Is feminism a brand? Is it damaged? Does it need a rejig? Women’s Agenda editor Georgina Dent sparked a debate; marketing guru Jane Caro responds.
Georgina Dent, Women’s Agenda editor:
There has been some discussion recently, not for the first time, about whether feminism needs rebranding. To me these discussions always indicate, quite persuasively, why feminism does need a rebrand. Urgently.
A study from the University of Toronto confirms what you probably might know or suspect: that the word feminist is plagued by negative stereotypes. The study also found that, unsurprisingly, support for feminist goals is hampered by these negative associations.
This is troubling but not new. I know lots of women — of different ages, stages and backgrounds — who resist the label for themselves despite agreeing with equality. I imagine you might know some as well. You might even be one yourself. Just last year the Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer explained that she does not consider herself a feminist, despite leading a life that is only possible because of the trail blazed by the original feminists. While this is frustrating it is not incomprehensible.
Because, as the study showed, to lots of people feminism is ugly. It is vicious, elitist, angry and exclusive which is maddening because it puts people off. And frankly that’s the last thing feminism needs. Because the more people who are put off feminism, the further away the feminist dream of achieving equality becomes.
“So if the problem with feminism isn’t product irrelevance, it must be misunderstanding.”
Now I’m guessing here but my instinct is that women like Mayer who dislike feminism don’t dislike their right to vote or their right to wear jeans or their right to be married and work or their right to be paid fairly. I’m assuming they distance themselves from the word because they don’t see it as being applicable to them. And that, right there, is exactly why feminism needs rebranding.
If feminism were a product, and a large proportion of the market for whom that product was designed, said the product didn’t resonate with them, a marketer would reach one of two conclusions. Either the product isn’t relevant or it is not understood.
Unfortunately — whether anyone agrees with the word or not — feminism remains vitally relevant. For all the reasons I outlined in my recent “Memo to the Minister“ for women, the need to agitate for gender equality is as important as ever. The pay gap. The proportion of women in leadership positions in business and in government. The fact women are still far more likely to live in poverty than men. The fact that domestic violence and sexual harassment are still prevalent issues for women. Whichever way you cut it is clear the reasons for feminism’s being are still alive and well.
So if the problem with feminism isn’t product irrelevance, it must be misunderstanding. And therein lies the reason — and opportunity — for a brand overhaul. Feminism doesn’t need a superficial rebrand to make it look pretty. It needs a rebrand so that it resonates with the intended recipients – current and future — of its many benefits. It needs a rebrand so that it is understood for all of the fantastic things that it actually is. Because if it were recognised for what it is – constructive and powerful – it would be popular, and being popular would be the best thing that could ever happen to feminism.
Jane Caro, commentator and communications consultant:
First, and most simply, you can’t re-brand something that is not a brand. I have worked with brands all my life, so I am very clear about the difference between a brand — something created to be sold in a market — and a philosophy or movement — something created to change the world.
Feminism is no more a brand than Catholicism or Islam or liberalism or atheism. All of them are ways of viewing the world. They can — and indeed do — change and evolve over time but via a natural evolution that occurs organically, driven by those who passionately believe, not by the phony, please-everyone, marketing-think that goes into re-branding.
Re-branding is an admission of defeat. It accepts the opinion of the critics, of those who do not like or support the original. It tries to win over those who will never be won over and in doing so, not just loses the people who always supported and believed in it, but actively slaps them in the face. That’s why actual brands that try to re-brand often fail and also why political movements and philosophies do too. Don’t believe me? Just look at the ALP. It’s been trying to re-brand itself as a party of the centre for decades and has compromised itself almost out of existence to attract swinging voters (by definition non-loyal users). In so doing it has fundamentally ignored its core supporters, many of whom have quietly walked out the back door and joined the Greens.
“Re-branding is an admission of defeat.”
Successful brands are not perfect and do not please everyone, but they have some sort of integrity. Movements and philosophies that aim to change the world must have unassailable integrity — particularly in the face of harsh criticism and hard times. When the going gets tough, the last thing feminism should do is buckle under the pressure and deny its history and its achievements. Then the enemies of feminism really have won.
To re-brand feminism is to attempt to placate and soothe those that feminism has disturbed and threatened. I understand that for many women — brought up (as we all are) to please, placate and be liked — stubbornly identifying as a feminist takes courage and confidence. For many anything beyond silent agreement is almost impossible. Yet the hard truth is that the more invective is hurled at feminism the more effective it has become because abuse intensifies in proportion to threat. No one ever gives up power voluntarily, it must be fought for and fighting is hard and quintessentially not-nice. To walk away from the proud 300-year history of feminism via some kind of re-brand (what would we call it: Equalism? Anti-sexism? Women’s rights? It was Women’s Lib for a while …) would be a profound betrayal of all the women who have ever stood up to the abuse and claimed the name.
Feminism aims to change the world. To do so it cannot play nice and strive for love and approval. It must, as it has always done, remain true to itself in the face of scorn, ridicule and abuse — even from those whose lives it has immeasurably improved. It must be brave, stubborn and pugnacious. It must continue to speak difficult, uncomfortable truth to power. It must continue to disrupt, disturb and threaten. That’s its job.