For Brands Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018, Inspirational Messages Aren’t Enough Anymore

March 8, 2018, 9:44 AM UTC

International Women’s Day on Thursday is intended to celebrate women’s cultural and economic achievements and call for more gender parity. But as the calendar turns to March 8, it’s also time for the corporate pile-on of feel-good ads and product rollouts as brands rush to chime in on the pro-woman conversation.

Mattel on Tuesday unveiled 17 new “role model” Barbies for the occasion, honoring female icons such as Amelia Earhart and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. Modern-day figures like Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim also got their own lookalike dolls.

During the Oscars on Sunday, Nike aired a new ad starring Serena Williams that commemorated International Women’s Day. In the commercial, the tennis star says she’s been criticized as not “the right kind of woman,” but has learned that “there’s no wrong way to be a woman.”

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Uber released a video in Asian markets that seeks to disprove myths about female drivers there, and Facebook has designed IWD-themed cards, photo frames, and backgrounds to adorn text posts by users on mobile devices.

In a wackier stunt, a California McDonald’s location is turning its trademark golden arches upside-down so what is normally an M becomes a W for women.

The history of International Women’s Day stretches back more than a century, but supporting it in 2018 may feel especially urgent for brands, as it’s the first IWD since the #MeToo movement went viral, prompting a much-needed reevaluation of how corporate America, Hollywood, and the media treat female employees. But even in the current climate, where the public seems especially receptive to messages of female empowerment, brands must tread carefully. There was criticism, for instance, that Mattel’s ‘role model’ Barbies appear to fit the doll’s trademark silhouette and the McDonald’s W was panned by some on social media as an empty, odd symbol.

The ongoing #MeToo and Time’s Up movements may make it seem like celebrating IWD is a no-brainer for brands, but in fact, the campaigns against sexual harassment and sexism have raised the bar, says Erin Keeley, CMO at Mono, an ad agency.

Messaging like the Nike ad is “motivational,” Keeley says. Such ads “make you feel good; they are a positive message,” she says. “You hate to say that you don’t want brands to do that.” But the dialogue around women’s equality seems to be “turning a corner,” she says, where awareness and inspiration aren’t enough. The conversation has moved on to action; into “what happens next,” she says.

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That’s a harder mission for brands, but Keeley says Getty Images seemed to pull it off during International Women’s Day 2017, when it announced that it was launching a female-focused sports photography internship with the goal of adding more diversity to the field and contributing “to a more positive portrayal of sportswomen in the media.”

In that same vein, commentators commended Frances McDormand for including in her Oscars acceptance speech an actionable step—demanding an inclusion rider—that actors could take to change the industry; she went beyond just girl-power cheerleading.

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The IWD conversation is also one that not every brand has to join. Tapping into IWD makes sense “if your brand is about progress; if it’s aligned with what’s happening that day,” Keeley says.

But even for those companies, IWD can be a prickly occasion to celebrate.

Liquor company Diageo tried to promote the progressive history of its Johnnie Walker brand in late February when it introduced its limited edition “Jane Walker” scotch whisky, its traditional Johnny Walker bottle with a female iteration of the brand’s Striding Man logo. Sale of Jane Walker is tied to Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. In introducing the new bottle, the company touted the near equal gender make-up of its expert blenders and the women in its leadership ranks. “Women have played a significant role in the brand’s history dating back to 1893,” the company said in a release. But a quote by the brand’s vice president—“Scotch as a category is seen as particularly intimidating by women”—riled critics, including late-night host Stephen Colbert, who gave it the monologue treatment: “They changed the name to Jane Walker with a lady version of the mascot. Female drinkers everywhere will say, ‘Finally, a brand that’s condescending to me.'”

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