Rebranding feminism: how brands should change to ride the fourth wave

As the fourth wave of feminism grows, powered by the swell of social media, are brands keeping pace, asks Jane Bainbridge.

Rebranding feminism
Rebranding feminism

Feminism, it appears, comes in waves, and women are currently riding its fourth one. Those on its crest are predominantly young, using the connective power of social media to talk about, share and champion the ideals and causes they believe in, and forming a more active and politically voiced group of consumers.

Women’s path to finding their voice has been a steady evolution. The suffragettes and their fight for the right to vote was considered the first wave, the second was the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the third, though slightly less clear-cut, is generally contended to have started in the 90s. This brings us to the current wave, where social media and technology have given a wider platform to more women, from all walks of life, to achieve a collectivism not previously possible.

This is not limited to a search for equality; it extends to instilling change in the way media and business work. One stark example has been Lucy-Anne Holmes’ "No More Page Three" campaign, aimed at The Sun’s editor Dominic Mohan, at a time when the most prominent image of a woman in the tabloid paper on a daily basis continues to be that of a female baring her breasts.

So, from Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign calling for an image of an historically notable woman to be included on the £10 banknote to The Everyday Sexism Project, founded by Laura Bates, which charts instances of sexism women have faced (35,000-plus contributions and counting), the internet has proved a powerful platform to disseminate information and rally support.


The naming-and-shaming momentum has been a crucial part of this feminist renaissance, as women have strived to make people accountable for inequalities, whether deliberate or accidental. The #FBrape campaign, for example, meant brands felt the force of feminist wrath when their ads were served up against offensive pages on Facebook.

Social media has been a huge catalyst to driving fourth-wave feminism, as it enables women to connect more openly.

However, the ease of communication achieved via social media and its empowerment of women has a flipside: the equal ease and anonymity with which "trolls" can target and denigrate anyone who dares to promote a feminist voice (or indeed any view to which someone takes exception).

Stuart Butler, head of strategy at media agency Maxus, says: "Social media has been a huge catalyst to driving fourth-wave feminism, as it enables women to connect more openly. It’s helped us all realise that there’s more abuse and discrimination than we liked to assume – it brought it closer to home and helped us to see that feminism isn’t just about equality, it’s about standing up to some serious social issues."

But the "f"-word comes with baggage; for every statistic claiming that the majority of women count themselves as feminists (a Mumsnet user survey found 59% of respondents identified themselves as such), there are others stating it’s a minority (according to a Netmums survey, only one in seven considered themselves to be a feminist).

Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, bemoans the continual need for this conversation. "Has so little progress been made?" she asks. "[Feminism] is sort of an outdated notion, particularly for younger women who, hopefully, are coming through in a world that feels a bit more gender-neutral. The world is becoming one in which feminist values are more important, so it’s not just feminism per se but the feminine skills – the softer skills such as listening and open/flat collaborative influence instead of top-down hierarchy."

Outdated imagery

However, one of the great feminist drivers is the fact that the imagery surrounding women has not necessarily kept pace with this modern world (cue No More Page Three). Giovannoni believes one of the biggest underlying problems is the relative lack of women involved in the creative process.

"Three per cent of creative directors are female, so what you have is an industry dominated by male creative directors trying to bridge the divide. That for me sums up why women aren’t being depicted in a way that shows true insight and understanding, and their real-world issues," she says.

Advertising is far from an anomaly in this respect. The music industry – such an influential force among young girls – often seems to peddle imagery more akin to that of the porn industry than music-making, with hyper-sexualised images the norm. And with the rise of social media and the ubiquitous "selfie", appearance has become more important for young women, not less.

Last year women’s magazine Elle launched a creative project to rebrand feminism, involving three ad agencies teaming up with three feminist groups. Wieden & Kennedy was one of the participating agencies. Beth Bentley, its director of digital strategy and innovation, says the aim was to create a culturally responsible campaign to promote the idea of fourth-wave feminism and gender politics in the media.

"Every generation has its own interpretation of feminism; each generation will pick up the philosophy as it needs to. The way brands are reacting with that part of culture is also about talking to millennials and Generation C. These are people who’ve grown up with the internet, and it’s not just about brands broadcasting to them, they want to engage with brands and have them in their lives in different ways from previous generations," she adds.

Tipping point

The lag between ideology and brand communication means brands that have made breakthroughs are few and far between. "The real breakthrough will happen when the marketing directors and CMOs are millennials (they’re probably at the mid-levels at the moment). There will be that tipping point, not too far in the future, and it will then inevitably shift," says Bentley.

Every generation has its own interpretation of feminism; each generation will pick up the philosophy as it needs to.

Giovannoni points to the way in which some of the world’s most successful brands are, in effect, gender-neutral. "You’d never say that Apple needed to target women specifically, but it feels like it has very feminine values because it’s design-centric. John Lewis does a brilliant job at ‘heroing’ women; it recognises that they make the majority of purchase decisions in the home, but not in a way that alienates men. You’d never say Mini was a particularly masculine car brand; it has that quirky, funny, inclusive way of getting its message across," she says.

Sportswear is one sector that seems far in advance of others in this debate. Both Nike and Adidas have created powerful campaigns with essential truths about exercise, female ambition and aspiration at their core, without alienating a male audience. Moreover, they have been doing so for some time.

Nike’s "If you let me play" campaign from 1995 set a tone of strength and empowerment in its portrayal of women. It has also ventured into more political territory, such as body image and abuse, issues that would have many brands running for the hills, and went one step further in setting up The Nike Foundation, which aims to help adolescent girls break out of poverty.

"By making authentic long-term commitments to women and girls, and ‘out-behaving’ what had traditionally been expected of a brand, Nike was able to have a far bigger conversation – the spirit of which still feels fresh and powerful to a millennial fourth-wave feminist consumer," contends Bentley. "The brand has become a real force in female culture, generating an integrity that’s palpable throughout its brand behaviour."

How many more waves of feminism will we need before advertising and marketing catch up?

Perhaps the established separation of the sexes within sport actually provides a freedom for brands in this area to more accurately define their target audience and celebrate the differences.

In a similar vein, Adidas has carved a positioning that champions women in sport. Its "All in for #mygirls" creative from last year was the latest stage of a global campaign focusing on the bond between girls and how they inspire each other.

Laura Weston, managing director of iris Worldwide’s PR and experiential arm, iris Culture, says: "We worked on the campaign, which was inspiring because Adidas wanted to really celebrate women in sport. Rather than a stereotypical campaign focusing on women’s insecurities it concentrated on tribes of women who played sport together. It showcased the camaraderie and fun that women have and showed understanding of female passions in a non-patronising way."

However, she adds that, as a result of the recession, brands aren’t as bold as they were. "Sadly it would be seen as a brave move to capitalise on this new thinking," she explains. "Brands aren’t willing to take risks because they want to reach as broad an audience as possible, which means dumbed-down brand communication."

Passing the test

Trying to quantify this "dumbed-down brand communication" is an interesting exercise. Inspired by the Bechdel Test – which evaluates a film based on whether it has at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something besides a man – US marketing consultant Holly Buchanan came up with the Buchanan Test for advertising. Her three-part pointer for creating a campaign that might engage, rather than stereotype, women is based on three questions: do you feature a woman outside of the home; is she in a role other than that of "mother"; and is she NOT doing yoga?

Amy Kean, head of futures at Havas Media, cites some practical reasons as to why brands are often outdated in this context. "Despite the new social-media planning tools we have access to, many brands still rely on quite old-school audience tools to plan, based on a lot of male/female clichés. From a purely targeting perspective, brands often prefer to rely on tried-and-tested pen portraits of the ‘typical’ consumer, which don’t necessarily reflect the growth of modern feminism in the UK, as we can’t prove that these views are representative of a whole population."

So how many more waves of feminism will we need before advertising and marketing catch up?