In March, American Eagle’s lingerie chain Aerie made a major statement. The store released a one-piece black bathing suit with the word “Survivor” stamped across the front. Modeling the swimsuit was gold medal winning gymnast Aly Raisman, who had recently opened up about being sexually abused by a USA Gymnastics doctor for years.
To take such a powerful stance on the importance of women’s rights and the need to listen to women’s stories could have easily backfired. Why should Aerie—or any brand, really—be a part of telling this story? But in this case, experts agreed that Aerie had the authority to take a position and did it in just the right way—finding an authentic voice in Raisman and continuing the retailer’s longstanding commitment to championing women for who they are and how they look, sans Photoshop. (That approach has also landed Aerie 14 consecutive quarters of double-digit sales growth.)
Connecting with women and marketing feminism in this new era isn’t as simple—nor should it be—as selling merchandise with feminist phrases slapped on them or including a platitude about female empowerment in your marketing. So what can other brands learn about marketing feminism today from some of the front-runners in the industry?
Consistency is key, according to Quynh Mai, founder of digital shop Moving Image & Content, who explained that Aerie has won over consumers by being consistent “season after season and now year after year. … It’s not a one-off moment that then goes away because there is a new trend happening.”
Mai pointed toward several steps brands can take to build an authentic support of feminism, including committing to that stance across its marketing communications ecosystem, having daily conversations about feminism on social media and empowering not only female management but also female directors and photographers.
Some brands founded in the last five to 10 years like Everlane, Glossier or even New York-based Bulletin (an ecommerce company with select retail locations that sells feminist T-shirts, mugs and more from over 150 female-led brands) have used their platform to build a pro-women’s rights stance into their businesses from the start, giving them an advantage over traditional retailers vying for the same audience. Many of these companies were built by women for women and therefore have always, since inception, been thinking about the needs and concerns of the female consumer.
“We don’t really see Bulletin as marketing feminism. We see it as a business that in its DNA genuinely wants to support women,” said Alana Branston, co-founder and CEO of Bulletin, explaining that brands interested in marketing to women should either donate proceeds from their products or find another way to tie your brand to the message. For Bulletin, 10 percent of store proceeds go to Planned Parenthood in New York, while Everlane gives a portion of sales from its “100% Human” collection to organizations like the ACLU.
Still, donating a percentage is likely not enough to make the marketing work if there isn’t an authentic connection, especially when a brand decides to comment on movements like #MeToo. When fashion brand We Wear the Pants released a #WeWearThePants collection—including a $375 denim jacket and $250 pair of jeans with #MeToo headlines printed on them—the motivation seemed questionable. While 10 percent of the sales from the brand are donated to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, the campaign was met with skepticism. Consumers wondered whether it was just a stunt to make a splash because they didn’t know much about the brand and what it stood for.
“It’s almost like a clothing meme,” Mai said. “There was something in the air and they jumped on it. The two [founders] are expressing their political and personal feelings through clothing, which is incredibly important for women to be able to do, regardless of the trolls online. But I think the proof will be if they have longevity and if they can take this messaging that’s on clothing and use it in other areas.”
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