By Danielle Todd
In April, the President of the United States graced our fair shores, and participated in a town hall discussion with Britain’s youth. He said a great many wonderful things, but one comment in particular stood out for me. When speaking of social activism, Obama warned
“It’s a common mistake for campaigners to keep ‘yelling’ once politicians are willing to sit down with them…the value of social activism is to get you at the table…you then have the responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable.”
In other words, once you have captured the attention of those in power, it’s then time to sit down and present your case. I would apply the same truth to an equally influential Goliath of our age – big business. Big businesses have an undeniable pervasive influence in this world, and their brands have the ability to both frame and shape our experiences throughout our lives. Think of the Disney toy you cuddled throughout your childhood, or the football team you would defend until your voice is hoarse or the handbag you treated yourself to with your first decent pay-cheque.
The impact of brands on our lives has, historically, typically been leveraged primarily in the name of profit. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; we do live and will continue to live in a largely capitalist society in most parts of the world. However, what if big businesses and their brands used their influence to effect social change, as well as making profit?
Rethinking Feminism: A Debate
At a beautiful nearly 200 year old Kings College London building, on Monday 25th April, Unilever hosted an event in conjunction with the Institute of Art and Ideas, entitled ‘Rethinking Feminism’ exploring the importance of women in sustainable development. Unilever are a company whose brands are present in 98% of households across the UK, and are used by 2 billion people across the globe every day. They took a bold step in engaging in a meaningful and authentic way with one of the greatest, and most complex, social activisms of our time – feminism. Which, in my view, clearly demonstrates their commitment to act on their own global sustainability agenda.
All credit to Unilever for assembling a panel of four world-leading thinkers who truly critically engaged with the topic at hand: London Feminist Network founder, radical feminist and Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Finn Mackay; award-winning novelist Elif Şafak; political theorist and broadcaster Myriam Francoise-Cerrah and Chief HR Officer at Unilever, and the first woman to hold the position in Unilever’s history, Leena Nair.
One of the key struggles of a global company like Unilever is maintaining relevancy in all the markets in which it operates. And, for a company like Unilever who have publicly committed to doing good through good business, how to tread the fine line between respecting cultural differences, while using their influence as a catalyst for real cultural evolution and betterment, means they are venturing into unchartered territory for big business.
This story is in need of a hero…
Noted fairly early on the evening was the fact that the struggles for a better and fairer world are endless. Women are acutely aware that the backlash against feminism puts the rights we take for granted at risk. Elif Şafak, talked of the regressive nature of Turkish culture, and how women’s freedom in public spaces is restricting again. Cities belong to men, streets belong to men, and even the home belongs to men, with domestic violence, shockingly, commonplace for 1 in 3 women in Turkey. This reminded me of another brand taking a bold stance in the name of feminism, Vodafone Turkey, in their development of a protective app called Vodafone Red Alarm in defence of domestic abuse suffers. This app could be hidden as a flash-light app on women’s phones, and a guerilla style campaign was launched to let women know about the app without alerting the men in the country. This cleverly involved hiding messages embedded in Youtube tutorials on make-up or knitting, or special posters in female only hair salons. Vodafone even invented a new media channel by hiding their messages on the manufactured wax strips inside bikinis and underwear, which showed when heated.
…or a brand new story?
I whole-heartedly applaud Vodafone’s valiant efforts in proactively providing a branch for women facing this awful and indefensible violence. However, companies like Unilever give me hope that big businesses can and do use their influence to critique the cultural norms that allow this violence to exist. Unilever are working towards opening up dialogues to address the very social structures that allow all sorts of insidiousness to happen, from restricted access to education to domestic violence and death for women.
Feminism itself is about respecting and applying the multiplicities of what this word entails. It is about recognising the plurality of struggles for women the world over. It is also about acknowledging and continuing the work to create a fairer, more equal world for all women and men. Good big businesses can and do have the same principles at their core. The best brands begin with the mission of providing something that addresses a real need, or makes an improvement, however marginal, in our lives. With this in mind, how can brands not use their power to highlight social issues, and open a dialogue to effect change?
Take, for example, P&G’s award-winning advertising for their washing powder brand Ariel. This advertising in India – very much a patriarchal society – opens as a letter of apology from a father to his daughter for not doing his fair share in the household and therefore setting his daughter’s poor expectations of her own husband. This advertising is anchored, as all good advertising is, in a very relatable and base human truth. Women do the majority of work within the household, and this is unjust.
Authentic engagement vs empty empowerment
This is in stark contrast to brands paying lip service to feminism, whilst simply repackaging empowerment as something essentially meaningless, whose only purpose is to sell more products. I urge every brand manager to read “How ‘Empowerment’ became something for women to buy” by Jia Tolentino, which eloquently conveys our dismay, as females, at empowerment not being a social movement about reclaiming our share of power, but more about buying products to feel empowered. This feels, to me, as a continuation of traditional advertising, which played on women’s insecurities in order to sell them products. Today instead, poorly constructed ‘empowering’ advertising plays on a woman’s desire for her autonomy to be recognised and valued, in order to sell them products. Anyone aware of the unnecessary gendered products tumblr or Twitter account will be depressingly familiar with how empty engagement with women can be, for many brands.
No brand is perfect, but taking the first step is the hardest. It is refreshing, and necessary, to see a huge company like Unilever not only comment on but proactively engage with the social injustices of our time. As Unilever state on their commitment to sustainability
“The world needs a new business model with sustainability at its heart. Only the businesses that grasp this will survive.”
Businesses and brands can and should evolve to provide more than just a product. As any brand worth its salt knows, the main objective of their products is to address a real need or provide an improvement on our lives. What more relevant need do we have, in our times, but a need for social justice?
A fairer world is a distant goal, but with companies like Unilever shining a light to guide the way, and throwing their weight behind the women who are making a difference on the ground, taking the first steps together towards greatness feels possible. Other brands, and businesses, take note; there is no real thing as a bad product any more, just brands that don’t ‘do good’.
And to paraphrase Unilever, only businesses and brands that do good will survive.