corporate feminism: How brands hopped on the fempowerment bandwagon

Inside the walls of women’s social-networking club The Wing Soho is an Instagram fantasy with luxe beauty products, lush plants and millennial pink sofas. Events featuring everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Kerry Washington have been hosted at The Wing. Following the events, attendees can leave and buy merchandise with the spirit of feminism weaved through: a $17.50 Girls Doing WTF They Want in 2019 keychain, In Sisters We Trust Socks ($15), The Joy of Sisterhood tote ($30). The revolution will be branded — and monetized.

The Wing, founded in 2016 by Audrey Gelman, is just one of many companies aspiring to empower women. It is noteworthy for its ambitions. The Wing has raised $117.5M in venture capital, with eight outposts and plans for 12 more in the next year in cities including London, Paris, and Toronto. The company boasts over 6,000 members, who pay $215 a month.

While The Wing is just one example of where feminism and brands have become intrinsically linked, more and more brands are hopping onto the feminism bandwagon. Campaigns like Dove’s “Real Beauty” and Aerie’s “Real” unretouched campaigns showing diverse, regular people abled and disabled, have stunningly deconstructed traditional standards of physical beauty. But there have been missteps like Wrangler’s #MoreThanABum campaign whose commercial featured close-up shots on, well, women’s bums.

Some tout feminist brand messaging and nothing else, but others are putting their money where their mouths are, regularly donating to causes or being inclusive just by keeping in contact with their consumer bases. So how do you know if a brand is deeper than its “empowerment” jargon?

More than underwear
One of the most attention-grabbing brands targeted towards women and the non-binary community has been period underwear brand Thinx. When the company launched its first subway campaign in 2015, they did it to start a conversation. “It was the first time periods had been mentioned in the subway and periods had been mentioned in the public in a very straightforward way that included our signature grapefruit image,” says Siobhán Lonergan, Chief Brand Officer for Thinx. “I think women were attracted to this very different way and approach to period branded period products, but also the straightforwardness in how we were talking about the topic.” The brand’s mission? “To empower everyone through innovative solutions and social change.”

Thinx has done so with no-nonsense branding. Initially, the brand launched an advertisement featuring a grapefruit that resembled female anatomy was deemed too racy for the NYC subway. Still, the brand has continued to be straightforward with their customers and has continued to listen to their feedback. When their initial slogan “For women with periods” garnered backlash, Thinx realized they had work to do. “There are communities that are not women that also get their periods and they stood up and said, “Not only do women get their periods, so do trans people, and we started to think about what that meant in terms of inclusivity relative to our branding,” says Lonergan.

To address their concerns, they did so with inclusivity and action: they invested in creating a video where Thinx interviewed trans people and learned about their experience with periods, they created an alternative line of boyshorts designed with the physique of a trans person in mind and in 2016 they featured their first trans model in the subway campaign. Their new slogan? “For people with periods.”

“We realize there wasn’t a lot of visibility for [trans and non-binary people] on the subject. That’s how we started out in our initial approach to branding and how we started to think about that relative to inclusivity,” Lonergan says. Building on the feedback from consumers to be more inclusive has been at the heart of their business, and proving that it has been about consistency. “We’ve heard the term ‘femvertising’, and I think companies are jumping on the bandwagon relative to this,” she says. “How I would say to combat this is to build it into your brand DNA. If it is coming from an authentic place, that’s part of your mission statement and part of how you show up in the world. Then, I think consumers will very much appreciate that and jump on board.”

Beyond cause marketing
Girlfriend Collective, a sustainable activewear line made out of recycled plastic bottles, takes a different approach. None of their brand messaging is about empowering women specifically — instead, it’s focused on sustainability. At its core, Girlfriend Collective is a company of 98% women, and empowerment is the “backbone of our brand.” Girlfriend Collective has been subtle in empowering women. Last fall, the brand expanded its size range. “We found that people were emailing us saying you don’t make my size and so we would ask them for their measurements and make one-off leggings from them,” says Sue Williamson, editorial director at Girlfriend Collective.

That idea also fed into the advertising for extended sizes; Girlfriend cast their own customers who were local to the Seattle area where they’re based and had them in for breakfast and a hike before they did portraits of women in the new size range. For Girlfriend Collective, listening to their customers has been key to the empowering throughline in their messaging and branding. They’re constantly looking at all of their direct messages and talking with the community. What they wanted to do was keep the conversation going and address the needs of their community in a real way. “To be authentic you have to be authentic. There’s not really a way to fake it, unfortunately. At the end of the day it’s a gut-check,” says Williamson.

Similarly, Tia — a membership-based women’s health clinic designed by women for women — isn’t about flair: the brand is focused on inherently focused on empowering women in the way that it approaches healthcare. “Everything we do at Tia has been done with the perspective of how do we build a platform that can actually engage women not just as users or customers and patients but as creators and co-creators of women’s care from the ground up,” says Tia founder Carolyn Witte. The healthcare platform aims to change how care is delivered, transforming the way women and providers interact and the care business model.

In short, Witte wants women who visit Tia to have the care model she’s sought as a patient. “I personally have an aversion to a lot of the marketing tactics being used particularly in the realm of women’s health and fertility where there’s a lot of fear-mongering happening,” she says. “At a time when women are being heavily marketed to by so many of these brands, women are starting to see through what that actually means in practice. It’s one thing to have marketing messaging, it’s another thing to have your business live up to those values.”

Feminist ethos
Unbound — a direct-to-consumer sexual wellness brand — has never tried to be “outwardly feminist” but it has aimed for real progress with its marketing. The brand’s CEO Polly Rodriguez saw a huge gap in the market in terms of the people who were making the products in sexual health and wellness “Historically because of the stigma associated with it, women didn’t really have the ability to be a part of the [sexual wellness] industry,” says Rodriguez. “What’s happened with the third wave of intersectional feminism is women are entering the markets that maybe once were too taboo for them to be in. Our brand ethos is feminist in that we believe in equality, but I think really from a business perspective it was an overlooked marketplace.”

Part of Unbound’s success in empowering women has come from listening to them: the brand hired a third-party agency, did focus groups and sent surveys to their customers. What they learned was that 65% of their consumers said they didn’t want to shop with a company that self-identifies as “feminist.” They didn’t like the word “empowering” either. In that same survey, 98% of people said that they identified as “feminists.” The word seemed to carry a stigma to it. “We didn’t want to pander to women, and we didn’t want to pretend that our products were going to empower them because we think our consumers empower themselves,” says Rodriguez. “Not every product is empowering. If you have to claim that you are, it dilutes the message.”

Unbound has also made a point of taking action when it comes to fighting for equality. “You can’t just make money off of women being a marginalized group, you have to do the work,” she says. With their campaign “Vibes for Congress,” consumers who bought a vibrator could send one to any congressional member and all of the profits would then be donated to Planned Parenthood, giving women an opportunity to donate to an organization they care about. “It’s about using your platform to give the customer an opportunity to be the hero,” says Rodriguez. Along with the vibrator was a pamphlet that educated congressmen and congresswomen that every dollar into Planned Parenthood saves $7 in Medicaid expenses. “For brands, it’s about ‘how do we take a back seat and support the organizations who are doing the work in a way that’s meaningful and sincere instead of just selling t-shirts to make money?” asks Rodriguez.

Lola, like Unbound, is focused on action, particularly helping promote change in legislation. The brand, a subscription service for organic tampons and pads as well as other sexual wellness products recently launched a campaign called Tax-Free Period which focuses on mobilizing legal action to eradicate the sales tax on tampons and pads in the remaining 34 states that tax them. “We’re always thinking about how we can lend a voice to these issues, raise awareness and drive conversation so that people feel like they have a voice and can make a change in their behavior and have it feel a little more empowered and ownable,” says Lola co-founder Jordana Kier

A brand doesn’t need to buy into the idea of corporate feminism to be “feminist.” Consumers know when a brand is pandering to women and they’ll speak up when necessary. Through authenticity, action and inclusivity, brands can empower women in an authentic way. No “I’m a feminist” T-shirt necessary.

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