Emily Tan
Apr 15, 2014

Build advocacy, not fear when marketing to women

In trying to connect with Asian women’s hopes, dreams and concerns, many brands still miss the mark by a wide margin.

Marketing to women means connecting with young, educated professionals with interests beyond marriage and childcare
Marketing to women means connecting with young, educated professionals with interests beyond marriage and childcare

Empowering and inspirational ads targeting women, like those from sporting brands Nike and adidas, show strong women as beautiful and sweat as natural and even good. So it’s disappointing to see a well-known name revert to demeaning and belittling messaging that recalls the male chauvinism of past decades.

Consider the following ad scenario: you’re a powerful woman; you’re healthy, you work out, you dance, and you’re a yoga-fiend. But suddenly unsightly crotch-sweat overwhelms your self-esteem and you double over in embarrassment. 

What, you haven’t heard of this problem? Neither had we. But in a TVC that’s more 1930s than 2013, Kotex Australia is trying to make it a problem that, naturally, only U by Kotex sports panty liners can solve. Which is a pity because the other commercials in the brand’s campaign have been progressive and humorous, often challenging traditional formats for selling feminine hygiene products. 

The team from Kimberly-Clark Australia that helped create the ad insist the product was designed based on real consumer insight and that their research found that while 89 per cent of women believe sweat is good, 98 per cent of a 400-strong consumer study disliked sweat patches on their clothing. While this doesn’t make it an actual consumer problem, the team said that after the ad was developed, it was tested against a further 400 women who said they enjoyed the TVC (70 per cent) and found it made the brand more appealing (82 per cent). “U by Kotex intended to portray the issue and its solution in a straightforward and candid manner, respected and desired by its customers,” says the team. “That said, we always welcome feedback from our consumers on our brands — positive or negative.”

Despite the brand’s best intentions, online comments have been derisive. The ad was ridiculed on Australian TV programme The Gruen Planet; called out on local and international news sites; and comedian Sammy J even wrote a song mocking the ad. On social media, comments from women ranged from accusations of body shaming to bewilderment: “It doesn’t make sense to me because I wear pads while dancing, running, hiking etc. I’ve never had an experience where there was a literal sweat patch right on the crotch area,” was one response.

Shaming is not branding

The age-old use of shame to sell products to women fails to resonate with Gen Y, says Havas Media Ortega’s resident anthropologist Gayia Bayer. “This generation does not appreciate being talked down, to, which is the definition of ‘shaming’.”

“The kind of approach that says, ‘If you don’t use our product, you have a problem’ takes the power away from the woman and typecasts her as inadequate,” says Ipsos regional key account director and semiotician, Paul Yao. 

Jordan Price, senior planning partner at JWT Tokyo, says if a brand can be sharp on a benefit, with a fresh and insightful approach, advertising has a better chance of working than the old scare tactics. “Positive brand association sells products,” says Joseph Baladi, head of consulting at the Leo Burnett Institute of Behaviour. “Increasingly, people are saying: ‘I need the brand to talk to me emotionally, have a purpose, a reason, to do or say something that inspires me’.”

Plus, any method used 50 years ago can hardly be relevant to women today when the numbers of young, educated professional women have never been higher. According to a Hakuhodo study, more than 50 per cent of women in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are single. In Tokyo, it is 62 per cent. Women’s lives have a different outlook and a wider spectrum of goals than ‘pleasing a man’.

“Women today are pursuing careers as single-mindedly and intensely as men and have interests beyond marriage and motherhood. Women are running marathons, doing iron man triathlons and this has had an impact on us and our products,” says Rahul Asthana, regional director of marketing, baby & childcare for Kimberly-Clark.

Microsoft failed to acknowledge any of this in its recently launched ‘Honestly’ campaign, which seems to assume that the problems women face, and would need technological help for, do not extend beyond wedding planning and childcare. 

When a campaign misses the mark, a brand risks social outrage. That was the result in Thailand when Unilever ran a promotion for its skin-whitening cream, Citra, that equated fairness with intelligence. In other cases, the brand may simply fail to connect with its target audience and end up ignored. 

Consumer understanding is everything

Even well-meaning ads can fall prey to the dangers of assumption. When Dove first launched its ‘Real beauty’ campaign it took the world by storm, except Japan. Although the brand and its team held focus groups before running the campaign, the questions asked failed to gauge the context of the answers, says an industry source in the market. “The team asked questions such as: ‘Do you consider yourself overweight, or do you need to lose weight?’, to which a huge portion of Japanese women said ‘yes’. A large proportion — 80-90 per cent — also answered that they did not think themselves beautiful. The team concluded that Japanese women had a body image problem,” says the source. “What they failed to determine was the amount of weight these women thought they should lose which was likely around 500 grams to a kilo, compared with the 10 or so pounds you would hear from women in the West. Japanese women have an exacting idea of perfection and of beauty. They are also modest and would never admit to believing themselves beautiful.”

As a result, after launching the campaign in Japan featuring overweight and darker skinned women as in other markets, the brand swiftly withdrew and replaced it with one where the women were all fair, beautiful and showed weight differences of only a kilo or two, said another source. 

Dave McCaughan, managing director of McCann Worldgroup Hong Kong and director of the agency’s Truth Centre, was based in Japan at the time the campaign was launched in 2006. “Our research found that people in Japan just weren’t seeing the ad as aspirational. ‘That’s not how I see myself or how I want to see myself’, was their response,” he says.

Dove assumed that visuals of impossibly perfect women in advertising angered and shamed Asian women as much as their Western counterparts. That is true in some markets, but not in Japan, Korea or China. “We did a study on beauty and found that certain Asian women were more direct in saying that they had to make all the effort they could to be beautiful and get ahead in life.”

In a more recent JWT study, 89 per cent of Chinese women said attractiveness was a crucial factor to being successful, topped only by education (90 per cent), with a career coming in third at 88 per cent. In contrast, only 60 per cent of Indonesian women and 49 per cent of Indian women felt looks determined success. By and large the perception of the women in Dove’s original ‘Real beauty ‘ad was that they weren’t trying hard enough, says the first source. 

“Being beautiful as a women is a lifelong journey for Japanese women and it takes effort and discipline and goes beyond the physical to include qualities like sophistication and elegance,” says Price. These women are not angered by images of gorgeous models with digitally-created flawless skin, they are inspired. “Japanese women really put a lot of time and effort into beauty. Flawless skin is an aspiration they really try for, even if it is in a sense, unattainable.”

Progression — in moderation

Gen Y women in the Philippines are also inspired by artificially enhanced beauty, but for different reasons. Enthusiastic creators of the perfect ‘selfie’, often with several social media accounts with different personas, these women want to learn from the best so their self-portraits are equally polished, says Beyer.

While Asian women may be ready for progressive ideas in advertising, it’s important for brands to understand how far they can go to avoid alienating their target audience. An ad for jewellery brand Tanishq, for example, broke two taboos but tapped into changing societal sentiment in India. Bindhu Sethi, JWT India’s chief strategy officer, notes “a continuum from conservatism to liberalism” among young Indian women. But liberalism is relative, and challenging conventional morality failed to pay off for handbag brand Fastrack in the market. 

Another example of Western ideals potentially missing the mark in the East is Pantene Philippines’ acclaimed campaign titled ‘Labels Against Women’. The well-intentioned ad highlighted a real issue: that behaviour viewed positively in men can count, unfairly, against women. Men are bosses while women are bossy; men are persuasive, women pushy; a man who works late is dedicated, while the woman is vain. These are real problems women face globally and the campaign gained more than 45 million views on YouTube and a shout-out from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. 

Yet the campaign may not have connected as well with its target audience in the Philippines. “Not that many women in the Philippines are corporate women,” says Havas’s Beyer. “[But] the women in the videos are also all fair, slim and have straight shiny hair. It’s polarising and in a sense Pantene created their own perspective of what a woman aspires to be.” 

Brands that get it right

Skin tone is a highly sensitive issue in the Philippines, adds Beyer. By insisting on fair-skinned models, Pantene may be putting down the very women it hoped to raise up. But when a brand does get the formula right, the returns can be phenomenal. 

Launched in 2010, Japan Gateway’s non-silicone shampoo Rêveur has been making waves in the market, sending giants like P&G into a 10-month sales-decline in 2012. The brand says a bottle of its shampoo is sold every 1.5 seconds. Its success, says a senior advertising source in Japan, is partly due to the trend towards more natural products, but mostly due to an innovative strategy. “The company behind Rêveur has been really clever at targeting Japan’s [20-somethings]. It went against the opaque shampoo bottle and used clear, jewel-like, colourful bottles. Its campaigns have also been fresh and young.”

Far from being product-centric, Rêveur’s campaign focuses on the consumer. In one campaign last year, Rêveur featured four big name actresses, Erika Toda, Masami Nagasawa, Satomi Ishihara and Nana Eikura, each embodying a different variety of the shampoo with a theme colour — purple for moisture, for instance. The message was that through living, you are apt to lose yourself; by stripping away the unnecessary, you can find yourself again.

“It’s unusual for a challenger brand to have enlisted some very big name actresses, usually such major stars would gravitate towards P&G or Shiseido,” says Mayuko Kawano, editor and sales planning manager of Nikkei Business Publications Asia.

Rêveur’s ads click with young Japanese women, says a source. In a recent series of TVCs, the brand gently mocks the traditional hair ad. The scene opens on an orchestra and the conductor announces: “Welcome to a hair ad!” and calls out cues: “And now, the hair shot, the product… ” as the ad cuts to the corresponding visual. “It’s very smart with just the right touch of satire, it’s just the kind of tone young Japanese women use to speak to each other on social media,” said the source. 

Another shampoo brand that has done particularly well in Japan was Tsubaki by Shiseido. Launched in 2006, the brand rocketed to the top of its category in 2007 by going against a prevailing trend then favouring blonde, Caucasian women in beauty ads. Its simple slogan, ‘Japanese women are beautiful’, said it all and the brand backed up its stance with a US$50 million campaign that splashed beautiful Japanese women across TV screens, magazines and billboards. Other hair care brands soon followed suit. 

The need for new, more relevant role models in today’s media is reflected in Getty Images’ creation of the ‘Lean-in collection’, jointly curated by Sheryl Sandberg’s non-profit organisation, leanin.org. The collection is a series of positive images of women and girls and the men who support them. Brands that understand and create messages that take this need into account will gain not just sales, but loyalty and appreciation from female consumers.


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