I once joined a webinar at which a marketer for a popular fashion brand was in attendance. The topic was ‘purpose’ and this particular marketer was proud about their brand’s purpose: to empower women. How are they empowering women, you might ask? “When women wear our clothes, they feel good and confident,” this marketer said, prompting aggressive nodding and approval from other CMOs.
Going by this marketer’s logic, isn’t that the case with… every other fashion brand? After the webinar, I sniffed around the brand’s social media and website but failed to find any information on how it was ‘empowering’ women across its entire supply chain. The language used across its platforms, however, was assertively uplifting, encouraging shoppers ‘to become the woman they want to be’. Whether cloaked in blazers (for the boardroom!) or flowy pastel dresses (for brunch!), these homogenously fair-skinned, thin women could have it all.
The etymology of empowerment is rooted in ‘ability, strength and might’, powerful attributes that people—especially those that are marginalised—should be aided to gain. When I think of what the word ‘empower’ means to me, I think about having faith in my sense of self, my personal freedoms, and the ability to stand up for my principles and safety.
Somewhere down the road, brands began to own the narrative of empowerment as they used its political gleam to sell products and services. It is perceived that brands can provide their consumers with the spirit of empowerment if the product in question can improve their consumers’ lives in some way.
Fitness gyms, FMCG, and insurance brands are just some categories that appear to leverage this narrative as a purposeful brand strategy. Whether or not they are majorly supported by questionable labour practices or the trappings of patriarchy is not the question; it matters more that all external PR points towards their altruism.
Shifting the ‘blame’
One issue with regards to brands using this narrative is brands shifting the sole task of empowerment to the consumer. For example, if an apparel brand says it is ‘empowering me to be confident’ by selling me clothing, I am inclined to think that the responsibility of empowering myself falls squarely on my shoulders.
The brand is essentially telling me: ‘The choice of being empowered is yours to make! Simply buy our clothing and we can guarantee that you will be empowered!’
Author Sarah Banet-Weiser, who wrote a book called Empower: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, draws parallels between neo-liberal, capitalist-friendly ‘feminism’ to misogyny itself. In an interview with Vox, she said:
“The biggest problem with popular feminism is that we’re dealing with sexist and patriarchal structures—we still don’t make as much money as men, there still is this discrimination in jobs, rape culture is rampant. My problem with much of popular feminism is that instead of challenging that, it says basically, ‘Look, this is the situation. It’s up to you to just be confident. You can practice your power poses in front of a mirror and then go into a job interview."
This notion that women and marginalised communities are entirely responsible for their own empowerment is frankly damaging. To echo Banet-Weiser’s point, this mindset allows brands to shift the blame to the consumer as an individual rather than social inequity as a collective ideological issue.
This narrative completely ignores systemic obstacles that might make women feel disempowered in the first place, such as the patriarchy. And the irony is that large brands are benefiting from the patriarchy to support their capitalist means, even if their empowering marketing spiel indicates the opposite.
I am not disputing the fact that many people may need products and services to help with their personal sense of empowerment. I can also see the value in raising awareness about an issue through marketing, such as encouraging conversations about periods. But the worry is that brands are conflating awareness and representation with empowerment, and thus over-exhausting the empowerment muscle for profit.
The eternal argument around purpose applies here: If purpose-driven messaging drives profit, should brands leverage purpose-driven messaging to drive profit?
In the name of self-care
The problem with ‘femvertising’ is that campaigns are often built around catchy phrases that showcase brands’ takedown of sexism rather than brands vowing to tidy up their own affairs.
In the case of a luxury hotel, for instance, an extravagant night’s stay in a suite may be marketed to me as a treat that I deserve. But at the same time, overworked and underpaid hotel workers might be rallying against labour cuts in the hotels industry. Therefore, the hotel is telling a customer like me that my wellbeing matters more than that of their workers. My sense of empowerment is all that matters.
This is exactly why I remain dubious about the capitalistic nature of the self-care and wellness movement. What is essentially marketed as a lifestyle to empower the middle class is completely silent on the wealth gap and inequity it simultaneously supports.
Let’s take a look at sportswear brand Lululemon, which has managed to develop a highly successful cult-like following using aspirational marketing to target women who care about quality and sustainability. Despite pushing out inclusive marketing materials and narratives of empowerment, brand founder Chip Wilson was once quoted as saying: “Frankly, some women's bodies just don't actually work [for the yoga pants].”
And in 2019, reports found that the same brand that charges up to US$100 on a pair of leggings pay women workers in Bangladesh as little as US$120 a month. Some women claimed they were beaten and physically assaulted. In this case, voiceless and powerless women are left in the lurch at the expense of self-care.
Another great example of this are Girl Scout Cookies, which have long symbolised the empowerment of young girls in America. In fact, an entire play was written about how Girl Scouts are not, in fact, selling cookies. They are indeed “selling the glorious struggle to overcome your simple origins and empower yourself to conquer the world.” A new cookie flavour released last year was sold with empowering messages stamped on each cookie.
But the cookies are made with palm oil, which utilises the labour of tens of thousands of young girls in Indonesia and Malaysia. According to an exposé by Associated Press, many of these children earn little or no pay and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals. Yet, the demand for palm oil to produce Western foods and cosmetics is too high to ignore. This shows that brands are okay with one person’s emancipation being another’s oppression.
Moving forward, I would urge brands to be more mindful about using empowerment as a theme in their purpose-driven messaging. Instead of overselling a bloated, utopian concept, maybe they should first evaluate if it’s something they are willing to work for.
Surekha Ragavan is Asia editor of PRWeek.