NEW YORK – Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, but she is perhaps best-known for being a champion of the modern female professional. Her online community, Lean In, and book of the same title are all about "encouraging women to pursue their ambitions, and changing the conversation" about what women can achieve in their personal lives and careers. Thanks to thought leaders like Sandberg, women today are more empowered and vocal than ever about accomplishing their goals. So why aren't the brands that market to them listening?
In a Sept. 29 panel at Advertising Week 2014, Sandberg spoke with experts in media and advertising about what the most progressive brands are doing right in their approach to capturing the female market, and why there's still so much more work to be done. "Rethinking Marketing to Women," which was sponsored by Lean In and Getty Images, featured Getty CEO and co-founder Jonathan Klein, Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, and BBDO Worldwide ad agency president and CEO Andrew Robertson.
During the panel, ad campaigns from big-name companies like Pantene, Dove, Verizon and Under Armour, as well as Getty's "Lean In" stock image collection, were used as case studies to show how brands are evolving to meet the demands of a female demographic that refuses to be bound by labels and stereotypes. [Women Are Just as Ambitious as Men]
"The classic stereotype stock photos of women were not doing well," said Klein, referring to Getty Image sales. "People are looking for something different. We needed a collection of images that reflect women as they are today and likely will be in the future."
You won't find any images of female models in stilettos and a suit dress, or juggling a baby and a briefcase in Getty's "Lean In" collection. Instead, you'll see real, everyday women working in a variety of professional settings, dressed in jeans and even athletic wear, but still clearly in leadership positions. And it's that very notion — women in leadership positions — that has spurred so much debate and change around the way brands are marketing to women.
"Stereotypes about men and women are remarkably similar around the world," Sandberg said. "We applaud men for leadership, but discourage it for women."
Sandberg took an audience poll to see how many people were called "bossy" as a child, or "too aggressive" in the workplace, and unsurprisingly, the individuals who raised their hand were overwhelmingly female. The most successful ads today are the ones that call attention to this divide and challenge it, like a Pantene ad from 2013 that depicted men and women doing the same actions — leading a business meeting, speaking at a conference, getting dressed up to go out, etc. — but each was labeled with a completely different word because of their gender ("boss" versus "bossy," "persuasive" versus "pushy," "smooth" versus "showoff").
"Pictures change the way we behave, and so do words," said Robertson, whose company worked on the Pantene campaign. "[The ad] fought against the labels holding women back. [It showed] women we understood that, and created an understanding of and connection to women."
Women currently control about half of the private wealth in the United States, and are poised to earn more than their male counterparts over the next decade. This economic power shift has given brands a concrete reason to focus on marketing to women, but they're going to need to follow the lead of progressive advertisers that challenge assumptions about this market if they want to succeed.
"Brands have to work harder now [to reach women]," Coles said. "Twenty years ago, brands fell back on tropes because they were [true], but they're changing."
"The easy defense for [using stereotypes] is, 'It works,'" added Robertson. "It works … but there is a better way, and [brands] should be looking for the better way."
Originally published on Business News Daily.