Rethink praise – how Avon empowers Brazil’s women without the clichés
Avon saw a problem: 80% of the compliments directed at girls were based on how they look, while boys were praised for what they do. Knowing the power of praise during children’s developmental stages, Avon developed ‘Rethink Praise’: Careless words harm female empowerment; careful words enable it.
This article originally appeared in The Madtech Brief, Marketing‘s second print issue for 2019
Campaign: Rethink Praise
Agency: J Walter Thompson Sydney, London São Paulo
Avon is the number one cosmetics brand in Brazil. It has been lovingly handed down from mother to daughter, and is the world’s largest employer of women – employing more than six million Avon Ladies (or representatives, as they are now more appropriately called). For more than 130 years, Avon has removed barriers to gender equality by supporting female financial independence, campaigning against domestic violence, and creating products that boost women’s confidence. Yet Avon was rapidly losing relevance.
Avon needed to be in the spotlight again as the brand that supports female empowerment, both throughout a woman’s life and at a larger societal level.
Avon believes empowered women make the world a more beautiful place – and wanted to put its brand purpose into action. It was not enough to simply challenge gender attitudes. To create a better future, we needed to expose the unconscious gender bias that prevents girls from reaching their potential. Avon asked – ‘isn’t it our responsibility not just to raise our girls, but to future-proof them as well?’
Avon briefed J Walter Thompson (JWT) to create a movement, starting in Brazil, that would empower girls, because empowered girls become empowered women. Three JWT offices worked together to respond to the brief with strategy coming from London, creative from Sydney and production via São Paulo. Our objective was to drive reach and scale: coverage by 70% of Brazil’s mainstream media and strong influencer pick-up. Engagement by parents (especially women) and reinforcing brand equity via the purpose were two more objectives.
Over the past few years, feminine brands have embraced empowerment speech. Some successfully, some less so. We needed to avoid ‘femvertising’ clichés and tokenism, needing instead something that would spotlight gender inequality in a new way and change behaviour for good.
Furthermore, like many countries, Brazilian society has been undergoing a conservative backlash. Gender roles are deeply traditional, with women expected to look after domestic duties. So, we needed to speak with women, not to them, to engage them in the conversation about gender roles. And not alienate men either.
Delving through Avon’s extensive research into female empowerment, we quickly realised that inequality begins in childhood with an unconscious bias perpetuated by society. Our key insight: most of us unconsciously praise children (even our own) in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes. To dig deeper, JWT conducted a quantitative survey to understand the most popular words used to praise boys and girls. The discovery was shocking: 80% of the compliments directed at girls were based on how they look. For boys it was the opposite. Boys were praised on what they do.
The pervasive issue of praise is in how it impacts children. Praise works as an educational appreciation tool. When children do something right, adults use a nice word to reward them. Seeking to receive more praise, children seek to repeat behaviour that has been positively reinforced by adults. Nobody thinks much about it. That’s the problem. With this recurring stimulus, girls begin to build their sense of identity with a limited perspective: they are rewarded for their appearance, for being pretty, cute, a princess. Boys are rewarded for being strong, smart, fearless and curious, affirming a future vision for themselves that they can be and do anything.
Which led to the idea – Rethink Praise: Careless words harm female empowerment; careful words enable it.
It was time to make a bold move: to hold up a mirror and encourage parents to change the way they praise their daughters. To tell girls they are more than pretty. Engaging parents in expanding their vocabulary of praise required much more than just banners and a call-to-action. We needed to create emotive, illuminating and immersive content that sparked an ‘aha’ moment. We needed to help parents realise their own bias. We needed content that didn’t look like an ad and could enter the cultural lexicon. And we wanted to create behaviour change and give parents a genuine desire to actively and consciously rethink praise.
Our idea was bold and our mission was massive: to change how society praises girls. We wanted to reach people in an unexpected way to start a conversation and call upon parents and teachers and society to choose empowering words for girls.
We threw the spotlight on twins – one boy, one girl – enlisting one of Brazil’s most respected directors to make a feature-length documentary showing how parents of mixed-gender twins unwittingly give their kids unequal praise. The feature film focused on five families of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds in five Brazilian cities, showing their dynamics and social context, as well as the words they use to praise their mixed-gender twins.
In order for the project to get mass reach, the discussion needed to take place in the country’s mainstream media. The trailer for the documentary screened on one of Brazil’s most popular news programs, followed by a story about how gender bias is deeply rooted in Brazilian society.
After the show, the trailer was posted on Avon’s Facebook. A few days later, we launched the full documentary online (including the YouTube page of the United Nations). It was screened free in theatres, in schools and was supported by UN Women. Influencers, activists and celebrities came on board to spread the word.
We created tools designed to inspire behaviour change. Influential YouTubers talked about the long-term effect of unequal praise. An interactive dictionary provided endless words of praise for parents to choose from. Avon representatives became campaign advocates, speaking to mothers in their homes and getting them to make the pledge to praise their daughters for being more than pretty.
It was a brave move for a beauty brand to encourage parents to tell their daughters that beauty isn’t the be all and end all, yet it worked: the campaign reached over 30 million people, became a subject of debate nationally, reinforced Avon’s brand purpose and recently won two Effies in Brazil.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Conservative groups initiated a severe backlash against Avon as soon as the teaser was launched. They claimed the campaign was a ‘left-wing’ attempt to interfere with family values and some started a short-lived boycott. Most brands would backpedal or go dark, but Avon stayed true to its mission. With the subject heating up, Avon continued to facilitate the discussion about female empowerment within this polarising environment, releasing the full-length documentary a few days later, not only online, but via free screenings in cinemas for those who didn’t have internet access.
All project goals were exceeded. After the controversial start, the campaign gained positive traction with coverage on 100% of the major news outlets and more than 100 unprompted mentions from key spokespeople and influencers. The campaign delivered on enjoyability, reaching levels 100 percent in excess of the Brazilian norm. The online viewing time of the doco was way above Avon’s expectations, and the engagement was 14 times higher than average. It generated 30% uplift in brand love and, surprisingly, also increased purchase intent. Moreover, it won praise from Avon’s biggest competitors: Natura, Mary Kay and Unilever shared the content on their own social networks to congratulate Avon on the project – and inspired a panel on the topic of praise at SXSW.
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