Why brands are losing relevance with girls

Research shows brands need to go beyond pink and princesses.

Brands that default to gender stereotypes when creating products and communications aimed at girls could be putting large swathes off buying from them for good, therefore missing out on a lucrative market and endangering future brand loyalty from a young age.

New research shows that girls prefer brands that empower them and help them to define and discover who they are in ways that don’t necessarily match up to stereotypes that currently exist in marketing.

In the same month that Always created the most tweeted hashtag of the Super Bowl in support of its 60-second #LikeAGirl ad, the study by research agency The Pineapple Lounge backs up the Procter & Gamble brand’s message that girls need to be treated as individuals and inspired to think differently rather than pigeon-holed. The effects of the marketing messages they see are far-reaching, impacting on the roles they see for themselves in business as well as their behaviour as consumers.

The research, entitled Little Miss Understood, surveyed 1,070 girls aged 8-14, revealing their likes, dislikes and what they want from the brands that target them.

Jeannie Tharrington, senior communications manager for North America feminine care at P&G, says Always revived the Like A Girl online video for the Super Bowl as it felt the message had struck a chord. The ad shows girls of different ages acting out what it means to do something ‘like a girl’, for example running. Younger girls are seen to be running as fast and as hard as they can whereas older girls interpret the phrase negatively. It shows a stark contrast between the two age groups.

Find out more: Superbowl 2015 – As it happened for brands

“Phrases such as ‘like a girl’, which is usually used in a negative context or as an insult, have an impact on a girl’s self esteem so we tried to set out and change its meaning from being an insult to mean doing something amazing,” says Tharrington. “We got an overwhelmingly positive response to the video that we posted online so we wanted to find a bigger stage and even larger audience who can help to spread the message further.”

The Little Miss Understood research confirms a major difference between young girls and those heading into puberty. This might sound obvious but the nuanced differences between girls aged 8-10, 11-12 and 13-14 are so vast that it creates opportunities for brands to change the way they market their products that are not immediately obvious. Levels of confidence, how girls communicate, what subjects they prefer in school, activities after school and interests in technology all vary and could come as a surprise to those looking to reach these age groups.

Once girls hit the age of 13 they start to feel less confident and are more worried about the world around them. The statistics show that when asked if they feel happy about their life 85% of 8- to 10-year-olds say yes. This drops to 74% for 13-14s.

Girls generally feel positive about their futures but again this declines among the 13-14s where 55% say they feel confident compared to 62% of 8-10s and 63% of 11-12s. There is also a marked increase in worry. When asked if the world will be a scary place 41% of 8-10s say yes compared to 48% of 11-12s and 57% of 13-14s. When asked what qualities they would like to have when they become parents in the future, 80% of the sample say they would treat boys and girls equally.

“Successful brands that engage young women deliver on three things: emotion (make me feel something), reassurance (make me trust you) and authenticity (show me you mean it).”

Belinda Parmar, Lady Geek

The problem with pink

One problem highlighted in recent years is the way retailers attach gender stereotyping to toys and entertainment for girls. The ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ movement began in late 2012 and in December last year the campaign group reported that there has been a 46% drop in the proportion of online stores using gender to categorise toys.

Last month, meanwhile, toy manufacturer Mattel’s chief executive stood down after sales dropped by 6% in the key quarter up to December 2014. Its flagship Barbie doll is facing stiff competition from other dolls, for example characters from Disney’s film Frozen, but announced a new superhero Barbie doll to counteract this decline.

Find out more: Disney’s CMO on gender stereotypes and moving beyond the ‘pink factor’

Some manufacturers, such as GoldieBlox, are creating toys and games that disrupt the pink aisle of many toy stores

Pink and princesses remain significant symbols of the way young girls relate to femininity. As girls get older their femininity is more likely to be expressed by an interest in style and fashion but many girls feel that these interests can easily sit alongside their feelings of empowerment, according to the research. Girls move further away from the stereotypes as they get older, with 39% of girls aged 13-14 saying they dislike princesses and anything pink, while 38% of 11-12s and 27% of 8-10s say this.

Emma Worrollo, managing director of The Pineapple Lounge, says: “I think some industries can become quite complacent when it comes to targeting and marketing to girls and go for the lowest common denominator, like pink, glitz, and the allure of fame. That is not to say that that is not interesting or appealing, but there are other emotional prompts or angles that engage girls beyond that stereotypical imagery.”

There is a simple and effective formula for doing this, according to Belinda Parmar, chief executive officer of Lady Geek, which aims to transform the way companies talk to women in the technology sector. She says that “successful brands that engage young women deliver on three things: emotion (make me feel something), reassurance (make me trust you) and authenticity (show me you mean it)”. This analysis is similar to what the research says girls are looking for from brands.

Be empowering

An important requirement is to appeal to their individuality. Half the girls in the survey say they want brands to help them have fun, while many will also engage with a brand that ‘allows me to be myself’ (44%), ‘gives me confidence’ (39%) or ‘asks for my opinion’ (38%). This strong sense of self increases with age as over half (51%) of 13-14’s engage with brands that allow them to be themselves compared to 40% of 8-10s.

They also love brands that empower them in a way that is relevant and will help them define and discover who they are. This becomes more important as they reach the 13- to 14-year-old age group, as 33% engage with brands that ‘inspire me to think differently’ compared to just 21% of 8-10s.

“Younger girls are feeling good, they are feeling equal and empowered, and at the most extreme end of that they feel like girls are going to change the world, which is great and very positive,” says Worrollo. However, she adds: “There is a huge question mark over why there is that rapid decline when they get to the 13-to-14 age group and what we can do as an industry to hand-hold, guide and support during that time.”

LeapFrog published research that found 75% of parents do not monitor their children’s online activities

Always’ campaign to change the meaning of the phrase ‘like a girl’ is just one example of a way that brands can get involved. “For us it’s about creating a movement and creating social change where we are all supportive of girls and their confidence,” says P&G’s Tharrington.

Find out more: Procter & Gamble confident Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ campaign has legs

The effects of gender stereotyping are numerous. For example, it is blamed for the lack of women specialising in industries that require maths, science and engineering skills. Yet the research reveals that the number of young girls who take computing or ICT as a subject at school is double the number who take home economics (32% versus 16%).

“While this study shows that computing is twice as popular as home economics, the technology industry still has a ‘dude’ problem,” says Lady Geek’s Parmar. “For every one woman studying computing, there are just over five men.”

Parmar adds: “The perception of somebody who works in technology is a pizza guzzling-nerd who cannot get a girlfriend. This perception is pushing women away from studying ‘STEM’ subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.”

Those brands brave enough to break the stereotypes see instant benefits. Respondents in the research reacted very positively to an advert from GoldieBlox, a brand that makes toys and entertainment for girls to encourage them to become engineers (see case study, below).

Social media and celebrity

As marketers might expect, activities associated with younger girls include playing with toys, drawing and reading, whereas activities that increase with age include shopping, watching YouTube and taking pictures or photos. Social media also becomes more important as girls get older, as interest in toys and arts and crafts declines.

The statistics show that keeping up with social media is important for just 34% of 8- to-10-year-olds, compared to 53% of 11-12s and 69% of 13-14s. Among the oldest of the age groups, YouTube is the most used website with 71% of girls visiting it weekly, followed by Facebook (71%), Instagram (53%) and Snapchat (53%).

This has given rise to YouTube celebrities such as Zoella – a video blogger who gives style tips to girls. The influence of YouTube and social media stars is the reason Stylehaul, a site for viral and native content for girls and women aged 14-34, exists.

Find out more: A marketer’s guide to native advertising

James Stafford, European vice president at StyleHaul, says:The content talks directly to people of a similar age in a way that they understand. The content creators look like them, speak like them and they are interested in the same things, and because of the nature of how we are consuming content, increasingly on mobile, it’s almost like video social networking.”

Stafford believes that it’s important for marketers to respect the personal connection between a consumer and the person that creates the content. The personal aspect of the devices girls use to access the internet also raises an issue of staying safe online. The statistics show that tablets are a top-three device for 8-10s but not for 11-14s, who list smartphones instead.

Online safety is an area that retailer LeapFrog recently addressed, launching research and a new set of guidelines for parents. LeapFrog’s study reveals that 75 per cent of parents don’t monitor their child online, even though 87 per cent agree inappropriate content is too easy to access on the web.

“We want to help ensure children get the best out of the internet and parents understand the importance of having a balanced diet when it comes to the use of technology,” says Sally Plumridge, international marketing director at LeapFrog. “With the proliferation of new tablets in the market, the biggest challenge that parents face is to ensure that their child’s experience is safe and age-appropriate.”

Within those confines, brands are capable of having an enormously positive influence on girls, but it requires undoing much of the negative work that has already been done. Gender stereotyping and guessing the likes and dislikes of girls based on ingrained tropes of popular culture is not a winning strategy.

The Pineapple Lounge’s Worrollo says: “If I was a brand reading this I would be quite excited. Thinking about what Nike has done for sport with the ethos of ‘Just do it’, if a brand could do that for girls at that time when they need confidence and reassurance, that is a really exciting opportunity.”

Goldieblox case study

As part of The Pineapple Lounge’s Little Miss Understood research, girls were shown an advert from a brand called GoldieBlox, which creates toys, games and entertainment that seeks to “disrupt the pink aisle” seen in many toy stores.

The brand aims to encourage girls to get into engineering through its series of construction and story sets and is based on the insight that men outnumber women in educational subjects such as engineering, technology, maths and science.

The advert, called ‘Princess Machine’, shows a group of young girls looking bored as they watch a TV programme that features girls wearing pink, singing a ‘girly’ song. The scene switches to an elaborate domino-effect toy structure built by these girls that eventually turns the channel over.

Nearly two thirds (64%) of girls said they liked the ad and 65% said that ‘it showed girls in a positive way’, while 63% said that ‘it seemed modern and up to date’.

The girls in the study were asked what they thought of how the girls were portrayed in the advert. One respondent said: “They basically proved that even if they are a girl, that doesn’t mean she has to be a princess and have everything with glitter and sparkly.” Another pointed out that “they were independent and were not afraid to do what they want” and “you don’t see girls like that often in clips”.

The research points out, however, that girls also enjoy pink and princesses, but welcome this alternative view.

Walt Disney’s UK and Ireland CMO Anna Hill talks to Marketing Week about reflecting the changing needs of girls and how Frozen is an example of a new type of Disney hero.

Q: Girls are looking for brands to go beyond the ‘pink factor’ when marketing to them – is this something Disney recognises?

In terms of the pinkness, we don’t feel that all girls are the same. Some audiences may be looking for more traditional fairy tales but others are looking for strong, independent characters and we see that we can deliver on both through characters such as Elsa and Anna in Frozen.

Q: Do you feel that Disney creates role models that inspire or empower young girls?

Yes, absolutely. We are consistently looking at ways to demonstrate positive messages through our stories. We find kids have a magical, lifelong relationship with our characters. At the core of their stories, it is their inner qualities and bravery that always shines through and defines them, and we hope these characteristics will be an inspiration to kids and adults alike.

Q: Has there been a conscious shift towards stronger lead female roles in Disney films such as Frozen, Brave and Tangled?

Over the last 80 years we have evolved the Disney Princess franchise – staying true to the heritage of our ‘traditional’ princesses and representing broader character attributes that are relevant to today’s generation.

Frozen is a great example. It’s a modern interpretation of The Snow Queen, which tells the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna, who also happen to be princesses. Together, they embody Disney’s heritage in princess storytelling but demonstrating more independent characteristics and great strength.

Q: In what ways does Disney keep up with behavioural trends of girls?

We speak to 50,000 children every year across Europe about their lifestyle, aspirations and needs across the media. Speaking directly to our audience and their caregivers, listening and asking the right questions is the key way that we keep up with behavioural trends.

Q: What trends are you seeing from your own research?

We find girls (and boys) are less defined by age, but more by stage, meaning that children go through different stages; being more confident, wanting to express themselves, play patterns, etc. but this can happen at different ages depending on the children. Therefore girls of 5 and girls of 8 can enjoy doing the same thing.



There are 3 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Fiona 23 Feb 2015

    This is an interesting article; read the first few paragraphs as am pressed for time, but I would be interested to see some of the statistics if the equivalent questions were asked to young boys. If we’re shooting for true parity, the responses of boys from similar samples could be compared; I’d like to know if confidence drops in young boys as they get older, whether they dislike robots and anything blue, and so on and so forth.

    • Hi Fiona – we did run a control sample of boys and the drop off in confidence amongst them in comparison to girls was much less significant. We plan to do an equivalent study on boys next year so watch this space and keep an eye on TPL website! Emma

Leave a comment