How to package brands for the fourth wave of feminism | Alex Hamilton

Alex Hamilton, strategic planner from brand and packaging design agency Bluemarlin, examines how brands are marketing to women


Women are the world’s most powerful consumers. In the UK, they influence 80 per cent of buying decisions and by 2025 are expected to own 60 per cent of all personal wealth.

While marketing to women has been big business for decades, the tone with which brands are communicating with women is changing. Pink and pastel packaging is being usurped by a new wave of brands that are championing female empowerment and overturning gender stereotypes. Social media channels provide a platform for brands to share pro-female messaging, and our shelves are being stormed by products that connect with women on a modern, meaningful level, understanding and attending to their lifestyles and needs.

What these brands realise is wealth and buying power are just a part of the new sense of confidence being instilled in their target audience. On a global scale, women are tackling sexism, social inequality and a swathe of feminist issues head-on. This movement, enabled by technology and social media, is hailed as the ‘fourth wave of feminism’ and has given rise to an open, far-reaching and reactive community, both online and offline, that is unafraid to hold individuals, governments, businesses and brands publicly to account for sexism.

How this manifests itself within women’s expectations of brands and packaging is exemplified in no better way than the backlash following the launch of Bic’s ‘For Her’ range in 2011. The patronising, pastel-coloured pens were such a misfire in understanding how to appeal to women today that they became a global laughing stock, receiving a deluge of sarcastic online product reviews.

The fact that Bic has just ploughed into further controversy with an ad campaign telling women to look like a girl but think like a man shows how deep-rooted the corporation’s antiquated view of women remains – and how quickly and broadly people will pick up on it.

Empowerment at shelf level

On the other hand, many brands are successfully encapsulating fourth wave feminism and having a positive impact of women’s self-esteem. Ad campaigns like Sport England’s This Girl Can and Always’ Like a Girl are great examples of brands engaging with and empowering women in an authentic way.

This becomes a lot more challenging for brands to achieve at shelf level where products have mere seconds to embody female empowerment, appeal to women in the mainstream and hold their own in an increasingly activist brand landscape. However many are succeeding.

femfresh for instance is leading a new category of products dissipating the taboo around feminine hygiene, which is often thought of as something embarrassing to be kept hidden. By revolutionising its packaging and identity from being delicate and demure to bold, expressive and colourful, femfresh is reflecting female empowerment while encouraging women to relocate feminine hygiene from the cupboard to the bathroom shelf.

Alex Hamilton, strategic planner, bluemarlin

Alex Hamilton, strategic planner, bluemarlin

Similarly Fur Oil, a new line of pubic hair grooming products, is based on the mantra that women like to care of themselves and their bodies for their own interests, not for men. Emily Schubert, who came up with the idea of Fur Oil, describes the packaging as timeless like Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent but with a bit of shock factor with the label boldly stating ‘For pubic hair’. In doing so, the product moves from being shameful or clandestine to proud and sophisticated.

In a world where the biggest selling point for a brand of probiotics to help fight vaginal yeast infections was the side effect of smelling like ripe peaches, the likes of femfresh and Fur Oil are important because they listen to the needs of women, understand them and improve their wellbeing without prior third party approval.

Kotex is another brand that has implemented this approach for a number of years. Its U by Kotex product line, which launched in 2010, has a target audience of 14-22-year-olds. Rather than adopt the regiment pastels and flowers associated with female sanitary products and girlhood, it redefined the category with black outer cartons that are attention-grabbing on the shelf while the inner wrappers are bright, colourful and non-uniform to encourage and express the confidence and personality of this age category.

Products like these that are designed and packaged directly for women can have a hugely positive impact on their self-esteem and rightfully tap into feminist issues when done so in a way that is meaningful and based on genuine insight. But can unisex products have the same impact? If their reason to engage with feminism is authentic and in keeping with the brand, then most definitely.

Consider substance over style

Cerveja Feminista, for instance, a new brand of red ale, has been produced by a team of creatives in Brazil to campaign against sexism in advertising, taking particular aim at the beer industry which has a long history of objectifying women for marketing means. A woman is killed every 90 minutes in Brazil through domestic violence and the feminist beer aims to draw attention to this underbelly of Brazilian society while holding Brazilian advertisers to account for endorsing men to think of women as possessions which ultimately leads to violence.

While the messaging is feminist, the packaging has nothing about it that is stereotypically ‘female’. Brands like Bic might seek to distinguish women from men with pinks and purples, but for Cerveja Feminista the message is that when you treat women differently for no other reason than because they are women, that is a form of discrimination. The bottle is uniform and the label is bold, showing that quality is first and foremost, something that people who enjoy beer don’t need gender-targeted marketing to understand.

No conversation on feminism in branding would be complete without a nod to Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. Since first airing over a decade ago and filling our TV screens and billboards with underwear-clad women, all of whom had big smiles, big personalities and, most shocking of all, ‘big’ curves (at least by industry standards), Dove has continued to overturn beauty stereotypes and champion women’s self-esteem. However while its Real Beauty advertising campaigns are widely hailed as having pioneered this new, proactive approach to female empowerment in the media, the message is perhaps yet to translate to what appears on our shelves.

As Dove’s female-centric products remain pure, white and delicate, the glinting metallic dove a barely-there emblem, and its ‘Men+Care’ range stands stoically grey, it seems that with even the most powerful brand messaging there is an opportunity to reconcile it with the products we use and interact with on a day-to-day basis. And, while female empowerment is taking centre stage, the unnecessary engendering of products works both ways, something that Cerveja Feminista is mastering in keeping its product and conversation open to both men and women.

The past couple of years have been ground-breaking for both female empowerment and uniting people over gender equality. On an international scale, Emma Watson’s landmark ‘He For She’ UN speech has encouraged the popularisation of feminism; more locally, countries like Sweden are leading the way with gender neutral toys. Brands can use the opportunities this presents to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives, but this is only totally achievable when the messaging is translated into the products and packaging in our homes and pockets.