women leadersElisa Birtwistle writes: If brands want their advertising and marketing to resonate with women, they need to understand that using one-dimensional stereotypes in their messaging no longer works.

The statistic that prompted one of the biggest reactions at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival was shared by Unilever’s Keith Weed. During his presentation on why the company is radically changing its female-focused advertising strategy, he revealed that 40% of women—two-fifths!—do not identify with the images of them portrayed by most ads, while just 3% of Unilever’s ads feature women in leadership roles and 1% show women being funny.

As Weed disclosed the findings, a vivid picture emerged of the size of the gap between how female identity is evolving and the version presented by advertising. Unilever was given credit for committing to develop more culturally relevant and resonant work to combat gender stereotyping and more accurately reflect society.

Progressive visions

However, Weed was also keen to point out that the change wasn’t just driven by altruism. It was underpinned by a clear commercial imperative. The research shows how quickly female identity is evolving; it also highlights the opportunity for brands to benefit by responding.

Based on work Unilever carried out with The Futures Company on the evolving nature of female identity, Unilever has committed itself to creating more communications which show a progressive vision of female identity, by challenging themselves on three critical dimensions of how women are represented: through their role, personality and appearance.

Higher levels of engagement

Our work showed that ads that fit the progressive category were shown to deliver higher levels of engagement, interest and excitement, indexing well in terms of standing out and making an impact. In other words, making communications which show a more progressive vision of female identity makes sound business sense.

What’s clear from the research is that the advertising and marketing industry has got a lot of catching up to do to simply project a realistic, contemporary picture of female identity.

The good news is that those brands who choose to move their strategy forward have a great opportunity for growth, disruption and creativity.

To do so, brands will need to get a deeper understanding of how values and culture are changing, so that they can both reflect an accurate picture of where female identity is today, and help to shape more progressive visions of where female identity could go in future.

A version of this post appeared on the blog of Cream. The image at the top of the post is by Death to Stock.

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