Identity Politics: Tread lightly when jumping on the bandwagon

From a botched Pepsi advert and overpriced Feminism t-shirts to fallen #Girlboss leaders, it has never been more important to actually know what you stand for, or to stand down.

The Cringe Felt Round the World

We’ve all cringed over the Pepsi advert seen round the world, and it only took the collective internet-mind mere seconds to compare Pepsi’s ‘tone-deaf’ protest advertisement with women like real-life Baton Rouge protester Ieshia Evans.

For years, trend agencies have been telling brands that Gen Z and Millennials want to see ‘cause related marketing’, and that brands should take a stance, and a stand, on an issue. It worked for Starbucks, and it even worked for Nordstrom, and it is most certainly working for late night shows like Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. So why didn’t it work for Pepsi?

Pepsi got caught up in the moment and the ‘movement’ and wanted to capitalise on emotions sweeping the world. And boy, oh boy did Pepsi make a misstep. It turns out that jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t always show empathy, and rarely feels authentic to everyday consumers. This begs the question: If consumers increasingly describe themselves through ‘Identity Politics’, how do we reach them without missing the mark?

Marketing to Women in an Identity Politics Minefield

The Women’s Movement has come a long way from Mrs. Pankhurst, and contemporary Feminism has seen its star rise. The global Women’s March saw record numbers of men, women and children turn up with their declarations and their most creatively snarky signs. With the increase in political marches, local creatives on crafting website Etsy have quickly looked to support the cause while cashing in, offering affordable signs for protests from women’s rights to human rights, #blacklivesmatter to saving scientific funding.

With this rise of Identity Politics, public personalities and brands have had to choose a side. Are you with us or against us? And often there is no ‘right’ answer. No sooner does a celebrity declare her Feminist loyalty, than critics crawl out of the woodwork to declare it ‘Marketplace Feminism’. Dior received a mix of vitriol and praise by selling a £490 Feminism t-shirt from their runway show last month, eventually donating proceeds to women’s charities. Identity Politics are nuanced, and sweeping statements somehow manage to draw as many critics as they do supporters.

Fallen #GirlBoss Heroes Selling the Dream

When declaring a side or taking a stand, most vulnerable are the businesses that base their brand in Identity Politics. When brands like Thinx get it right – with their highly functional women-focused undergarments and pleasantly incendiary advertisements, consumers flock to the brand. In its early days, Thinx and its founder and ‘She-E.O. Miki Agrawal were lauded as ‘a force of nature’.

But when the Thinx business was plagued by claims of sexual harassment by Agrawal, there were tremors impacting the pro-woman foundation upon which brand was built.  Similarly, the original self-styled #GirlBoss Sophia Amoruso has watched her empire crumble due to bad behaviour back at headquarters.

Amoruso founded the e-commerce site Nasty Gal in 2006, growing it from a stumbling eBay business to a multimillion dollar, Silicon Valley funded brand on the fast-track. With her book #GirlBoss, Amoruso launched the cult of the girl entrepreneur. She waded into Identity Politics, and placed herself and the brand Nasty Gal firmly at the centre of a growing young Feminist conversation. It came as a shock to investors and customers alike when claims of wrongful termination during maternity leave and bad business practices saw Amoruso step down from her post as the #GirlBoss.

And yet, Sophia Amoruso and the #GirlBoss moniker so many women had adopted have stood the test of Identity Politics. Despite a company in bankruptcy (recently sold off to Boohoo.com), Amoruso has re-invented herself by owning her status as a woman entrepreneur. Girlboss.com now serves as an online space for women who want to be the boss of their own lives. The brand has a podcast, now hosts the GirlBoss Rally in Los Angeles and online, and a fictionalised account of Amoruso’s story is premiering this month on Netflix. For the original #GirlBoss, it seems Identity Politics can be both foe and friend.

How should brands engage with Identity Politics?

As more and more men, women and young people begin to centre their individual identity around Identity Politics, how do brands avoid a major misstep? If we can learn anything from the likes of Pepsi, Etsy, Dior and GirlBoss.com, it’s certainly time to elevate rather than imitate. As the groundswell of emotion and cultural upheaval continues over the coming years, brands should do less of hopping on the bandwagon, and instead do more to provide occasions and platforms for everyday people to share their thoughts and identities.

//Meredith Smith