Thinking About Marketing to Women by Thinking About Marketing to Everyone

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“Women have always wielded the influence when it comes to purchasing power. Have we necessarily respected that as much as we could? I’m not sure.”Suzanne Powers, Global Chief Strategy Officer, McCann Worldgroup

McCann Worldgroup is one of the world’s major global marketing services companies, home to the agencies behind everything from Coca-Cola’s legendary “Hilltop” ad to State Street’s Fearless Girl statue. Suzanne Powers, McCann’s global chief strategy officer, recently spoke to SheReports about how strategists work to understand culture, how culture is changing and why McCann doesn’t think about marketing to women.

Picture of the Coca-Cola Hilltop ad

As a strategist, you study the culture. A big change in the culture this year was a shift in how we look at gender relations and gender roles. How have you seen that reflected in marketing?

We have a mission at the company to help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives. And that’s how we approach doing any form of marketing for our clients. Strategy’s role in that is to figure out people’s lives. What makes them tick, what are their attitudes, what are their behaviors, what are their belief systems? When you do a job like this — where you’re trying to understand human beings and you’re trying to understand what motivates them — we’re actually sort of genderless, I suppose. We’re trying to understand universal truths. We do a lot of big brands, and a lot of big brands have to satisfy a lot of different types of people. So, we don’t ever split out women versus men — even though many of our brands are most purchased by women.

I always have this little sort of funny feeling when I think about marketing towards women. Because the second that you call women out and say, “Hey women, go for it,” you can run the risk of being condescending, as if they couldn’t go for it before, right?

Three women sitting on a bench with shopping bags

But I will say, in 2018, you certainly saw a louder voice when it came to a lot of these things than what we’ve seen in the past. We work globally, and we started to see that bubble up in other parts of the world, which we hadn’t before. For the past 15 or 20 years, we’ve been understanding that women are a formidable force. They certainly are in their households. They make most of the decisions, and they influence loads of things in their lives, in their community and in the world at large. We’ve always been trying to capture what makes them tick, what makes them excited and how to be super relevant to them. Whether that’s by being empowering, being a catalyst or being just really helpful.

We have a mission at the company to help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives. And that’s how we approach doing any form of marketing for our clients.

“Helpful” and “meaningful” take on a couple different forms. You can be meaningful by shaving a couple minutes off someone’s commute. You can also be meaningful by doing something that’s a higher purpose. We do a lot of work in markets like India and China where women are having a more dominant voice than they’ve ever had before. When we are working to help society understand something broader in those cases, the brands become very important because they’re able to say things that maybe women can’t. But they can say it on behalf of them, they can empower them.

Picture of the inside of a crowded shopping mall

Is there an example of that?

One of our best examples is Fearless Girl. We always start with analyzing five core areas in our strategic work. We try to analyze the culture, those macro forces shaping decisions and behaviors. We try to analyze the category. In the case of Fearless Girl, which we created with State Street, it’s the financial industry. We understand consumers, we understand the company and we understand the connection opportunities that that company might have with consumers. And in the case of Fearless Girl, we found an inspiration within the company itself. They had created SHE, a fund dedicated to companies that had more women on their boards. It wasn’t a huge product, it wasn’t a signature item. But they said, “Hey, we have this thing, and we would like to use it as a way to leverage into the broader culture that there should be more women on boards.”

I always have this little sort of funny feeling when I think about marketing towards women. Because the second that you call women out and say, “Hey women, go for it,” you can run the risk of being condescending, as if they couldn’t go for it before, right?

You could do a lot of things with that. You could do the usual, which is a newspaper ad, a full page showing some of the companies that the fund invests in, and you know, “Please call your financial planner for more information.” Instead, because we knew there were these cultural moments and these tensions that were so related to gender roles, you say, “There’s something going on in the culture at large. Do we use that as a lightning rod moment to actually create a change?” The clients had the appetite for that. Hence, Fearless Girl. And the statue becomes the symbol for a much broader movement than just the company and the fund.

The "Fearless Girl" statue

And that was in mid-2017, before #MeToo and the gender-issue awareness that have happened in the last year.

We actually, in the middle of the night, erected Fearless Girl on the eve of International Women’s Day. That’s always what we try to do: take a cultural moment and force more conversation. It was probably our fourth year of doing different efforts for different brands on International Women’s Day. We did a lot of Microsoft work for International Women’s Day, where we pushed forward ideas to help girls stay in STEM.

That all suggests that it’s not just 2018.

Trends are weird, right? We used to call technology a trend. We would be like, “What are the technology trends going on?” And now technology is just a part of our lives. One can hope that this is just a more proper understanding of roles and getting to equality. I hope it’s not just a blip.

I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think now it’s something that we just have to be very conscious about, who wields the influence. And frankly, women have always wielded the influence when it comes to purchasing power. Have we necessarily respected that as much as we could? I’m not sure. But I don’t think there will ever be disrespect for that power and that voice going forward.

That’s always what we try to do: take a cultural moment and force more conversation.

The #SeeHer initiative at the ANA is devoted to improving depictions of women in advertising. If you’re thinking about where the culture is, not necessary at men or women, how do you think about this effort?

It’s a must-do. To stop the objectification of any audience, whether that’s women, whether that’s anyone else — it doesn’t matter who. We’re understanding that objectification or being stereotypical doesn’t do anybody any favors. It’s not responsible brand behavior. We look at it across the board again to all the target audiences that we are trying to attract.

We’re constantly doing what we call “semiotic analysis,” looking at the language and visuals that are used. We’re constantly looking at imagery, trying to understand the codes of different categories, the codes of culture, so that we’re really responsible about it. And strong brands understand that too.

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