In advertising, don't talk down to the consumer. She may be your wife.
David Ogilvy was a wise man, but even he is out-of-sync with today’s notions of marketing to women. Marketers should never talk down to consumers, not because the little woman will kick him in the keister when he gets home, but because women are an acknowledged force in our modern economy, and can kick brands in their sales profitability. Women are frequently the chief purchase decision-makers in most U.S. households, but much marketing lags behind the data and the current moment in female empowerment. When is it smart salesmanship to expand a brand’s customer base to new groups using gender-based marketing… and when does it become mere pandering? That leads us examine a new gender-based campaign from Johnnie Walker.
Jane Strides Forth
Johnnie Walker Black Label introduced a new companion for its iconic walking gentleman. Jane Walker Edition* Black Label Scotch Whisky packaging features an adapted logo of a stylish young woman in riding attire—“a symbol of the fearless women taking steps on behalf of all,” the press materials grandiosely state. The effort includes a dedicated web page, PR, social media (#WalkWithJane), and point-of-purchase marketing.
The campaign synchronizes with 2018 as the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in England, International Women’s Month and Women’s History Month in the U.S. The limited edition issue of just 250,000 bottles is available through March; for every bottle sold, parent company Diageo Plc will donate one dollar to organizations that promote women and gender equity, including She Should Run and Monumental Women.
The effort builds on the brand’s 2016 campaign, “Keep Walking America,” which has featured ads aimed at veterans and Latino audiences. In just the past year, Johnnie Walker sales grew 18% in the U.S., partly spurred by a revival of “cocktail culture”; there is renewed interest in classic cocktails and mixology. But competition is heating up for the Walker brand, which claims to be the “most popular Scotch Whisky brand in the world.” Small craft distilleries are popping up across the U.S., and U.S. distilleries exported 1.2 billion bottles of scotch in 2017. This makes attracting new scotch drinkers essential for traditional distillers, who are facing the same battle for consumer attention [link – Craft Beers Proliferate] as big beer bottlers.
The U.S. market, with its already more open gender environment, is seen as a key location for inviting women to cross traditional status and gender boundaries and embrace distilled spirits, long perceived as masculine territory. Offering this campaign at peak #MeToo, and amid a groundswell of women stepping into activism and politics, can be deemed either serendipitous or exploitative.
I’ve been drinking Scotch since I was in my twenties, so I find this effort to attract women to the “intimidating” consumption of distilled spirits less than inspiring. Assuming that women are not attracted to scotch because of some mythical barrier of male branding seems like an account planning finding that may be based on the wrong information. Many of the women I know are pretty intimidating in their own right, and drink what they want, male status symbols notwithstanding. But that is one of the risks of gender-based marketing—misread your audience, and you miss a very big target.
Beverage giant Diageo proactively reminded naysayers (of which there are many on social media) of the women in their own history and practices, including Elizabeth Cummings who ran the original Cardhu distillery in Speyside, Scotland before selling it to John Walker, and Walker’s wife Elizabeth who played a fundamental role in developing the company’s blended whiskey. Diageo is itself a model for promoting gender equity, with its board nearing 50% women, and women heading 40% of the executive team. Diageo also requires that every marketing pitch feature at least one female director as part of the work plan. The company emphasizes that the Jane Walker limited edition bottling is not a special spirit brewed just for women—the packaging is simply a Women’s History Month promotion. All of this adds some authenticity to their offering; inauthentic, gendered brand offerings have come a cropper in the recent past.
Targeting women as a market expansion ploy has become common as the consumer packaged goods category fights against declining sales. Doritos had to step back from offering “Lady Doritos” after the announcement was received with derision across social media. Bic pens tried to introduce Bic For Her (basically pink pens with a slightly narrower profile) and were also hooted back into the wasteland of silly ideas.
Elsewhere, brands have had some success with the incorporation of donations to women’s groups. Brawny Paper Towels is on its third year with the Brawny Woman/“Strength Has No Gender” effort, trading (or treading) on the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter. The effort shares “shero” stories and makes a $100k donation to the Girls Inc. youth mentoring and empowerment program with a special focus on STEM careers. While their stories are inspiring, one wonders why they only promote these efforts one month out of the year.
I wonder the same of Stacy’s Pita Chips’ revived campaign, “Rising to the Occasion,” featuring special packaging designed by female artists, again celebrating Women’s History Month. The nine-design, 8,000-bag run sold out in 24 hours, triggering the company’s donation of $80,000 to Step Up, an organization aimed at helping girls in under-resourced communities achieve their full potential. Stacy’s then asked is advocates to submit their own bag designs, from which an additional $20,000 donation was made. That kind of money makes the Jane Walker effort look a bit like Scottish parsimony… but I’m not sure it’s philanthropy is any more convincing. It’s still aimed at moving product to support women’s organizations, as opposed to sincere support of women within the company, and as a brand value.
Exploitative or Sincere?
Too many brands use gender-based marketing to sell, rather than to engage. They think if they take an existing brand and just change the label or color to pink, women will succumb to a crazed buying frenzy en masse. Sorry, but the majority of women are neither that shallow nor anywhere like that gullible. We’re too busy being angry about years of “pink tax” price scams, fighting (still) for pay equity, and trying to help our children grow up with fewer ingrained biases about what women can or should be able to accomplish, given a fair playing field. Incorporating some level of philanthropy just makes it seamier to this admitted cynic. I’d rather make a donation directly than be asked to buy a product to help a corporation appear philanthropic. There is also the problem of brands attempting ironic “pink” products tied to slacktivist CSR ploys; Brewdog found out how well that works with their gag PinkIPA.
Some brands get it. REI, the outdoor apparel and gear brand, took a different path; they actually talked to women customers about their concerns. They learned that many enthusiastic outdoorswomen could not name a single woman role model. REI responded with a storytelling campaign featuring women adventurers, with the goal of feeding their customers’ love of outdoor pursuits, and attracting new customers with shared interests. REI incorporates social responsibility in their brand, making stewardship of the great outdoors, and support for National Parks and sustainability part of their brand creed… without asking customers to buy something before they do it. When they focus on women as a group, it’s with the goal of giving them more of what they crave in stories, products and services.
Authenticity reaps higher rewards than “pinking and shrinking,” as Erin Keeley of ad agency Mono told NPR.com. Her review of the Jane Walker marketing effort was mildly skeptical; at least they didn’t err by making the packaging pink or condescendingly shrinking the bottle for tiny female hands.
Branding the product as “female” or “for women” is unnecessary in most cases, and smacks of laziness. Apparently, it’s easier to re-label the product than to create a smart, intelligent ad campaign aimed at smart intelligent women who like scotch, or might be interested in trying scotch. But that might require thinking beyond the packaging—and maybe hiring a good ad agency to develop the right, perception-changing campaign. We live in hope.
* I have to ask: Why is she “Jane” when Scottish traditions might call for “Jean” or “Joan”? BabyCenter.com ranks the name “Jane” at #355 in popularity, and trending downward; “Joan” and “Jean” are even less popular. But I’d guess “Jane” sounds more American—even if it also sounds generic. Think “plain Jane” or “Jane Doe.”