In conversation with

Jane Cunningham & Philippa Roberts

Authors & Co-Founders of PLH Research

Brandsplaining

Introduction

Introduction

The rise of ‘femvertising’ has meant a flashy show of female solidarity from brands, but not always an integrated marketing strategy that really speaks to women and their experiences.

Jane and Philippa are co-founders of research consultancy PLH Research, who “were feeling and hearing in our research a lot of gaps between the way brands spoke to their female audiences and how well they were connecting them; and how they were misunderstanding them, misrepresenting them, and often completely overlooking them.” 

Which is why they wrote a book about it.

Brandsplaining, a new Penguin Business title, is a “state-of-the-nation analysis of where marketing to women had got to; and where it was still falling short, and therefore where it needed to go next.”

We spoke to Jane and Philippa about Brandsplaining, what brands are getting wrong when marketing to women, and how they can help solve the problem.

 

Question and Answer

You're both co-founders of PLH, a research consultancy specialising in female audiences. What prompted you to start this business?

We had worked in advertising agencies for a long time (DDB and subsequently at Ogilvy until about 2005). And so we, at that point, were commissioned to write our first book, which is called Inside Her Pretty Little Head. That book tackled the very strong masculine skew in the existing marketing and prevailing marketing models. And I guess we had been inspired to initially draft a proposal for the book, because we had observed when we were working in agencies that when briefs were targeting women, they were met with much less enthusiasm and energy than the ones that were targeting men. So there’s booze, the automotive, tech and financial services, where they’re the big spenders looking for the exciting 60-second TV ads; whereas what got served up for female audiences tended to be rather formulaic by contrast. We did a big study of female motivations and what existed in the academic world around female decision making and how that might differ to male decision making. And that formed the basis of our first book, then we launched our business on the back of the first book.

What were you seeing within the marketing industry that motivated you to write Brandsplaining?

Brandsplaining came as a result of having set up PLH Research, researching female audiences for the last 15 years. It’s such an amazing time to be talking to women because so much has happened. There’s fourth-wave feminism. There’s been this blurring of definitions around gender. There’s been heightened awareness of intersectionality in the marketing and brand space. And (terrible word) ‘fempowerment’ communications have increasingly redesigned and rebooted the norms of female communication. We were feeling and hearing in our research a lot of gaps between the way brands spoke to their female audiences and how well they were connecting them; and how they were misunderstanding them, misrepresenting them, and often completely overlooking them. So we thought it would be a good time to do a state-of-the-nation analysis of where marketing to women had got to; and where it was still falling short, and therefore where it needed to go next.

What are the inherent problems that brands are not solving properly when it comes to marketing to women?

The factory settings of marketing that were established in the last century continue to exert this hidden pull on the way that audiences are seen; the way markets get segmented; the way the codes in the category are built up; the way brand propositions are orientated. We talk a lot about The Good Girl, which is the idea that women are still seen through the eyes of men. So the women are invariably being presented in a pleasing manner, looking attractive, being young, still being fair white women. Women always smiling and laughing, but very rarely being funny. Women not being shown to be intelligent thinking people, but rather gullible, vacant representations, where they are on the receiving end of the brand message. In the 20th century, these stereotypes were quite visible, and easy to see and to spot as being objectionable. Now, the Good Girl continues to be the dominant representation of women in marketing, but it’s done in ways that are much more subtle and sort of fine grained. We call it Sneaky Sexism.

Which brands do you think market to women in positive, nuanced ways?

We are seeing inspiring examples from an increasing number of women-made brands – brands, often in the D to C space, that are founded by women and offer a really helpful template for approaches that aren’t dyed in the wool of old male-led and good-girl thinking. Brands like Frida in and the mother and baby space, which very talks very boldly about the reality of having children, and the physical impact that it has on women. But is also developing and delivering really good products on the back of that. Or brands like Girlfriend Collective, who are always bringing in women of colour, and women who are not a size eight, but they don’t make a massive deal – they’re just there, part of the brand. And of course their sustainability credentials and the way they treat women in the supply chain are pristine. And then brands like Glossier, who took on the bullshit jargon-laden language in the beauty industry, which is so often about improving yourself and making yourself feel like you’ve got so wrong with you and you need to be fixed. Glossier came in with a very simple range of products that were consequences of having spoken to and listened to their audience.

“Invariably, when you do have women engaged at a senior level within organisations, you're more likely to ultimately create a culture which is capable of producing marketing that is going to attract women.”

What would you say to brand strategies that only approach marketing to women as a ‘marketing’ problem?

One of the things we talked about in the book is that fempowerment marketing is sometimes a veneer . You have ‘empowerment campaigns’ being run by companies or created by agencies where there’s a huge gender pay gap, or where women are treated in a way that they shouldn’t be in the supply chain. Invariably, when you do have women engaged at a senior level within organisations, you’re more likely to ultimately create a culture which is capable of producing marketing that is going to attract women.One of the things we raised in the first book was that when you have a masculine internal cultures – i.e. companies that are run almost exclusively by men – that leaks out into everything that the company produces. From its products and services, to its marketing and advertising. Even if there is a pretence of targeting women, in reality, it’s still quite masculine.

Can you speak about one of the principles in your book that might help brands become more attuned to their female audience?

The first principle in our book talks about understanding that women now please themselves. Female life has historically been seen as a bell curve, where marriage and having children is the perceived zenith, and then everything leading up to it is preparation to achieve ‘a good one’. And there’s so much in the way that marketing operates, and in the messages that get conveyed that suggest a belief that that’s what female life is like. Whereas in reality, when you talk to women, their aspirations are not exclusively about getting married and having children. In fact, their aspirations are much more about being independent of men, being financially independent. They’re not about finding a mate, they’re about friendships. They see themselves as defined by their intelligence, not by their appearance or by their gender. And so there’s a mismatch between the underlying ideas about what it is that matters to women, and what it is that actually matters to women and what it is that women actually care about. We need a different framework to emerge, one which is much truer to the way that women actually see their lives and want their lives to be.

Jane & Philippa's Storylist

Books

  1. Why Men Win At Work by Gill Whitty Collins
  2. Why Women Are Poorer Than Men by Annabelle Williams
  3. The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic by Emma
  4. Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson
  5. Sweetness Of Venus by Sarah Chadwick
  6. Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
  7. Why Women Mean Business by Avivah Wittenberg Cox

Podcasts

  1. The Shift
  2. Fortunately
  3. Big Juicy Creative

Newsletters

  1. The Unpublishable by Jessica Defino
  2. Crème De La Crème by Aminatou Sow
  3. LZ Sunday Paper
  4. Invisible Women
  5. The Female Lead

Websites

  1. Diet Prada
  2. Noon
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