International Women’s Day 2019: What role are brands playing?

The past 2 years have seen brands breaking away from stereotyped portrayals of men and women. In some cases, such as Skol’s Reposter campaign in Brazil or Unilever’s Unstereotype Alliance, this is done willingly. In others, such as the UK Advertising Standards Authority’s introduction of guidelines around gender stereotyping, it is sometimes attained through force. Brands that both show their commitment to this cause and take action will go a long way in winning customer trust and preference.

That’s not to say that any of these challenges will be easy. Thomas Edison is credited with saying that ‘opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work’.

“Our industry, and indeed the wider business world, is finally facing up to the entrenched reality of extreme gender inequality.”

A clear winner this year was State Street Global Advisors’ Fearless Girl. This caught the attention of millions of people around the world for its powerful symbolism, but crucially, they proved to do more than just piggyback on a talking point in culture. State Street could back it up with its ‘She ETF’ (exchange-traded fund), which invests in companies that have a certain ratio of women in leadership, as well as its Diversity Index, giving it the right to take this stance. ‘Brands have credibility when they’re actually doing something about [a social issue],’ managing director of McCann New York Devika Bulchandani told Contagious, ‘rather than just supporting a social cause or even exploiting one.’

Our industry, and indeed the wider business world, is finally facing up to the entrenched reality of extreme gender inequality. ‘Toxic masculinity’ has become an all-too-common phrase, the #MeToo movement has gathered pace, and the daily news agenda is characterised by troubling stories and damning reports.

It’s easy, of course, to point out what’s wrong. But – in the true spirit of optimism – we’ve made it our mission to champion the initiatives that are creating change.

In our blog, we have worked in alignment with not-for-profit organisation The Female Lead to single out a number of brands around the world showing how they stamped out stereotypes and created empowering messages within their own advertising.

Holland and Barrett

Holland & Barrett has won Transport for London’s (TfL) diversity competition with an advertising campaign that aims to break the taboo around the menopause.

Running under the strapline ‘Me.No.Pause’, the campaign focuses on the loss of femininity, identity and self that can be some of the most difficult aspects of the menopause. Heidi Alexander, Deputy Mayor for Transport, says: “[Holland & Barrett’s] Me.No.Pause campaign is a positive and empowering message that shows the brand’s commitment to capturing the diversity of the women in our city.”


Mothercare’s #BodyProudMums is a new campaign celebrating the beauty of the post-birth body, a stage of motherhood rarely portrayed in the media.

Featuring 10 real mums, the campaign imagery was shot by London-based photographer Sophie Mayanne, whose aim was to help mums feel confident and proud of their bodies by depicting “the raw and incredibly emotional experience of childbirth”.

The campaign used social media to challenge the pressure from celebrity mums and influencers “snapping back” into shape just weeks after giving birth. The campaign captured the strength of women who defy expectations and are proud to show off their post-pregnancy body complete with scars and stretch marks.


Bodyform’s latest campaign confronts period shaming in today’s society following a YouGov survey showing that 350,000 girls in the UK had skipped school due to their period. ‘Fear Going to School Less’ seeks to remove the embarrassment and establish what can be done to counter the emotional and economic root causes of the problem. Last year Bodyform became the first advertiser to promote sanitary towels with red blood instead of self-censoring with anonymous blue dye.


Nike launched Juntas Imparables (Unstoppable Together) to push against the environmental and cultural barriers put in place against Latin American women playing sport. The campaign, the first Just Do It execution for Nike Women in Mexico, encouraged women to get out there and get physical. Each four-person group competed to log the most hours of exercise through Nike’s fitness apps over a six-week period. The most active girl squad won a year-long Nike sponsorship. Watch the video here.


A stationery brand promoted its highlighter pens by using the pens to draw attention to underappreciated women. Stabilo Boss’ Highlighting the Remarkable campaign, took historical images and then used highlighter ink to pick out women in the background whose contributions were marginalised at the time. One ad showed the Nasa control room during the Apollo 11 mission, drawing attention to Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and the subject of 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures.


To promote its move into womenswear, German fashion brand Paisley created an in-store currency that negates the gender pay gap. The FEM notes, which can only be used by women, the notes are worth 21% more than their purchase price in euros, reflecting gender pay disparity in Germany. Customers can exchange their money for FEM notes by visiting Paisley’s flagship store in Hamburg.


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