How Always’ Brand Director Turned an Ad Into a Movement That Shattered Stereotypes

Adweek’s 2015 Brand Genius winner for CPG/personal care

It's typical for brands to generate tons of buzz from a Super Bowl spot. It's less frequent that a brand gets to use a Super Bowl ad to question gender roles and to all but eliminate harmful stereotypes. But that's what happened with "Like a Girl," the 60-second commercial from Procter & Gamble personal care brand Always. And global associate brand director Michèle Baeten played a major role in the instantly iconic campaign.

Like a lot of big ideas, this one started out small. The 32-year-old brand was in need of a refresh, as research revealed that girls regarded Always as a product their mothers used.

But another finding gave marketers pause: When a girl starts her period, the event marks the lowest point of confidence in her life. Here, Baeten thought, was something the brand could work with. "The insight was just so startling," Baeten recalls. "That's where we started working with Leo [Burnett] and asked what we could do—what can we, as a brand, do?"

So, agency Leo Burnett created a three-minute video that hit the Internet in June of last year. In it, director Lauren Greenfield asks her subjects to mimic a variety of tasks—running, fighting, throwing a ball—the way a girl would do them. Adults responded with silly, limp-wristed fumbles. Girls, however, countered with confident, at times even herculean performances. The juxtaposition of interpretations packed a powerful narrative punch. And by seeking to redefine "like a girl"—a phrase that had long been used as an insult—Always had found a powerful theme that resonated deeply with audiences.

And sizeable audiences at that. To date, the video has racked up more than 90 million views and been recognized with practically every industry honor (including Adweek's Media Plan of the Year, the Grand Clio and the Cannes Grand Prix) as well as an Emmy Award.

Lauren Greenfield shooting in Los Angeles. 

The video, with a little editing, was also a natural for the Super Bowl. "You can't get a bigger stage than the Super Bowl to really drive social change," Baeten puts it. P&G anted up for a 60-second spot, while media agency Starcom MediaVest Group was able to land a prime slot immediately following Katy Perry's halftime show.

"Like a Girl," both the TV spot and the longer online version, proved startling successes, for Always and for girls. In the 25 markets where the spot aired, Always recorded a significant lift in brand perception, according to the company. "The purpose-driven campaign—the strongest idea in this category since Dove [and its "Real Beauty" campaign]—'Like a Girl' created a platform for the brand that they now own," says Allen Adamson, North American chairman at brand consulting firm Landor Associates.

The more important metric might be the societal one. Before watching the film, only 19 percent of young women had a positive reaction to the phrase "like a girl," according to Always' research. After viewing it, that number rose to 76 percent. Two out of three men who watched the video said they would no longer use the phrase as an insult, or stop using it entirely.

It's all been a heady experience for Baeten—who, in the words of Leo Burnett evp and global account director Annette Sally-Booth, "truly lives and breathes the mission of the Always brand, to help stop the drop in confidence girls experience during puberty."

Says Baeten: "I never really grasped what social responsibility was until I started working on this one."

She adds that every brand, regardless of size, "can live up to a responsibility, take that responsibility and do more for the world." 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.