Emily Tan
Jan 24, 2017

Self-assured women make waves in Asia

The shift in women’s self-image has never been more apparent, according to an ongoing global study by J. Walter Thompson, and marketers need to connect with this change.

Self-assured women make waves in Asia

The past year has put the battle for gender equality front and centre and, win or lose, women are finding validation in the airing of problems previously swept under the carpet. In fact, nearly eight women in 10 the world over, and in Asia-Pacific in particular, are saying it has never been a better time to be a woman.

The Women’s index, was first launched as a global survey in late 2015 and the report was published as Female tribes in the first quarter of 2016. Under J. Walter Thompson’s new global CEO Tamara Ingram, several markets decided to invest in localised research and in the past few months the survey has been expanded to include seven new markets in Asia. The research surveys an average of 500 women per market on their views on ‘everything’, ranging from career and ambition to finance, technology, personal fulfilment, relationships and mentoring.

What the wide-ranging survey has found is that women in Asia-Pacific are increasingly viewing femininity as a strength and are growing frustrated with the portrayal of women in the media, including brand marketing.

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Nearly all women in Vietnam (93 percent) saw their femininity as a strength, not a weakness, followed by India (92 percent) and Thailand (90 percent). The regional average was 88 percent.

Perhaps though, women in these markets are less frustrated because they haven’t yet crashed en masse against the glass ceiling. In China, 83 percent of women believed they had more senior roles than their spouses, but were also the least convinced that being a woman is not a disadvantage (77 percent). Women in China also felt more strongly than the regional average that they experienced gender bias and sexism at work on a regular basis (55 percent) and that their opinions were valued less because they are women.

“There’s a real paradox when it comes to being a woman in China,” says Rachel Pashley, global planning director for JWT’s Female tribes, one of the major facets of the Women index report. “What we see is extremely independent high-achieving women who really aspire to be CEOs and company directors, but equally, they’re facing cultural oppression and tension as marriage is still seen as a symbol of success for a woman.”

In Leftover women: the resurgence of gender inequality in China, author Leta Hong Fincher finds that women are being held back and discouraged from seeking personal success by the government in favour of marriage.

Perhaps it is this demeaning of all non-marital achievements that leads Chinese women to cite themselves as their greatest barrier to personal success. “Contrast that with India, where women cite their parents or spouses as barriers to success,” observes Pashley. “Chinese women are much harder on themselves.”

P&G-owned skincare brand SK-II tapped straight into this conflict with its award-winning viral ad, ‘Marriage market takeover’. The TV commercial by Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors highlighted the plight of shengnü, or ‘leftover women’ the Chinese term for unmarried women over the age of 27.

“Given their social marginalisation, such groups are looking to popular culture to represent them. SK-II did so expertly,” commented Sam Gaskin, cultural content editor at Flamingo Shanghai in a recent opinion piece (please see "The cultural insight behind SK-II's viral 'leftover women' ad").

According to post-campaign research by YouGov, the campaign succeeded in both lifting SK-II’s brand awareness in China as well as purchase intent amongst targeted consumers.

“Brands need to tailor messaging based on genuine consumer needs, not stereotypes,” says Sunshine Farzan, vice-president and head of marketing at MetLife Hong Kong.

“As a marketer and a women, I think there is a lot of room for brands to develop products and services that specifically address the needs of their female customers.”

Metlife, for example, found that while breast cancer was a serious concern, many women were forgoing coverage due to the relatively higher cost of cancer insurance. Rather than play on their fears, the insurance firm created the Breast Cancer Protector, that specifically addresses their concerns and offered it only online to keep costs down.

Femvertising is over, reality is in

It is tempting for brands to want to rush in and champion female empowerment, but if it’s not backed by true understanding, the messiah- approach can come off as condescending.

Dove, long the poster child for femvertising-done-right, put a foot wrong with its Twitter hashtag campaign ‘#Speakbeautiful’ which tweeted unsolicited body-positive messages at women who commented negatively about themselves. The October social media campaign annoyed Twitter users by sending messages such as: “Think about something you love about yourself, Kaitlyn. Start now! Tweet it with #SpeakBeautiful.”

“It’s invasive, and condescending, to a degree that even Dove’s notoriously patronising ad campaigns don’t usually reach,” commented Washington Post columnist, Caitlin Dewey.

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Progress produces diverse ‘Tribes’

From the Women index survey, J. Walter Thompson is compiling an evolving list of ‘tribes’ in an attempt to describe and characterise the trends underpinning female progress, and illustrate their diversity. These are just a few examples from Asia.

Asian alphas

Asia is home to the highest ratio of female-to-male CEOs in the world, and two-thirds of the female self-made billionaires are Chinese.

Brands: big ticket items such as investment portfolios, cars and technology need to learn to cater to these women. Retailers, too, should cater to a cash-rich but time-poor audience. Beauty brands should consider reframing beauty as ‘power’.

The social pioneers

Women increasingly have the financial resources and the influence to bring about social change. These women are more likely to gravitate towards brands that share their outlook and philosophy.

Brands: consider your brand’s ethical credentials. How can you demonstrate you share her values?

The ‘not-mums’

There’s a growing tribe of women who are happily childless, they define themselves as ‘child free’.

Brands: consider if it’s appropriate to represent all women as mothers, and equally to ask as appropriate if they’re serving women who are not mothers as well, because they’re a growing and increasingly affluent cohort.

The new spiritualists

There’s a cohort of more questioning, spiritually curious awakened women out there, unafraid to reject traditional religion to pursue self discovery in other ways.

Brands: Think about the language you use to attract this audience, and their motivations. But more profoundly, any brand considering taking up the mantle of feminism through cause-related communication needs to consider how it is fulfilling women’s emotional and spiritual needs—think beyond the superficial.

Last year, Dove’s ‘Choose beautiful’ campaign likewise had a mixed reception with some viewers finding it patronising to have a brand instruct them on the language they use to view themselves.

Perhaps femvertising, which when good is very very good, has jumped a shark.

“Women don’t need to be saved by brands, but they do want to be seen,” comments Pashley.

What the women surveyed by JWT crave is less messaging and more role models. Women in Asia strongly want to see a higher inclusion of female achievement in history books, led by Vietnam (92 percent), China (90 percent), then India and Thailand (both on 88 percent). Most surveyed also felt that female achievement has been airbrushed out of history.

The survey also shows a strong desire for diverse role models, rather than the limited beauty and glamour roles women are so often cast into. Women in Asia said they wanted to see more female politicians (83 percent), to hear more about women in science and engineering (89 percent) and to see a lot less of superficial celebrities (73 percent).

In film and on TV, women would like to see more mature women (62 percent), more shows with strong female leads (82 percent) and even more female superheroes (82 percent).

“There’s also room for more humour in advertising. Not everything has to be a motivational lifecoach speech when talking to women,” says Pashley. The recent ad for fragrance, Kenzo World, directed by Spike Jonze, is an example of using a sly sense of humour that isn’t too precious, she adds.

Mothers are people too

Part of a diverse and holistic representation of women includes not slapping the generic label of ‘mum’ on every women who has had a child. “It’s sadly true that in media stereotyping, men get to have ambitions while women get to have responsibilities,” says Pashley.

Once women have children, brands speak to them only as mothers. Their individual needs are ignored, she continues. “But women in our survey want to be spoken to as a person. It’s not surprising that women experience a loss of identity and often feel depressed after they have their first baby.”

Commenting on the issue, JWT’s global CEO, Tamara Ingram points to data from E&Y that shows only 9 percent of women find that advertising targeting them resonates. “I can see why,” Ingram says “We get so many briefs for ads that target ‘the busy working mum’. Yes, maybe your brand wants to target mothers—but she has many, many facets that go beyond that role. Defining women according to their responsibilities is limiting. Celebrating their achievements and aspirations is inspiring.”

This sense of loss of identity is particularly strong in Asia with the perfect and rather terrifying ‘Tiger Mom’ held up as a generic role model. Furthermore, many acknowledge the career-cost of motherhood, with 66 percent feeling that coworkers who aren’t parents get ahead faster. As a result, 57 percent are willing to delay motherhood in favour of their careers.

In recognition of working mothers, Huggies, launched a campaign in Southeast Asia that acknowledged the separation anxiety mothers face when they have to return to work. Titled ‘#Day91Hugs’ in Thailand (where maternity leave is three months) and ‘#Day61Hugs’ in the Philippines, the campaign called out and recognised that moment, leading to strong engagement with its consumer base.

“It’s important for us to view our consumers lives holistically,” says Rahul Asthana, regional marketing director at Kimberly-Clark.

More honesty and acceptance

As part of embracing their femininity, women are eager to see signs that society is dialling back on taboos associated with being a woman. Glass-Lion-winning ‘Touch the pickle’ by BBDO India for P&G Whisper used poignant humour to highlight some of the more outrageous taboos faced by menstruating women in India.

More recently, Kimberly-Clark brand Kotex, launched a campaign in Australia aimed at championing the progress of women. ‘Let’s move on’ calls out the varied and busy lives women lead, and that they don’t let their periods get in the way.

“It is very honest and is built around a transparent discussion that women have periods every month but don’t have to let periods stop their lives,” says Asthana.

Frankness, honesty and transparency will underscore effective marketing to women in the years ahead, feels Asthana. “To have a conversation with, rather than talk about what brands think women should think and do,” he says. “There is a recogniton that women lead different lives and have different problems and that it is a mistake to portray a one-dimensional image of them.

“I believe this trend is true across Asia-Pacific. Women are pushing to be treated as unique individuals and brands are stepping up to show these many dimensions.”

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