The Gender of Branding

Yesterday, in my class at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, I spoke about early Nike women’s advertising and its hallmark positioning as an antenarrative of resistance. 1990 seems so long ago. A lifetime.

In 1990 Nike virtually ignored women and women ignored Nike. Addis owned the women’s market. Enter Janet Champ, Charlotte Moore, and later Rachel Manganiello, from Wieden + Kennedy. Together they revolutionized the way brands speak to women. Along they way the made the Nike women’s brand what it is today. For as Manganiello said, “We were using Nike to get across our own views on the matter. Nike just got lucky.” Nike got revolutionized.

At about the same time Nike was becoming the target of labor activists. They took Nike to task for its barbaric offshore labor practices. To Nike’s credit the company listened and has since become the industry’s standard-bearer for fair labor practices in offshore footwear and apparel manufacturing. Lesson learned.

OneWithout a doubt one of the calling cards that led activists to Nike was its early women’s advertising. The messages embedded within the ads spoke with passion, calling women to stand strong. “You became significant to yourself,” read copy from spring 1991. Another ad in fall of 1991 encouraged women to become “the person YOU DECIDE to be.” Is it any wonder that labor activists were drawn to the voice of early Nike women’s advertising, which implied support for American women in contrast to the blind eye Nike turned toward the factory conditions for Asian women? You decide?

Here’s the irony. As Champ crafted copy, she and her partners found themselves fighting for a voice that spoke “truth back to people in a way they didn’t hear before.” And fight they did. “Disgusted” by what they saw in women’s magazines and “pissed off that men got big budgets,” Champ and her partners resisted sequestration in women’s magazines and fought against the impositions of the male parent brand. They made sense of women’s collective memories by questioning and by making sense of something bigger than Nike. Along the way they were accused of “siphoning off” money from men’s sports and “pinkifying” the Nike brand. They resisted. They persisted.

TwoThis advertising perfectly articulates the hallmarks of the antenarrative. In my article The Gender of Branding, I argue that the team’s, “counter-hegemonic resistance also suggests a unified point of struggle, pitting the parent brand against the subordinate women’s sub-brand.” Their work, building the Nike women’s brand, under which they were forced to prioritize femininity over athleticism, at all turns, was successful beyond Nike’s wildest dreams. Despite the fact they had to “tiptoe around women athletes being real jock,” always using “pretty” models and athletes that “never sweat,” the team build an iconic brand within a brand. They resisted patriarchal impositions at each and every turn. Analyzing the ads across time, I argue that “the influence of gender is clearly articulated in the stories shared by the creative team and demonstrated by the clash over depictions of women within the ads.” Further, the often hostile communications with Nike, “as well as the creative own life experiences, significantly shaped the branded messages within the ads and fomented passionate resistance to Nike’s patriarchal structure.” They persisted. They resisted.

ThreeIn late 1995 they unveiled If You Let Me Play, the first T.V. spot for the women’s brand. It exploded onto the world. Suddenly Nike was the savior of women’s sports. The spot, like the print ads, spoke of hope. A resistant voice that had long underpinned their work and which brought the labor activists to Nike’s door, ultimately led to their demise. In 1997 the women’s account was pulled from Wieden + Kennedy and the team went silent. But, not forgotten.

In the end, to quote Champ’s copy, “It’s never too late to have a life; and it’s never too late to change one.” That is exactly what they did. Just do it.



1 Comment

Filed under advertising agencies, brands, culture, women

One response to “The Gender of Branding

  1. Isn’t the advertising side of it (mostly) just a case of doing whatever it takes to appeal to the target demographic in order to tap/ create a new market? (Using tactics first developed by Edward Bernays)

    From the consumer’s side, I do think there are many different factors to explain why sportswear became so fashionable in the 90’s as both sportswear and street wear.

    For a start we live in a sports/ war orientated culture. Sport is how the ruling classes condition the masses (the cannon fodder) to embrace war, and to a certain extent train us how to be good soldiers (follow orders, override pain, give up independent thoughts and feelings in return for group strategy coming from a team commander, desire praise and affirmation from the hierarchy etc etc). It’s aways been this way (Rugby was taught to English boys a century ago and it’s basically WWI trench warfare minus actual bullets), but this sports/ war conditioning has certainly been stepped up several gears over the last decade or two, and especially since the never ending illegal wars of terror started.

    There’s been a clear propaganda campaign to get young women into the military (front line) for at least a decade. The recent change in US policy to allow more front line women roles is no surprise – it’s happened just as these girls who all grew up listening to Rihanna, GaGa, Beyonce et al are coming of age. As with all pre-collapse tyrannical empires, as the economy slides into oblivion the militarisation goes into absolute overdrive.

    And ever since feminism was hijacked there’s been a concerted effort to make women more masculine and men more feminine. The ruling classes basically want most of us to be equal slaves (oversexed yet completely genderless at the same time) with the state basically taking over from men and assuming the role as the alpha male AND taking over from the women and assuming the role of basic child rearing too (control the children and you control society). Basically it’s Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Huxley was a member of the elite “Fabian Society” which was how he knew of their social engineering plans as far back as the 1930’s! His book was not fiction, it was a warning! He also warned us of this agenda (in his very aloof way) in various speeches he gave later in life.

    Thanks to hijacked feminism young ‘independent’ women today have no problems accepting support from the state (money obtained at gunpoint from the general population) but they would feel ‘oppressed’ at the thought of accepting support from a boyfriend or husband (money earned peacefully and shared with love). But I’m digressing a bit here….

    Another reason why sportswear became so fashionable in the 90’s as street wear is the increase in CCTV. Sports wear is anonymous and often baggy and formless too. When all the rough kids and criminals are wearing sportswear, to NOT wear it identifies you as prey/ victim. So all the kids end up wearing it. It’s a shame because fashion for these kids has turned into a sort of tribal code of brands and signifiers – no true self expression going on. Very sad.

    In the UK sportswear seemed to explode for women during the ‘Grrrl Power’ era of the Spice Girls in the mid 90’s (probably part of some Tavistock social engineering agenda). Through ‘Grrrl Power’ feminism was ‘rebranded’ for the 90’s generation as being all about doing backflips, unashamed public drunkenness, predatory/ romance-free sex and passionate anti intellectualism (the ‘ladette’). Sports wear was part of that whole thing.

    On a more positive note the rise in popularity of outdoor activities (rock climbing, bungee jumping etc) also probably had a lot to do with female sportswear coming into its own. It was great to see backpacks specifically designed for the female form and stuff like that. So it’s not *all* about insidious agendas for social control 😉

    A disturbing Nike commercial
    More Nike fun on this page – ‘yay!’ (scroll down)

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