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13 May 2018

How the female gaze is changing marketing

As a female marketer who is following developments in the #MeToo-movement closely, I found myself wondering what broader impact this movement will have on business in general and, of course, on my own area, marketing.

Upon reading “The Future 100” of JWT Intelligence - 100 trends to keep on your radar - I was delighted that the first trend mentioned was "The female gaze”, clearly a trend that is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Something female has been set in motion, and it is not about to stop. But what does it mean exactly? This blogpost is meant to give you a quick taste of the “female gaze”-trend and what you can learn from it as a marketer.

How the female gaze is changing marketing

The female gaze?

When Girls premiered on HBO in 2015, a lot was said about the series, but nothing came even close to the most discussed subject: The explicit sex scenes with Lena Dunham’s body shown in all its “imperfectness”. This was one of the first times I became conscious of the fact that a nude female body did not have to be incredibly sexy nor conventionally beautiful to be featured on television. It’s the male gaze that determined (for as long as I can remember) how the female body had to be portrayed in media. The male gaze? “It’s the act of depicting the world and women in the visual arts and in literature from a masculine and heterosexual point of view, which presents women as objects of male pleasure.”

Think back of the many nude, sexy and vulnerable women in the first seasons of Game of Thrones: A typical example of “the male gaze”. Today, however - and this is what the trend is all about - women are more often taking the lead behind the scenes of creative productions in film, media and photography. They decide that women do not need to be an object of male desire but can be depicted the way they are and that they can have their own desires and fantasies, just as men do.

A few examples of recent series and films where women were either directing or acting as leading ladies, or both include Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins and featuring the first female protagonist in a DC/Marvel superhero film), Hidden figures (directed by Theodore Melfi with three black women as protagonists), Beau Séjour & Tabula Rasa (directed by Belgian duo Nathalie Basteyns and Kaat Beels with female protagonists), Jessica Jones (created by Melissa Rosenberg, featuring a female protagonist as well).

The female perspective is not entirely new, of course. Thanks to current events and developments however, it is gaining in amplitude and is finally claiming the attention it deserves. Fortunately, it’s not only women that are incorporating the “female gaze”. The Deuce, a new series on Netflix about prostitution in the seventies has two male directors: David Simon and George Pelecanos. They welcomed female writers in their team (as well as the input of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays one of the main roles), which resulted in a refreshing portrayal of reality: Real boobs, male nudity, homosexual sex scenes and conversations about menstruation - talk about breaking taboos!

What’s the lesson for marketers?

The “Let’s solve it with a sexy woman”-mentality is to be eliminated once and for all. Half of the world’s population is female, and women are often tired of seeing yet another half-naked woman used to convey an unrelated marketing message. It’s not original and will (hopefully) stop working altogether soon.

The “Femtech revolution”: A technological application of the female gaze

“Femtech” is female-centric health technology: Smart products designed around women’s physical needs. Two examples: Flex, a disc-shaped tampon that can be worn during sex, and Willow, a smart breast pump. Why is this a trend? Because only now are tech giants really paying attention to the technological needs of women. Such products were previously not deemed enough of a business opportunity or more simply put, no one ever seriously considered solving those problems for women. However, “as a market, women represent an opportunity bigger than China and India put together, controlling $20 trillion in consumer spending.”

It is great to see that these products have earned the right to exist and that the companies producing them are proud and unashamed to blast their message into the open. The female founders of Flex, Lauren Schulte and Erika Jensen, have stated: “We firmly believe that every woman should be able to choose what’s best for her own body. And that we deserve to have better options.” Something exciting to keep on the radar: Lots is still to be discovered!

What’s the lesson for marketers?

Be relevant to your target group. Thanks to the female gaze, previously unmet needs of women are being discovered and served in the market. Communication should also be adapted to your target group: A good example is that blue fluids in sanitary napkins are slowly but steadily being replaced by something that looks a bit more real.

A London bus showcasing Bumble’s famous slogan
A London bus showcasing Bumble’s famous slogan

Girlfriend-to-girlfriend brands: How brands are incorporating the female gaze

“Be the CEO your parents always wanted you to marry” can count as a slogan for your ad campaign. Bumble, the creator of the slogan, is a female-first dating app that is rapidly morphing into a women’s empowerment platform. More and more brands are not only founded by women but also primarily target women. They promote a message of female entrepreneurship and empowerment. A very famous example: Sophia Amoruso, the woman that founded Nasty Gal, wrote the bestselling book #Girlboss, about her rise to the top. Now, there is even a Netflix-series.

Several of those successful girlfriend-to-girlfriend brands use BFF-marketing (“best friend forever”-marketing) to get their message across: intimate and inclusive communication, which makes it seem as it’s targeted especially to the women in question. Brands are becoming women’s friends by supporting the messages they care about and by standing by them as their “brand-best friends”.

What’s the lesson for marketers?

Brands are incorporating the female gaze and are hence becoming more relevant to their female target audiences. Women are breaking through in board rooms and more and more women are choosing the entrepreneurial path. By including these stories in the brand stories, brands are speaking to and empowering women along the way. The “BFF marketing” that makes several of these brands so successful is not appearing as a stand-alone phenomenon: It comes from the female gaze on marketing and showcases a new informality associated with commerce.

Example of “BFF marketing” from a make-up brand.
Example of “BFF marketing” from a make-up brand

While sharing the female gaze-trend and its application in marketing, I feel hopeful its importance will continue to grow in the following years. Women represent half of the world’s population and are as relevant to target as any other group. When targeting an audience, making sure your products and messages are relevant to your target is one of the marketer’s main tasks. To successfully achieve this, marketers should just as well be able to take on this female gaze and own it! Finally, it’s important to remember that the female gaze is not a stand-alone phenomenon in the visual arts, it’s a paradigm shift that impacts our vision on how we lead our lives and also, on how we do business.


De MorgenDe MorgenDe MorgenThe future 100 – JWTIntelligence