Beacon or Big Top for the Women’s Economy?

Paula Oliveira at Interbrand, who will lead the discussion at Power Shift, suggested we might think of the women’s economic empowerment movement as an iceberg. All the many programs underway to help women succeed are under the water. The tip is the concept that distills the movement into a message that can be seen by others.

What exactly is the women’s economy?  Is there a need to raise awareness of its existence?  Can this be done in a way that will benefit the many programs currently in place?  Who would be responsible for developing a brand or creating a campaign?

All these questions will be considered as part of the action step for this year’s Power Shift. The plan is to produce a report that will be released at the next gathering, which will happen May 4-5 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

A conversation I had yesterday with Maggie Berry (WEConnect) and Megan Stowe (Intel), who will both be on the program at Power Shift, illustrated the problem that this action step is trying to explore.  Both these women are engaged in an important worldwide effort to help women-owned businesses gain access to the bidding for large contracts put out by corporations and governments.  Currently, women get only a very tiny slice of this market, though it is a major source of growth in many industries (for everything from office supplies to catering, not just heavy machinery and military equipment). The fact that women don’t participate in this, as well as other large-scale forms of exchange (international trade, for instance), is as important a reason for their disadvantaged economic status around the world (smaller businesses, less wealth controlled) as is their exclusion from capital markets or their unequal pay.

Yet the three of us agreed that it is very difficult to talk to people about this problem.  They just don’t get it, won’t go there. When you talk about “market access” for women, people turn it into a consumer joke (“What do you mean?  My wife has plenty of market access!”).  When you talk about equality in the marketplace, people immediately assume you are talking about employment equality.  The fact that females are nearly absent from many other important sectors of economic life, from corporate contracts to venture capital, is invisible to many people.

We have a real blind spot about women as producers in our economy. And as investors.  And as philanthropists.  Instead, conventional thinking pushes us along a track where women are either consumers or workers and that is all.

So, the first issue is to define “the women’s economy” as something more holistic, a level of participation that reaches out into every aspect of the economy and not just shopping or labor. The next step is to get folks to be aware of it and to understand its importance. As points of proof and illustration, we should include in our messaging the action programs, such as WEConnect, an NGO that works all over the world to identify and register women-owned businesses so that corporate and government buyers can even find them.  People need to know these massive efforts are going on–and that they will benefit the whole world economy if they are successful!

The International Women’s Coffee Alliance asked people involved in coffee production in Kenya whether men or women did each step of the work to produce and sell coffee. Respondents said that women do all the work up until the coffee is actually sold.  The men do the selling. And they keep the money. Why? They are seen to “own” the coffee because they own the land. Men own 99% of the titled land in Kenya.

Among those efforts currently underway under the general umbrella of women’s economic empowerment, there are many that suffer from this lack of awareness and understanding. For instance, in many food product supply chains, the women do all the work—I mean, seriously, all the work—to plant, cultivate, and harvest an agricultural commodity. But then the men take the product to market and the women never see the money. The men own the land, so they own its produce. Since men own something in the neighborhood of 90% of the world’s farmland—due to millennia of exclusionary property and inheritance laws—the women are completely cut out. It’s a total system and it happens all over the world’s food supply.  Yet the United Nations’ anti-hunger campaign tells us the best way to fight world hunger is to improve women’s ability to participate in agriculture.

So, you have lots of programs now trying to create awareness by branding some agricultural products as “women-sourced,” much as has been done for Fair Trade. For instance, Oxfam has a brand called “Tierra Madre” that brings together the produce of female coffee growers in Nicaragua, so that they can get a better price for their coffee—and can get their hands on the money!

The International Women’s Coffee Alliance is dedicated to improving the status of women at every step in the supply chain  from seed to cup.  The case we wrote about them for the first Power Shift considered whether the IWCA should have a brand. One of the issues was whether this brand would conflict with other, similar brands (like Tierra Madre) or could act as an umbrella for all of them.

And this, in fact, is another function a brand can serve: to act as a flag that unites many similar or related efforts (some of which have their own names), such that each contributes to and benefits from the efforts of the whole.

The problem with the iceberg metaphor, as I thought further about it, is that you don’t want to attract fellow travelers to a big block of ice in the sea. Right? So I began to think more in terms of a beacon or lighthouse. Beacons are good because they attract attention. Lighthouses work because they provide reference points from which to navigate. But, again, there is the problem that both beacons and lighthouses are often used to warn travellers away from dangerous areas. No good. I kept thinking.

But perhaps the most fundamental benefit of a “brand flag” is actually to announce the existence of the group underneath it in the first place, to draw attention to its efforts, to attract resources, and to collect those of similar spirit to join the mission. If you are going to “get out there” and make people aware, you need the flag in order to do it (that is, a name or a symbol or something people can use to recognize you).

A brand must have a meaningful message in order to perform all those functions. But its core idea must be broad enough to encompass all instances to which it will be applied. So, in the case of “the women’s economy,” the brand flag would need to cover programs that encourage supplier diversity and help women get land rights, as well as consumer activist efforts, like the new Buy Up Index, or entrepreneurship training programs or gender lens investing. The challenge is to distill the impetus behind all these programs into a single vision of the mission, then give it a name and a mark. Maybe some advertising. (No, I am not kidding.)

The Women Owned brand was developed by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) as a way for retailers to signal to female shoppers so they could choose to buy from other women. Many people think this is an awesome idea. However, many others, including some Power Shifters, do not like it. Within a brand’s constituency, not everybody need agree on everything. If you have too many “litmus tests,” the community becomes too exclusive to survive. Just one or two core values that can be shared is enough.

Good branding therefore requires focus and discipline. You have to decide, very clearly, what your mission is, then think long and hard about how best to state it. You must translate that core concept into something that can stand for it, like an image or a sound or a name. Then you have to work to teach people to recognize the image or sound or name as standing for the concept.

All the while, you must persuade them that your brand is a good thing, that it solves a real problem, and that they should want to be part of it. (You don’t think brands solve problems? Sorry: this is Marketing 101. Your brand must have a reason to exist.) And, thereafter, you must look after it, protecting its reputation carefully, and ensuring that it continues to stand for the core mission intended for it.

The action step at Power Shift will just be the first, “early days” step in such an effort. We will collect input from an assembled group of the potential brand’s core constituencies. Depending on the input, someone will have to go forward to the next step, which is to start trying to make it real. Who will do that? I don’t really know. How will they do it? I don’t know that either. But we can figure it out if we decide it is important enough.

I finally ended up with a big tent. As in the “big top” at a circus or even the tents evangelicals use. Tents are both attractive and inclusive. They define the space for the action: what goes on under the big top is very different from what goes on under the revival tent. Big tents for gatherings have flags and lights and bunting and signage that draws attention and invites people inside. Yep. But then I don’t want people thinking this is a “three-ring circus” or that those inside might speak in tongues. Clearly, coming up with brand imagery takes time and thought.

In a traditional marketing setting, there is a clear brand “owner” who controls the use of the name and so forth. That person or institution then stewards the brand so that it performs as needed. In this case, it is not at all clear who that person or institution would be.

Does branding even apply to a social movement? I think it does. Social movements need symbols, songs, credos, gathering places, affiliations, as well as budgets, awareness, and so forth, just like a traditional brand. Indeed, sometimes the failure to take into account how a movement is perceived can lead to its failure. Without that kind of considered attention, the movement stops attracting adherents, loses momentum.

So, it seems to me a good thing to at least have this discussion, in order to be deliberate and conscious about what this emergent collection of very passionate activities will stand for, what it will look like to people. And then to reach out and purposefully build an ever-larger and more effective community by telling people who we are and what we are up to.


The plan at Power Shift is to begin this assignment, on the morning of November 10, with a plenary discussion, led by Interbrand’s Paula Oliveira, about the remit. Then, there is a set of focus groups that will give Paula and her colleague Sarah Lent (as well as two colleagues of mine, Rhonda Hadi and Laurel Steinfield) feedback about the task proposed. At the end of the day, we will poll the whole group about key questions that have come out of the focus groups. After the event is over, the Interbrand and Power Shift teams will synthesize the input, including the points made and reactions to the debate on rebranding feminism that takes place the afternoon of November 9. I expect we will also field a survey to the broader Power Shift community (at this point, about 700 people), and perhaps related groups, to be able to quantify from a larger sample. All this data will be put into the report to be released at Power Shift 2016.

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