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Rules of Engagement: How Should Brands Speak to Women in 2018?

As brands venture into the gender equality arena in advertising they need to understand the rules of engagement to authentically connect with consumers.

As the 43rd global International Women’s Day celebrations die down, it made me question, what is the state of play for us as market researchers? And what about the brands we work with?

When I think of the powerful role brands can have when it comes to social issues, I’m reminded of this following thought, in ‘Down Girl’, a metaethics study of logic in misogyny written by Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University:

“We talk about waves of feminism in a way that strikes me as quite different from other areas of political discourse: why? There is, then, an inbuilt or assumed obsolescence for feminist thinking, rather than a model of amendment, addition, and new centers for new discussions.”

Therein lies the frustration. Feminist thought should not be isolated sparks, doomed to ignite, smoulder and ultimately turn to ash, but an interconnected network of fires that illuminate and fuel pathways of change. While I don’t intend to deal with the cultural or epistemological structures, logic and biases that limit feminist thought from achieving this – although get three drinks in me and I’ll be happy to share my thoughts – I do intend to infer in terms of the importance to our little microcosm of market research, that we can represent networks for change and develop new centres for fresh discussions.

Brands and associated advertising can both reflect the current world as well as provide an aspirational view of what it can be. They may not always get it right, and there are plenty of high-profile examples of brands venturing into the gender equality arena and getting it wrong, but what, then, are the rules of engagement? While you could argue there will always be crass marketing lassoed around a genuine societal or topical issue, how can we guide brands in leading the sea-change that we want to see? How can we name and draw attention to issues as step one, before at step two we dismantle the structures that allow such issues to fester? How can we reflect all the ugliness of the world, in order to demand seismic paradigmatic shifts?

In order to provide a first step, I’d like to offer the following three rules for engaging with women in 2018:

Ask yourself ‘what’s the intention?’

Use your brand tonality consistently

Listen, engage and learn

And use the recent controversial Brewdog pink IPA launch as an example of how to engage well.

1. Ask yourself ‘what’s the intention?’

As people, we crave authenticity, and a small step with authentic intention can build momentum and ignite change. It would be nice to think we do things because they are right, but it is more pragmatic to move away from the moral imperative of action for the sake of good. We live in a messy, complicated world, but doing something because it’s right or good isn’t necessarily the driving factor behind actions. This reasoning is not inherently bad, but understanding your intended message and how it could possibly be received, and standing by it, rings of authenticity.


Brewdog launched a beer in an effort to highlight the UK gender pay gap. Behind this public lauding of a very real issue, Brewdog will also address the consequences of such an issue – women earning less – by selling the beer 20% cheaper to those who identify as female, and donating 20% of the beers’ profits to charities that support women. This is a small, concerted effort to fix one very persistent issue, and Brewdog have been very clear about the intention of their new launch.

Be transparent about your intention.

2. Use your brand tonality consistently

Your brand voice is your projection to the world. A representation of who you are, and what you have to say. Any communication or venture into the gender arena should be in keeping with your brand voice overall. It shouldn’t feel forced, or out of character.

Brewdog’s effort to highlight, and poke fun at the absurdity of speaking to women by ‘pinking and shrinking’ was very much in line with their brand tonality:


While this campaign has proved divisive on Twitter, I believe Brewdog have engaged well. They have a fun, down-to-earth and satirical brand tonality, and they make beer. They’re poking fun at the ridiculous nature of marketing to women, and doing it well.

Stay true to your brand, your voice, and what you can achieve.

3. Listen, engage and learn

It can be easy to write-off an approach to engaging with gender issues as ham-fisted or misguided, but the worst course of action for a brand is to retract from their initial action. In the past 24 hours Brewdog published a response to the public backlash against Pink IPA. They acknowledged the backlash, reaffirmed their intention and focused on the core issue at hand.

They listened, they engaged, they learned. And they recentered the focus on the core inequality issue at hand.

Don’t retract – rather listen, engage, learn and keep building.

I think their response was brilliant, and a sobering thought to conclude with after celebrating International Women’s Day:

“So will we stop championing equality? No. Will we stop believing that beer can change the world? Never. Will we try to be funnier next time? Yeah, probably.

Thank you to everyone who turned Pink IPA into an international debate, regardless of your take on it.

Now, let’s close that f*cking pay gap.”

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