Why brandsplaining is retail’s new battleground

type - big idea
Big Idea
category - society
sector - media & technology
sector - retail
Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts discuss the sneakily sexist tropes brands must avoid and how to engage an era of women immune to brands’ tactics

Let’s start with your book, Brandsplaining. This is the result of 15 years of research on how retail advertising represents women. What do your findings reveal?

Philippa Roberts: So much has changed, not only in the world of women but in the world of marketing to women. Fourth-wave feminism has broken, we've had the impacts of #MeToo, the blurring of gender identities. We've had astonishing attainments by women and the fempowerment era.

Yet, as the Brandsplaining title suggests, despite all that women have achieved in the world, brands continue to tell women what they are, how they should be and how they should behave.

There are still profound disconnections between brands and their audiences. While there is less clumsy stereotyping and objectifying women, marketing now appears to be working on the basis that everything is sorted, that women are enlightened. Except huge swathes of the female audience feel they aren't being seen or heard at all.

Arguably, whether we're men or women, we buy into brands because we’re told – or believe – they will enhance how we look, feel or are perceived. Is this idea of optimisation still central to advertising or is something else emerging?

Jane Cunningham: Historically, it’s been very didactic: be thin. Be white. Be passive. Be pleasing. Be the way that the male lens would like you to be. These perfectionist narratives are still about – except that now, it’s sneaky sexism. A babycare advert targeted at men, for example, is seen as hilarious, yet when they target women, it's still very formulaic – basically her chasing after a toddler.

Having said that, much louder conversations are happening among women about how they're not prepared to be told how they should look or be, and there are brands working to change the conversation. In the beauty category, brands now argue against that perfectionist narrative and position beauty and make-up for self-expression, creativity and the female gaze, not some ideal set by companies or men.

Published by:

7 June 2021

Author: Kathryn Bishop

Image: Thirteen Lune


It’s On Us campaign by Dove, South Africa

Many companies have seized upon fempowerment but sometimes it's a shallow effort that doesn’t align with their wider business behaviour. How can brands avoid such empty marketing?

PR: Fempowerment from brands like Dove and Nike has achieved some remarkable things for brands and women. But that shouldn’t camouflage the limitations of the fempowerment discourse, which continues to put the problem back on to women to work harder, lean in, be more confident, braver. It conveniently sidesteps – and often quite cynically – the endemic, systematic failings that allow sexism to persist, and which continue to keep women in a secondary place.

Instead, what women-made brands like Starling Bank or Girlfriend Collective are demonstrating is a way forward that fixes the system. They are sorting out the sector’s problems, rather than telling the audience they need to sort themselves out. That’s why this alignment between what a company says and what it does is crucial as fempowering becomes strained and scrutinised.

With that in mind, is representation something advertising and brands must explicitly talk about or highlight, or should it just be a given?

JC: Representation is really important to make sure that people feel seen – only in the past 10 years have women of colour been adequately represented in beauty and in fashion. But even this can feel tokenistic unless there's more to it. This is where the hard work needs to happen. It isn't enough to just have a nice mission statement saying you support women – you need to genuinely be on-side with women and offer them products and services that meet their needs, rather than selling to them on the basis of making them feel bad about themselves.

Drawing on your advertising expertise and work and research leading Pretty Little Head, what do you forecast to be the next areas of disruption or aspiration in advertising to women?

PR: The women-made offer is going to be very disruptive across all sorts of categories. The other significant area of disruption is age. The fact is that older women – half the female audience – are almost completely unseen by advertisers. It’s an astonishing omission. And even on the occasions when we see older women in communications, they typically look rather sad and wistful.

‘Women-made brands like Starling Bank or Girlfriend Collective are demonstrating a way forward that fixes the system’
Philippa Roberts, co-author, Brandsplaining and co-founder, Pretty Little Head research

Key Takeaways

: New book Brandsplaining is a state-of-the-nation, data-led analysis of marketing to women today, co-authored by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts, founders of Pretty Little Head research

: The book builds on 15 years of research by Cunningham and Roberts, a survey of 14,000 women, and an extensive content analysis of how brands are marketing to women

: Brandsplaining’s 10 principles seek to future-proof the ways in which companies listen to, present, address and champion women in an advertising landscape that's continually changing and evolving


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