Has IWD become a victim of its own success?

This week we celebrated International Women’s Day, or IWD, with this year’s theme being #EmbraceEquity.

While many would agree that the event, which can trace its origins back to 1909, remains an important reminder of the need to keep pushing for gender equality, some wonder if it’s in danger of becoming a hollow box-ticking exercise with little real impact.

Here, Frances Dennis, Chief Commercial Officer at innovation marketing agency, Brandwidth, sets out her argument for why brand campaigns around IWD may be losing their appeal, and what we all need to do about it…

Frances Dennis, Brandwidth

It’s hard to argue against the sentiment of a day that was founded to promote equal rights.

Every year on 8 March, we join forces to celebrate the achievements of women while also bringing to attention the continued injustices many continue to face – or do we?

Over the last few years, I’ve been forced to reflect on how the messages and campaigns churned out by companies on International Women’s Day (IWD) are brazenly hollow and meaningless attention grabs for social shares and likes – as though true allyship is as easy as clicking ‘post’.

This depressing reality has been perfectly highlighted by the gender pay gap Twitter bot, which retweets organisations using the #InternationalWomensDay hashtag on twitter and responds with their, often embarrassingly big, median gender pay gap.

The fact that one of the most effective and memorable IWD campaigns is one that shines a spotlight on hypocrisy within the movement is a sad state of affairs.

But this hypocrisy is only half the problem. As the sheer volume of this fake support continues to snowball, there’s a real risk that the baselessness of the movement does more real harm to women than good.

Take for example the famous Fearless Girl statue, conceptualised by McCann New York and showered with industry awards after it was first unveiled on IWD in 2017.

Originally commissioned by asset management company State Street Global Advisors (SSGA), its purpose was to promote their index fund of gender-diverse companies.

Fearless Girl: Female statue faces down Wall street’s iconic bull.

Ironically, its feminist message was tragically overshadowed just months after the statue was unveiled when SSGA agreed to pay a $5 million settlement following allegations it underpaid its female and Black employees.

The controversy doesn’t end there. Artist Kristen Visbal, who sculpted Fearless Girl and subsequently owns the copyright, is being sued by SSGA for the rights to the sculpture.

Visbal claims she created Fearless Girl believing that her work would be used as a symbol of equality by non-profits and that at the time she had never even heard of SSGA.

What started as a way of championing gender-diverse companies has ended up with a female artist selling NFTs to cover the $3 million in legal fees she’s picked up whilst fighting to keep the rights to her own artwork. So much for female empowerment.

Brands can learn from Visbal. In making the canny move to switch to selling NFTs; saving a physical sculpture with digital art, she has done what all great artists, and great marketers, need to do – evolve.

Much like many International Women’s Day campaigns are doing nothing to drive equality, campaigns that don’t look to the future will get stagnant. If you’re not pushing towards the future, you’re already falling behind.

SSGA aren’t alone in getting things wrong. There are lessons to learn from campaigns that tried, but failed, to do good. In 2021, Burger King UK faced intense backlash after tweeting that “women belong in the kitchen”.

While the tweet was sent to promote scholarships for culinary education, it missed the mark completely when the context of the full ad wasn’t immediately apparent and it was misinterpreted as being sexist.

And, no stranger to negative press, controversial beer giant BrewDog thought that sarcasm was the way to go when they released Pink IPA, a “beer for girls”, in 2018.

Beer-faced? Brewdog hit a bum note with its Pink IPA.

There were, arguably, good intentions behind the campaign which saw the brewery pledge to donate 20% of the proceeds from four weeks of IPA sales to charities championing gender equality in the workplace.

But sarcastic jokes leave a sour taste in your mouth when you’re still in the thick of the problem.

With gendered products aimed at women so often being priced higher than those aimed at men, to the point that it’s referred to as the ‘Pink Tax’, BrewDog’s campaign feels more like a mockery of the issue.

The failure of so many IWD campaigns highlights how far we still have to go to reach true equality in the workplace, and beyond.

Luckily, it’s not all bad. Brands looking to champion real change can start by taking a leaf out of Scottish Widows’ book.

Last year, their International Women’s Day ad interrupted scheduled programs on Channel 4 to say that women couldn’t watch the second half of the show. The stunt highlighted that “on average women are retiring with only half the pension of men”.

The campaign didn’t just spotlight an issue; it’s doing something about it. By educating people on pension inequality and providing guidance to women, they are making sure their work is anything but performative.

Crucially, this is a campaign that could work any time of year but is strengthened by the IWD hook, rather than one that is done out of obligation because “all the other companies are going to post about International Women’s Day, so we should too”.

My final plea is this; if you can’t explain how your campaign is helping, don’t run it, instead donate the money you would have used to create it to a charity that helps women.