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The real reason the Bugaboo bikini ad failed

Earlier this week Bugaboo sparked an outcry among mothers when it posted a photo of the very-fit supermodel Ymre Stiekema, running behind a stroller in a bikini. Was this an error in judgment deserving of the vitriol comments left on Bugaboo’s Facebook page? Bugaboo has inadvertently tapped into the ongoing issue women face surrounding weight and body image.

As a mother, I’m not offended by the photo, but I can understand why others are. My oldest daughter is six, and just this year I felt brave enough to wear a bikini again. I only found this courage after I saw a cartoon on Facebook (FB) with pictures of different types of women all wearing the same two-piece suit. It said, “How to wear a bikini: put a bikini on your body.”

Although my genetic makeup usually puts me on the thinner side of the weight scale, six months into my second pregnancy I found myself on the other side. On an unusually hot spring day at Whole Foods (WFM), the woman behind me in line looked at my swelling stomach and feet and said, “Ugh. When are you due!?” I told her I still had three more months, which was far longer than she thought based on her response, “You’d be surprised by how much bigger you can get.” When women get to pregnancy and early motherhood, hormones hijack our emotions and we come face-to-face with the fact that our bodies will never look the same again.

This brings me to my opinion as a marketer. In that role, I question Bugaboo’s decision because it failed to understand a fundamental facet of its target audience: body image issues are pervasive, ingrained and magnified around motherhood. From our youngest ages, women are haunted with images of “normal” that are anything but. Take the recent YouTube video of the girl who began taking off her makeup, which had hidden her acne. The comments included were cruel, describing her face as “revolting” and asking, “has she ever washed her face?” Then she transforms herself into everyone’s image of beauty with a masterful makeup application — a veil to make her acceptable to the world.

Model Ymre Stiekema for a Bugaboo shoot.Photograph by Duy Vo for Vogue Netherlands and Bugaboo

Reaching a target audience is contingent upon understanding the passions and fears of its member — it’s about solving their problems. Bugaboo’s posts exacerbated a problem rather than solving it. They forgot the emotional journey a mother travels on her way back to feeling attractive again.

For acne, there is makeup. For post-pregnancy, there are Spanx and stretchy jeans. And of course, there is exercise, which is where Bugaboo was looking to come in with this campaign. A brand like Spanx though draws women in by removing the shame of body image, often making it humorous, and dare I say even attractive, to smooth over the bumps and bulges so we can wear those tight dresses again. Women around the country laughed until they cried when Tina Fey called it “medical” to look like she did in her dress and then proceeded to strip down to her Spanx on David Letterman.

I can’t judge a model like Ymre Stiekema for being a young mom whose body can bounce back quickly from pregnancy. If I looked like that I’d run in my bikini, too. But I’m not a model and I’m not 23 years old. And Bugaboo was, after all, promoting a stroller for an active audience. The Bugaboo failure was not one of intention, but one of empathy. Many of the women who viewed the photo felt an ideal was being dangled overhead and out of reach. Bugaboo’s response didn’t add much compassion to the discourse either; it simply defended the photo:

We designed our Bugaboo Runner jogging extension with active parents in mind. We want to inspire moms and dads everywhere to explore the world with their families, while keeping up with an active and healthy lifestyle. In addition to Ymre Stiekema — a mom who enjoys running and happens to be a model — our marketing initiatives feature parents who love running, including our own staff at Bugaboo, providing their experiences with their children and the Bugaboo Runner. We believe that all parents should run free no matter where they are on their fitness journeys and what they choose to wear on their runs.

Early motherhood is a time when we have to recalibrate what it means to be a woman, to be ourselves. Mothers want to be buoyed by brands who respect and celebrate our whole selves in this world that showers us with crippling judgments and unattainable expectations. The brands that succeed in attracting a loyal audience of fans are the ones that dig below the surface to the motivations that drive people to connect, feel and thrive. In marketing, perception is always reality.

Beth Monaghan is principal and co-founder of InkHouse.