How should we evaluate "femvertising" like Jane Walker? Here, I propose a new framework to identify whether campaigns are merely gimmicks, or supporting the very real fight for equality.
Regarding Jane Walker, Diageo is a company prepared to back up its campaign with real action. That should be celebrated.
There it was.
Another email – another friend sending me the news of “Jane Walker,” a special edition of Johnnie Walker's Black Label scotch.
If you’ve spent any time with me at a bar, you know my drink of choice is Johnnie Walker Black - on the rocks.
(Note: If images below will not load on mobile, try opening in Chrome.)
Exhibit A: My signature blue aviators next to that beautiful drink.
Exhibit B: My desk when I cofounded a startup – black and blue at the ready.
Exhibit C: When I got married, my sister’s thoughtful gift; an engraved bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label
I love the taste, the brand, the history, and the variety of their blends.
At the same time, I'm also an on-the-record critic of gimmicky marketing meant to ride the bandwagon of the current women’s rights movement, so it was no surprise that MANY people reached out to say – what do you think of Jane Walker?
Johnnie Walker Black Label, The Jane Walker Edition
Context - for Women’s History Month, liquor maker Diageo announced they would be introducing a limited time special edition of their Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch, replacing the iconic Striding Man with a quite dapper female version.
To quote Diageo:
“ Jane Walker is the celebration of the many achievements of women and a symbol of empowerment for all those on the journey towards progress in gender equality.”
Another day, another femvertising campaign
This move from Diageo is part of a larger trend in marketing and advertising known as “femvertising,” when marketers use the ideals of feminism in a campaign.
To remind you, feminism is simply the notion that women should be treated equal to menin every facet of our society – from how we’re paid to how we’re represented in ads.
The femvertising trend is growing – brought about by changing consumer expectations. 50% of Millennials (18-34) want brands to take a public stance on social issues, compared to only about 25% of Baby Boomers (55+). Across all generations, 6 in 10 will not make a purchase if they don’t believe what the company stands for.
Femvertising gives a boost to brands given the popularity of the current women’s rights movement. Dove received 30X more exposure than their paid media space thanks to the buzz around it’s Real Women, Real Beauty campaign years ago. It helped sales at Dove grow from $2.5B - $4B in the decade after the campaign launched.
However, I am a proponent for discernment when it comes to femvertising campaigns, especially those we celebrate with industry awards, kudos on social media, additional press coverage, or our dollars.
As I pointed out recently, many companies using feminist messaging in their ads are poor examples of these ideals internally - for example, paying millions in lawsuits for pay inequality and discrimination against women, or by perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards.
Related: Calling BS on Faux Feminism
This not only creates an illusion of progress, it cheapens the movement for equal rights. It's lip service. There is a real and present danger to decades of progress in the feminist movement if we accept this trend of faux-feminism without holding companies accountable.
It’s also starting to get old. Younger generations prize brands that actively work for social change, participating to improve the causes they claim to support, and leveraging their organizations’ clout as a force for good.
So all of this begs a larger question…
How should we evaluate femvertising?
I’ve spent the majority of my career marketing to marketers, giving me an opportunity to study this discipline, its history, its flaws, and its potential. This stuff fascinates me.
I’ve found there to be a very clear spectrum to femvertising:
To help consumers and marketers alike evaluate a femvertising campaign, like Jane Walker, on this spectrum, I propose the following litmus test, inspired by the Bechdel test.
THE FEMVERTISING LITMUS TEST
A framework for evaluating whether a femvertising campaign is simply exploitation, or deserves praise for supporting women’s rights in the real world.
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If mostly “no’s” – This company is paying lip service to feminism. This is “faux-feminism” and a gimmicky marketing campaign meant to cash in on the women’s rights movement by earning free press. If you’re evaluating your own firm against this checklist, and reach mostly “no,” it’s likely best to pursue another narrative in your campaign.
If mostly’s “yes’s” – First bumps all around. This is a champion of women’s rights, a company putting their money where their mouth is and creating real change in the world through their actions. They deserve to be celebrated for using femvertising to grow their brand equity and awareness.
So, where does Jane Walker land on this spectrum?
On the scale of exploitation > champion of women’s rights, Jane Walker is not nearly as bad as some others (I have many examples in this deck of hypocrisy.)
This campaign goes beyond the bottle and the logo update.
1. For every Jane Walker Edition bottle produced, Johnnie Walker will donate $1 to organizations supporting women’s progress, up to $250,000, including:
- Monumental Women, an effort to create a monument in Central Park to pay tribute to suffrage leaders.
- She Should Run, dedicated to dramatically increasing the number of women in public leadership by eliminating barriers to success.
2. Diageo announced they would be the first beverage alcohol company to join the CEO Action for Diversity & InclusionTM, a movement of 350+ CEOs aimed at advancing D&I within the workplace with initiatives like:
- Transparency (e.g. Accenture)
- Family leave (e.g. Adobe)
- Unconscious bias training (e.g. Aerospace Corporation)
- Evolving recruiting practices (e.g. Autodesk)
- Pay Equity Analysis across gender and ethnicity (e.g. CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA Insurer)
- Mentoring Programs (e.g. Mattel) and much more – check it out.
3. Deidre Mahlan, President of Diageo North America and their former CFO, is vocal and clear about the importance of inclusion at the organization.
“Inclusion is a core value at Diageo. It is also a choice. Our efforts toward inclusion and diversity have a direct impact on our performance”
4. The company boasts impressive gender equality and representation of women. Half of Diageo’s board will be comprised of women come April, while 40% of its global executive team is female (including the president of Diageo North America, as well as the global chief marketing officer and chief financial officer), according to Forbes.
5. Women make up nearly half of its 12 blenders –progressive compared to other producers.
This is a company prepared to back up its campaign with real action. That should be celebrated.
My bourbon-loving marketing colleague Jess Marble agrees with me. Her first reaction to this campaign was “oh no…another Lady Dorito.” But then she read more about the “walk on” slogan and their support of “organizations championing women’s causes” and decided it wasn’t that bad.
I also love the way Jess defines whisky:
A magical distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash with history that would make your 5th grade textbook green with envy.
She says “I think this a small step in elevating whiskey to the preferred choice of women. Tour any distillery in Kentucky and they will tell you about the whiskey boom and how women play a role in that.
For me, whiskey is not just a beverage. It’s a hobby, a collection and a piece of history.
When I weave whiskey into my work life, I have a new seat at the table with my male colleagues. They turn to me for menu advice and listen to me tell stories about whiskey."
Holly Seidewand, founder of HerWhiskyLove, is an expert in whisky, and a pioneering champion of getting more women educated about, and interested in the drink. At first, Holly felt the Jane Walker campaign screamed:
“...whisky is not normally for women.”
(I agreed - that’s certainly an unintended message being delivered against the company’s good intentions, here.)
As a whisky expert, Holly was initially worried that the product itself had been altered “for women” (you know, and our fragile palates * eye roll *)
Luckily, Jane Edition isn’t a special blend for women, according to Johnnie Walker vice president Stephanie Jacoby. It’s just an updated look to the existing best-selling Black Label blend.
“This wasn’t about making a whisky for women,” Jacoby says. “We would never make anything that’s ‘for women’s palates.’ Taste buds have no gender.”
(Someone should put that last sentence on a t-shirt...)
“At the end of the day, every whisky is for everyone. That’s what I’m fighting for. If [the campaign] gets more women to take that first taste of whisky, very cool.”
I asked Holly how companies like Diageo could help get more women into whisky. She advised giving them the basic tools to understanding the drink – through education, classes, and more. In her work, she helps consumers learn where each drink comes from, the difference between scotch, bourbon, and rye, and helps them understand why they prefer certain types. According to Holly, many women just avoid it altogether, rather than ask for help.
Brands – target women, but don’t patronize us.
Femvertising is a more recent name for an old practice. In my TEDx talk, I share how Edward Bernays intentionally changed the perception of cigarettes in the 1920’s among women to double the market in an age where it was considered improper for women to smoke.
Johnnie Walker for decades marketed its scotch mainly to men, and has been working hard for years to make its products more attractive to women. It’s working. The share of U.S. whiskey drinkers who are women is on the rise.
But, there’s a way to market to women without resorting to tired old gender tropes. (Just read the angry comments section of this article announcing Heavin Hill’s flavored whisky aimed at female customers.)
“The way we do that is not by making things pink. It is by being very inclusive in our communications, targeting women and men with our communications,” said Syl Saller, Diageo’s CMO.
Unfortunately, Diageo’s Jane Walker logo change on its own has been widely categorized as pandering in backlash online by consumers and the press alike. The reaction “not again” is a defensive response from an increasingly wary audience. Who can blame them… bad behavior from brands has made consumers suspicious of femvertising.
Progress is never a straightforward line, but rather comes with fits and spurts and twists and turns. Jane Walker is, in many ways, progress. It’s another indication of a brand making an effort, making great strides within the limitations of big-brand marketing decisions – the many signoffs and checks and balances that get a campaign out the door.
For Jane Walker’s creators, the logo change is merely the tip of the iceberg, and I hope more attention is paid to the rest of the campaign. According to my proposed scorecard above, Diageo is working to make a real impact, and highlighting it through this Jane Walker campaign.
I hope this framework is helpful way we can make decisions as to what campaigns we run, and how we as consumers react to them.
So, kudos to Diageo. To other brands targeting women please keep walking – in this direction.
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