Representation. A word that pops up regularly in conversations on gender equality and women’s rights in our societies, in politics or business. Apparently, there were once fewer women running businesses than men named John – a fact that screams to the necessity of feminist movement and activism from New York to Tokyo.
It is of course more than just a matter of political science because representation matters, not only in politics or business but advertising, because we, as the average consumer, mirror what we see: Whether it is traditional or social media advertising, studies have found that representations of gender behaviours in advertising have real life impact on the way that consumers view gender and sex roles in their lives, and that they may even change their own behaviours to mirror what they see in the media. Naturally, this doesn’t strike a chord with your international women consumer who is not restricting herself to household chores and child care. Millennials have long been sharing their perspectives on politics of women’s rights and the female consumer – urging brands to speak out against sexism, for real beauty.
For Generation Z, representation goes beyond non-sexist, non-traditional gender roles. We are one of the most diverse generations yet, and we want to see this diversity reflected in the advertising and brand initiatives we see. Consequently, feminism at the moment is about more than ‘just’ gender equality but the emphasis of intersectionality as a given and including many more traditionally marginalised groups more actively.
Coined for the first time by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality considers a collection of factors of a person’s social and political identities that, when combined, create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Contrasting the first waves of feminism, this means that today’s fight for representation is no longer centred only on straight, white, middle-class women’s rights. Gen Z feminists have taken this to heart and to social media or podcasts (of course) to share their appreciation of each feminist’s individual journey and emphasise that feminism does not always mean the same for everyone. Gen Z feminist Scarlett Curtis (author of ‘Feminists wear pink – and other lies’), for example, founded a community of activists called ‘The Pink Protest’, and their inaugural series was all about understanding what being a feminist activist means to different women.
What could feminism teach CPG brands?
The question we ask ourselves at TRFF is simple: What can brands learn from Gen Z and their renewed understanding of feminism, and how can brands make the transition from a merely profit-oriented organisation to an empowering and authentic ally to Gen Z women? We will explore that, as well as the notion of gender neutrality in the CPG industry, to understand how feminism can help brands achieve two things at once:
- Appeal to their actual consumers
- And help promote a more equal world (which Gen Z appreciates).
Women worldwide are not only fighting for equal pay, but for their bodies, their health – their autonomy – and there is a lot of work left to do. A topic that has (luckily) received more mainstream attention as of late (and a personal favourite of mine), is women taking charge of their period, challenging the perception of menstruation as something that is dirty and somehow taboo and fighting against period poverty. Thank you for that! 🩸
And there is one example that showcases how brands can be a part of the solution and help empower women (and every person who menstruates): Based in Amsterdam, Yoni is a manufacturer of sustainable period products, ‘created with the belief that the time has come to open up, share our stories, and care for female-sex bodies at every stage of life’. Not only are their products chemical- and plastic-free but they actively work towards alleviating period poverty by making the topic a part of a much-needed conversation or donating period products to public restrooms.
There is of course, as always, also the issue of authenticity. We must keep in mind that brands strive to make profit, so how can we really trust that their inclusive advertising or feminist messaging is at the heart of the brand? Simply speaking, this is not a job just for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) but for every layer of the organisation. Otherwise, Gen Z will readily spot incidents of pink-washing: Pink-washing, or simply brand noise, is when a brand reduces feminism to a hashtag on March 8th, without having real impact on the feminist movement.
A great example of an authentic brand is liquor maker Diageo, which introduced a limited special edition ‘Jane Walker’ scotch (to replace its Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch during Women’s History Month). The brand did not stop there, but donated $250,000 to women’s progress organisations, such as Monumental Women, joined the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, and closed the gender gap within its organization (half of Diageo’s board is comprised of women, while 40% of the global executive team are women).
Do you remember the Kinder Surprise eggs that were targeted at boys and girls respectively? I remember this as one of the first products that made me realise that there is a discrepancy in how (new) products are targeted at and marketed towards girls and women, compared to boys and men. Why would I want the pink egg? In a time of gender-neutral bathrooms, isn’t it time to move away from men- or women-specific products?
Clearly, I am not alone with this sentiment: the latest reports show that 65% of Gen Z want a “gender neutral” search option online. Gender neutrality is the only logical consequence of our generation’s renunciation of binary gender assignments, and the increasing embrace of gender fluidity, as part of our renewed intersectional understanding of feminism.
Implications for CPG brands
Now, the question is how can your brand channel Gen Z’s intersectional approach to feminism? How can you appeal to your consumers of tomorrow and promote a more equal world?
1. Learn from the groups you want to include – that means including marginalised groups when it comes to designing new products or campaigns.
A fantastic example hereof is Tesco’s ‘Together this Ramadan’ campaign: Created by BBH London, the digital billboard features a collection of empty plates during the day, which fill up with food as the suns sets. BBH developed the campaign with diversity and inclusion consultancy The Unmistakables, and commissioned Khalil Musa, a photographer and a practising Muslim, as well as food consultant Dina Macki, to work on it. Part of the cast was selected from Muslim colleagues within the Race and Ethnicity Network at Tesco, who were also consulted throughout the campaign development.
2. Demonstrate your action transparently – if it’s a campaign about equality, show what you’re doing to create equality.
22% of Gen Z notes that a lack of transparency reduces their opinion of brands and products, more than any other generation. Be ready to share your impact on social media, through a podcast – just make sure you communicate on a platform where Gen Z can see your message.
At the end of the day, this is not an issue of political science, something to be considered only by the CMO for public appearance. From Tokyo to New York, Gen Z want to see brands from Amazon to Unilever to go beyond Super Bowl ads targeting female consumers, and create a truly equal world.