How Do You Brand Empowerment? 3 Cause Marketing Lessons from SXSW Panelists

“We have seen the future, and the future is female.”

Sound familiar? The answer is likely a resounding “yes,” as this past year has been truly remarkable for women. We’ve found ourselves in a new era of female empowerment and advocacy where our rights, voices, and bodies have been louder and prouder than ever before.  From boardrooms to Hollywood, politics, Barbie dolls, and even to underwear, the topic of female empowerment has been at the forefront of social conversation.

And brands, for better or for worse, certainly haven’t been shy about getting involved. Brands of all sizes and categories tirelessly work to “find their cause” and build engagement with a more mission-minded focus. But they tread the precarious line of marketing a message that’s authentic, yet cuts through the “cause clutter.”

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at SXSW entitled “Celebration, Not Exploitation” with a cross-section of brand experts, all of whom play a critical role in creating cause-driven movements that drive both impact and sales: Brian Beitler, CMO of Lane Bryant; Anna Plaks-Parker, VP of Brand Experience for Refinery29; and Chrysi Philalithes, Chief Digital Officer for (RED).

The speakers offered a few key takeaways about how to create truly empowering campaigns:

Lesson 1: Start with listening

All too often, brands form their own ideas of what they should be to consumers or what causes they should support. Whether it’s out of personal passion or business motivation, they’re determined to make it happen; to make people care; to be the “heroes” of a particular mission. They’re doing good for the world, right? Yet, that’s exactly how brands end up creating beautiful campaigns that are full of good intentions, but sit on the proverbial shelf because they don’t resonate in the real world—not exactly the culture-changing moment one imagined. Or worse, it ignites disbelief and broken trust from audiences who are increasingly socially savvy and in-tune with what feels like a genuine brand message.

Here’s a tip: It’s not about you. Instead of your team of executives deciding what platform to espouse, listen. Listen closely. Act like a journalist and keep close tabs on the social conversation and cultural ideas around you. Pay attention to comments, to tweets, to Facebook discussions, and to trending articles.  Analyze and explore the themes you constantly see circulating. Consumers will point you in the direction they care about. And by actively listening, you won’t be reading about these issues and feelings from PowerPoint presentations, you’ll know the nuances of the conversation and be able to jump into action in a much more informed, empathetic, and effective way.

When developing Lane Bryant’s first campaign to support body diversity, Brian personally interviewed hundreds of women about their lives, bodies, and confidence levels, and how each of these factors affected their choice of apparel.  He listened to their stories and took their pictures. He found some women who stood confidently – even proudly – in front of the camera, and others who had avoided the camera for years out of the discomfort of seeing themselves. He witnessed first-hand the shame and anxiety that plagues women’s perceptions of their own bodies.

Through listening, Brian and his team recognized the deep need to help women love their bodies and to start a conversation that helps change the conversation. This insight led to the development of their successful #ImNoAngel campaign, strategically launched during Victoria Secret’s fashion week runway show.Panel Emily copy body

Lesson 2: Find the talkers

There’s a lot to be said for those who gab—They’re paying attention, they’re engaged, they’re participatory… and most importantly, they’re willing to share.  Target these vocal types and strike up a conversation. Engage with them frequently, so they ultimately become your advocates. Genuine voices contributing to your marketing efforts will increase both the authenticity and impact of anything you do.

Embracing relationships with your hyper-engaged audience members also opens up a direct line of sight into what’s going on in their worlds and broader communities.  And as we know from Lesson 1, listening to these conversations makes a significant difference in charting your cause-minded course.

Refinery29 has mastered the art of honing in on engaged individuals, and using them as critical informants and advocates in a quest to make female empowerment issues the fuel behind its editorial engine. Some of their best stories come from editors’ conversations with users in the comments fields.

Lesson 3: Trust your partners

Whether it’s through partnering with an editorial agency for content that helps expand your reach and engagement, or a non-profit that helps deepen your credibility and impact, successful advocacy-driven brands rarely act alone.  Such third party partners are often critical to enhancing authenticity in a brand’s advocacy strategy.

Take, for example, (RED)—a bold and progressive non-profit whose mission is to eradicate AIDS. Their entire model is built on partnering with businesses to offer co-branded products and experiences that raise money for the Global Fund.  Inherent in these relationships is a critical element of trust that (RED) will advocate on their brand’s behalf in a way that benefits both sides of the partnership.  (RED) builds unique programs in tune with the latest cultural zeitgeist, but the brands must be open to giving (RED) the license to think and act creatively – recognizing that (RED) has permission to be bold and provocative in ways their own brand often can’t, and interrupting the process would be interrupting the impact.

Invest in your relationship with your partner from the start, and get comfortable with each other’s objectives and working styles. Then when the time comes, loosen the reigns and let them go to work on behalf of your brand and the mission you both support. A trusted partner can help your brand broaden its horizons and expand its reach.

Speaker Pass body

Each of the panelists at SXSW spoke authentically about his or her brand’s particular causes. And as gender issues become more and more prevalent, they’ve developed a model of empathy, engagement, and partnership, which will help brands create messages that are clear, strong, and transparent. Authentic female empowerment will call upon brand leaders—of both genders—to work openly with their audiences to ignite real change in the world.


Director of Strategy