The changing role of women in society is now one of the most disruptive forces of the 21st century. We consider how the future of branding – and ultimately society – is not gender-specific but, in the right hands, can play to the strengths of both sexes.

We are living in an age of seismic cultural change, seeing activism on an unprecedented scale against all types of inequality, including race, sexuality and gender.

Today, the affiliations we make say more about us than ever before and the brands we choose to buy into are an extension of this. In fact, due to the influence they now hold and exert, consumers are increasingly looking to brands to take a stand, in order to demonstrate their allegiances and help drive positive change, in society and our day-to-day lives.

#MeToo has put the feminist debate on the front page, with a number of high-profile celebrities suffering public shaming for their misdemeanours. Weinstein et al. are being held up as high-profile examples of the issues around inequality that we’re so urgently being called upon to address. Being able to correctly judge changing culture when creating brands is now non-negotiable and while this may present a challenge, this shift is also opening up an exciting opportunity to brand for this new generation of feminism.

For decades, it was easy for brands to target a stereotypical female ‘gatekeeper’ but this archetype is no longer relevant. Nor it would seem is the recent feminizing of typically masculine brands and products, including beers and snacks, which are being scoped out and reimagined to market them directly to women. The latest to join these is Johnnie Walker, which is releasing a limited edition US run of ‘Jane Walker’ Black Label blended whisky to broaden its appeal to women. The sentiment and the acknowledgement of “the brand’s commitment to progress” is admirable, as is their aim to champion a code of conduct to eliminate sexism in their sector and donating $1 per bottle to organisations supporting women’s causes. However, from a brand standpoint, replacing their striding man with a striding woman initially feels more like a deftly seized marketing opportunity rather than true engagement with the profound cultural shift that is happening. Maybe unsurprisingly, this release does not seem to be hitting the sweet spot as it has already been met with a barrage of cynical comments from women across social media.

That said, a feminine approach doesn’t have to be patronising. It’s not pink that’s the problem. The real challenge is recognising and answering women’s changing needs with innovative, inclusive, effective and pertinent product, brand and service solutions that are actually fit for purpose and truly reflect their lives today.

US based, women only members club – The Wing – is a very hot and very pink example of the new spaces and opportunities that are opening up for professional women to meet, collaborate and co-work. Inspired by US women’s clubs in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, The Wing was launched by co-founders Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan and raised $32 million in series B funding, led by WeWork. One year in, it’s poised to take its particular brand of Instagrammable feminism across the world: mindful of history, striving for diversity and sponsored by Chanel. Giovanna Gray Lockhart, Director of Civic Engagement, says, “The networks women create are powerful and we provide the environment for them to do that and build their connections cross sector. It’s exciting for The Wing to be flourishing in a time of such important social change.”

Women in branding_The Wing

A hundred years after women won the right to vote, we are moving beyond ‘leaning in’ and there is an impressive new generation of female-led and focused thought leaders, influencers and brand creators emerging from a variety of sectors from which our new – and next – generation will draw their inspiration. Helena Morrissey, investment bank CEO and mother of nine, releases her book ‘A good time to be a girl’ this month. It documents how she raised her family, managed a successful fund and created the 30% Club, which champions the rule that 30% of boards on the FSTE 100 are occupied by women – an initiative that won her a Damehood last year. In addition, she admits that one of her most worn colors is, yup, pink.

Emily Weiss, creator and owner of cosmetics brand Glossier – one of the most influential brands of The Millennium and millennials respectively – sites championing kinship among women as key to the brand’s success. Weiss says, “I think if Glossier can bring together like-minded women and give them a space to yes, buy product, but also learn, interact and contribute, for us that it is a success.” The democratic route of Tweeting out innovation concepts to her followers to open the dialogue and get their direct feedback, has resulted in a brand that is now regularly receiving multi-million dollar funding, as the brand grows exponentially.

Women in branding_Glossier

One of the most tuned in approaches to date comes from Nike. Although Nike has always celebrated women – think their Pro Hijab headwear and The 1 Reimagined Concept – new retail concept, Unlaced, is focused specifically on women’s products in sportswear and performance. Every aspect of the offer and brand experience is thoughtfully, personally and creatively executed from a floor tiled with sneakers to working with women curators across the globe to choose recommended products, such as first curator and i-D senior fashion editor and street style star, Julia Sarr-Jamois. Amy Montagne their Global Vice-President said the recent roll of new launches are being driven by the fact that, “We see a big shift in how women are living their lives, and fuelling the overall industry, and this has pushed us into new zones.” (Source: Financial Times).

Women in branding_Nike Unlaced

There are specific brands, industries and territories that will, of course, always be gender-specific and ultimately, we do need to recognise and allow space for individual characteristics, attributes and strengths of the sexes. In future, branding should innovate, communicate and engage for the dual needs of both (genders). As Dame Morrissey succinctly captures it: “It’s about a gender-intelligent approach. Acknowledging difference and accepting it, if we don’t, we’ll never move on.” (Source: The Times).

So Bic, your pink ‘For Her’ biro may be cute, but it wasn’t used to pen this piece. A token nod and a stereotypical female offer, or a more premium price point as an indicator of value, is not what we desire from brands and we are now in a position to say so.

Empowering options that facilitate choice, individuality and true progress are what the future should offer us. Now, brands need to show that they are truly listening to women and understanding their real lives and lifestyles – creating brands to clearly reflect the ideas and ideals behind their products and make more of a statement about just who we are and what we aspire to be.

The gender debate has a loud voice and it should be heeded, for those brands that do not join in will be called out.