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Volume 21 No. 47
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Marketers must move past pink, embrace female empowerment

Despite a noticeable shift by advertisers and leagues to be more female-inclusive in their sports marketing campaigns, there still exist “pink it and shrink it” ads that accentuate stereotypes in an attempt to sell to women. This strategy involves feminizing an existing male product by producing it in Pepto-Bismol pink and making it small for women to use, or developing campaigns that objectify women. A recent example of the latter is Bud Light’s #UpforWhatever marketing campaign that referred to the popular brew as “the perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” Critics were quick to label the campaign as tone deaf to sexual assault.

Whether it is razors, headphones, toys or even firearms, the “pink it and shrink it” approach has been implemented in marketing strategies for a wide range of products — not just sports. Dell did it with its pastel-painted Della website and marketing campaign targeted at women. The second-largest manufacturer of PCs attempted to introduce technology as a fashion statement for women by pitching a new lightweight laptop notebook computer stocked with a calorie counter and tips for finding recipes. The audience backlash was immediate, forcing Dell to drop Della within two weeks of its launch in 2009.

Increased national dialogue about gender equality has challenged the long-held notion that such marketing is effective in attracting female consumers. Instead, pro-women ads are being created by some of the world’s top brands in an effort to win women’s spending through inspiring, motivational, and emotional advertising. These female empowerment ads are not only developed by women’s product companies like Always, but are also implemented by sports marketers, historically a boys club.

With women now controlling 70 percent to 80 percent of consumer purchases, according to a 2016 infographic created by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA program MBA@UNC, companies catering to the biggest sports leagues’ audiences can no longer afford to ignore the stats. They must instead focus on developing ads that speak to their audience.

Today, pink is a trigger color. It’s a lack of creativity, a lack of understanding of women as a market. It’s a trigger that makes a company appear as if it believes all women are the same. It’s offensive, ineffective, and no longer tolerated.

Many brands make their livelihood selling on the stereotypes of women, and that’s not going away, but with the purchasing power of women growing, sports marketers must work harder to understand female sports audiences from a psychographics standpoint or risk their campaigns falling flat. They must engage with their female audiences in a meaningful way that goes beyond coloring something pink.

A Gatorade ad with flashbacks of Serena Willams (right, with sister Venus) reaches out to female consumers.
There are some companies pushing harder to win women’s spending than others.

Gatorade, for example, features women in advertising campaigns to connect with female consumers. Their most recent series shows flashbacks from Serena Williams’ career. The ad builds on Gatorade’s “Win from Within” tagline, asking a young Williams who she wants to be like when she grows up. She says she wants people to be like her.

Touch by Alyssa Milano changed the retail game as the only apparel company with licensing agreements for women’s clothing with major American sports leagues — MLB, the NFL, NHL, NBA and, more recently, NASCAR and MLS. Tired of having options only in pink for sports apparel, Milano developed a fashion line with the motto: “Where the game meets the after party.” The idea was to make Touch fashionable enough for women to wear both in and outside of the sports arena. Milano is now credited with being a trailblazer in the fan-gear industry. As soon as she proved that women wear jerseys away from games and around other women, large sports apparel companies like Nike and Reebok followed with more fashionable lines of women’s team wear.

Speaking of Nike, the largest retailer of women’s athletic wear launched a campaign called #betterforit aimed at women in 2015. Nike says #betterforit is its largest initiative yet in supporting and motivating women’s fitness quests.

In a 2014 survey conducted by SheKnows, 52 percent of the more than 600 women surveyed indicated that they purchased a product based on the marketer’s portrayal of women.

The more marketers develop powerful, pro-female campaigns and ads that inform, empower, and avoid borderline offensive advertising practices, the better.

Molly Greenberg (mgreenberg@2u.com) is the community content manager for MBA@UNC, UNC Business School’s online MBA for executives. She was named one of Washington’s 100 top tech leaders by the Washingtonian in 2015 for her in-depth media coverage of the business of higher education, education policy, education technology, and startups across the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region.