In today's world there is no shortage of feminist-slanted marketing initiatives. Huge companies promise to "help women break the glass ceiling" with emotional campaigns that tug at the heart strings.
The equation goes something like this: company X looks to come across as 'tuned in' and inclusive so it creates a new campaign. Company X puts out slickly produced commercial featuring an adorably diverse group of young girls dressed in tutus or something of the like, add dramatic piano music, an inspiring female voiceover, and culminates the spot with a tagline like "Women are the future." (Oh yeah, that's good). Consumers watching this tear up a bit and think 'wow, this company gets it.' But is there substance behind the hype? Are there even any women behind the message?
“I applaud their intentions but I see window dressing initiatives occur so often that I don't see it having a sustainable impact," says Barbara Annis, founding partner of Gender Intelligence Group, and author of Results at the Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth. "You must think about it in a much more systemic way in order to affect real change."
Despite more brands than ever utilizing inspiring pro-women messaging, complete with catchy hashtags and splashy campaigns, with only a tiny percentage of women sitting on boards and holding executive roles, one has to wonder how deep the messaging really goes. Feminist scholars see various reasons for the disparity, which include the rising spending power women hold as well as an anti-Trump bandwagon message that brands feel pressured to adopt. Additionally because the country's creative directors are nearly all men, Annis warns that many "feminist" commercials may fall short of reaching any real depth.
“I'm certain that when marketing experts saw the power and numbers in the Women's March, they brought this to the table when pitching ad campaigns," says Dr. Marika Lindholm, Founder of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere). “Even in the Super Bowl, we saw more politically oriented ads. Whenever advertisers take a stance on a social reality such as, marriage equality, multiracial families and feminism, they've done their research and take a calculated risk as to whether this will attract new consumers. It usually works in their favor because controversial and cutting edge ads get attention. Female focused ads in this day and age are not super risky."
According to Annis, although companies are doing branding, advertising and even recruiting with a pro-female bent, a revolving door has been created, in which firms are losing women five to one, sometimes just months after being hired. The number one cited reason for this dropoff is the lack of an inclusive company culture, as many large companies feel more like a boys club than a female-friendly work zone.“Women are heavily recruited as they graduate with MBAs into [firms like] Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs, but they don't stick around," says Annis. "There's a big challenge because they leave for 'personal reasons,' which creates this assumption it's because of workload. They actually leave because they don't feel valued for the authentic skills they bring to the table."
“Sometimes we put the cart before the horse. [Corporations] think if they just push a numbers game, or a quota on it they will solve the problem."
Among the recent female-focused campaigns of today are Microsoft's Girls Do Science campaign; Audi, Godaddy and GE's emotional commercials, and UBS's five year plan to “scale up its expertise to better serve female client." A brief online search of these companies quickly reveals that in no one “leadership" board is there any gender-balanced team (not even close), with most being under 20 percent women. Audi, whose “Daughter" commercial may have caused tears during the Superbowl, also caused a controversy as many women found the ad more depressing than empowering. For those keeping tabs, there are two women on Audi's "executive team," which is made up of 14 Caucasian men.
“If you were to search companies that do well by African Americans, AT&T and Aflac score well, whereas, Latino Americans predominate and are promoted in health care and service sectors," says Lindholm. “For example, Marriott and Kimpton Hotels make the list of best places to work for Latinos. Not surprisingly, information technology companies score well in terms of Asian American employment and promotion. For women, IBM and Johnson & Johnson are frequently cited as actively promoting women to senior management. All the companies mentioned above should be commended for actively promoting diversity. Nevertheless, there is work to be done before most of us work in an organization that truly embraces inclusivity."
Even Wall Street's famous bronze bull statue got a female adversary in the form of a “Fearless woman statue," sponsored by financial firm State Street Global Advisers. But with 23 men and five females on its “leadership board," one must wonder if the oft-selfied and photographed marketing tool serves as more lip service than a harbinger of change.
“That statue you see has a bit of vestige of that history that says 'I'm brave, I can get in there, I can do it,' but what we are missing is it's not about this young woman making it in the traditional male hierarchy; it's about transforming the culture of the old male hierarchy," says Annis. "It's about creating a culture that is inclusive where everyone can thrive. Having a symbolic statue is not a bad thing if it gets some new conversation going. But if it goes back to the old conversation which says 'it's up to the women,' we can't fix the problem."
Embracing inclusivity is without a doubt a powerful marketing message in today's emotional times, and according to both Annis and Lindholm, is also perfectly self-serving, in that it allows brands to capitalize on today's unparalleled spending power of women. Appealing to the number one shopping decision maker (Annis says more than 82 percent of all shopping choices are made by women) is without a doubt a positive thing for companies looking to increase their bottom line.
“There's no doubt in my mind that female-focused marketing campaigns are trying to capitalize on women's power as consumers," says Lindholm. "Women and mothers make the majority of purchase decisions in families across America. Campaigns, such as Dove's Real Beauty and Pantene's Not Sorry ostensibly incorporate female empowerment emerge because of what's going on in the national dialogue."
The blatant woman-focused marketing tactics becomes even more interesting when analyzing the fact that women share their experiences with brands, both good and bad. Men, however, are less verbal about their feelings towards brands.
“Women are the best promoters or not," says Annis. “Women share like crazy. When men have positive or negative experience they tell three people only if it's relevant, while women on average tell up to 32 people even if not relevant to the topic, and that's just verbally. When you add social media the sharing just goes crazy."
Annis goes on to say that women tend to value the journey to purchasing more than the actual purchasing. In fact, she shares that women have more connections in memory sensors for brain, meaning they are more apt to remember a brand's advertising, whether it's a good or bad experience.
“When we started 30 years ago it was all about gender equality but very quickly it has become about gender intelligence," says Annis. “It's about understanding the differences and what women want in the market. Many women want a relationship with a brand, not a transactional sale. That's why companies like Dove, who show authentic communication, have saled exploding and are a beloved brand. They are listening to the women and shifted accordingly"
According to Lindholm, actual progress towards a day when female executives equal the number of men, needs more than expensive commercials and marketing promises. Change can only happen when organizations once and for all resolve the nuanced disparities that keep women from achieving the same levels of success men routinely reach.
“Even when companies are dedicated to diversity, there are subtle mechanisms that undermine their best intentions," says Lindholm. “For example, given that mentoring is critical to upward mobility, some organizations established mentoring programs but expected senior women to take on too much of the mentoring load. They simply can't be effective mentors under those conditions. Networking is also problematic because women may have family obligations or they simply aren't invited to the golf outings or poker games where useful connections are made. I could offer a myriad of similar processes that contribute to the gender gap. Laws and policies are essential but it will take some trial and error on the part of progressive organizations to break down mobility structures based on outdated ideas about gender. And by keeping an eye out for unintended consequences of well-meaning diversity initiatives."
Pivot: the word every entrepreneur dreads. When a business owner thinks of the word pivot it brings immediate anxiety and stress. Even before we made the decision to pivot, whenever an entrepreneur would tell me that they had "pivoted" I would congratulate them externally but then begin to judge. I would feel, obviously, bad for them because in my mind I viewed it as a failure.
Why does one pivot? One pivots because either what they are doing is not working at all or simply not growing fast enough to reach the next stage in the life cycle of business. Many times, entrepreneurs don't pivot fast enough because they're so in love with their original idea that they can't see the forest from the trees. I get it. It's your baby, your dream, your company. The market should want it. Right? Customers should buy it. Right? You should experience explosive growth. Right? Yes and no. Yes, if your timing is right and all your stars are aligned. No, if you're fighting against the stream wanting the market to listen to you when you are not listening to the market. You know that children's song, row row row your boat gently down the stream? That's a metaphor on life. You want your business to go with what the market is telling you and not against it. Row your boat gently down the market stream and you'll get there much faster.
Before I get into our pivot, it's important to explain how we got there and how our journey began. I had a long career on Wall Street, but I always longed for my own business. I just wasn't sure what that was going to look like. One night over drinks my best friend Leslie and I were discussing the ridiculous amounts of money we were spending on our hair extensions. When I mean ridiculous, I am talking either pay your rent or get your hair did ridiculous. I always say we were so skinny back in those days because we were more likely to spend money on hair than food! But then the lightbulb went off. That's how Lux Beauty Club was born.
We thought, "We're smart, we can figure this out." We started sourcing our hair from various suppliers in China until we found a consistent one, and then we were off. We started selling it to our friends and salons around the city, which then grew to a full-blown side hustle. We had people coming at all hours of the night to our apartment for hair emergencies. I think our landlord must have thought we were selling drugs! Thankfully he was kind enough to simply leave us alone. A few months later we put up a website and we continued growing organically at a steady pace, and once we got on Amazon our sales doubled. We were rocking and rolling until two very significant things happened. Well, three really. Competition got stronger with every influencer "owning" their brand of extensions, Amazon allowing the Chinese to flood their marketplace and most importantly, our consistent quality suppliers started to cut corners and dilute the product. We had been watching a competitor raise millions from venture capitalist firms and, of course, the company was run by three dudes selling weaves to black women. But they, too, started to have major problems with their sources from China. They were getting crushed by terrible reviews, at that moment I knew we had to make a change. It took us months to find a supplier elsewhere that believed in us and would want to do business with us. And, most importantly, still allow us to be competitive. We knew it was imperative we got the source: India.
Now, as all this was happening, I was also spending the majority of my time fundraising for the company. The few investors that came on initially got it immediately, but for the rest it was like banging my head against the wall to get these mostly white VC men to understand the market opportunity. Even, most "female-focused" VCs were a challenge for us. We managed to survive with our angel investors and for them I am eternally grateful.
Once we switched our entire supply chain to India, the quality was a game changer. Although not perfect, we were lucky that we were still small and able to make that change early on. The guys that raised millions, not sure how they would manage. We did have to increase our prices a bit, but we didn't think that would matter. But in the end, it really did. We found that although the customer was getting the best quality for a little bit more, they didn't care. They still wanted the cheap stuff. Oh, and Amazon? Our sales were dropping even there since they were offering hair extensions for $14 dollars. We couldn't compete with that. The signs kept on coming and coming. Our basket at checkout were over 250 dollars, but we didn't have the heavy customer acquisition dollars to fight the fight. Our Indian supplier was incredible, but you have to remember, human hair is still a human, living thing. No matter how great your quality control, there is always going to be problems.
At this point, my business partner Leslie and I had our come-to-Jesus moment one afternoon. After listing the pros and cons of our business and the constant issues, we knew it was time to change. It was time to SWAAY the narrative.
We had both been wearing hair extensions for years, but because of thinning hair we had recently started using holistic products to help our own hair grow thicker, taking a break from the extensions. We had also both been experimenting with CBD oil for its various benefits, and we had hooked our families on it as well. That's when we had our second a-ha moment. By tackling the issue at the root (ahem) of the problem by taking a holistic approach to hair and beauty. It was a winning combination. I mean, beauty comes from within after all so why not package it that way! Fueling the inside not only benefits your inner self, but it also improves the outer byproduct (hair, skin and nails). It is life changing.
Leslie is a registered nurse so she set out formulating our blends with scientists to ensure we had the perfect elements, vitamins and levels for dosage. We were making truly organic 100% CBD infused products for women by women. It was like a light switch had turned on and we could see clearly. Since the "pivot" we have experienced explosive growth through distributors, salons and our very own customer base. We found she was as loyal as they come. Because after all, who doesn't love CBD? The benefits are tremendous, and we use our products every day. I find solace in knowing our offering is so well-rounded now; the pivot was worth it. We are now rowing gently down the stream and not against the current. It's a product that has a very low return rate since there are zero issues on color, quality, or anything of that sort. But most importantly, I can sleep now for a number of reasons. It has been much easier to fund investors that understand our space and want to invest. Wholesale orders have been growing everyday via our network and we are even in talks for licensing deals. But our Sleeping Beauty product has also helped my mood and sleep as well. Shameful plug.
My journey was a necessary one, and though it has been littered with disappointing ups and downs, we wouldn't change it for the world. Why? Because we learned so much on how to build a CPG company that now just happens to sell CBD products. Without that knowledge, we wouldn't have been able to move so quickly. It takes people years to create packaging, formulas, strategy. We did what couldn't be done in 6 months. Experts told us it would take 36 months and be very costly, we knew that was all bullshit. We had the team, the knowledge and now the perfect product. No, has always fueled us but the yesses feel pretty good now.
So, I say to all those out there, if you feel a pivot coming on embrace it; go full steam ahead, jump fully in and listen, fully pay attention. After all you are the one standing in the way of your success.