BRAND BUILDING: Pamela Yau on building equity for the female brand

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BRAND BUILDING is a blog feature in which our experts present an in-depth POV on topics ranging from branding to design to experience, all through the lens of simplicity. Here Pamela Yau, associate business analytics & insights strategist, discusses how women can build brand equity for the female brand.

At Siegel+Gale, we solve business problems with our brand strategy, design and communications solutions. In this article I apply branding principles to the problem of gender equality, asking myself the question: How can women build and maintain female brand equity in the workplace?

The business case for gender equality is robust: research has linked gender equality to higher profit margins, productivity and economic performance. However, we still have a ways to go to achieve parity (only 5% of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs). In this blog post, I share four branding lessons women can use to build the female brand, rise to success as individuals and collectively further gender equality.

1. Overcome risk aversion

Brand growth requires a healthy appetite for risk.

No matter how strong a brand may be, being too risk averse can mean missing opportunities. Consider Kodak, which went from dominating the film photography industry, with 90% market share in 1976, to declaring bankruptcy in 2012. What caused the brand’s decline? An aversion to risk.

Despite being a pioneer in digital photography and inventing the first digital camera in 1975, Kodak was reluctant to give up its stronghold on film. Until then, Kodak’s identity and success had been shaped by a business strategy positioned around film. Disrupting this strategy to make room for digital would have meant taking the risk of changing a proven, profitable approach. Film was at the root of Kodak’s business and identity—and it was hard to let go. Therefore, Kodak stuck to its familiar strategy of selling film products, making room for nimbler competitors like Canon and Sony to move in on the digital market.

Take some risks.

Professional growth requires some risk taking. Women are typically more risk averse than men, or are perceived to be so. And research shows that men are more likely to take risks than women when it comes to applying for promotions. A commonly cited survey by Hewlett-Packard found that most women at the company applied for promotions only when they thought they were 100% qualified, whereas most men applied when they thought they were 60% qualified.

Why are women more risk averse? Different reasons, spanning the biological, evolutionary and cultural. Recognizing these underpinnings is just a starting point to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Practice challenging yourself and taking small chances. Or follow the advice of a successful woman who once said, “I don’t like to gamble, but if there’s one thing I’m willing to bet on, it’s myself.”

2. Leverage your strengths  

Successful brands leverage their strengths and perceived weaknesses.

German grocery chain Aldi has been taking on the supermarket industry by storm. Its shopping experience is highly utilitarian: walking into a store you might be surprised by its spartan, impersonal decor. Products are placed on pallets instead of shelves, there are no special service counters and you have to rent shopping carts for twenty-five cents. The store design might seem bland in comparison to supermarkets with flashier signs and shinier floors, but Aldi’s minimalistic approach is precisely what makes the brand successful. Aldi is positioned around guaranteeing high-quality products at the lowest possible prices, and a low-key store environment cuts costs that allow the brand to deliver on their promise. In the end, Aldi’s no-frills shopping experience contributes to its strength that keeps consumers coming back.

Leverage your strengths—perceived or not—when you can.

Whatever strengths or perceived weaknesses you might have, use them to your advantage. Research shows that women’s brain structures make them better listeners. If you know you’re a good listener, then position yourself as a negotiator or manager. When possible, take perceived weaknesses and position them as strengths. For example, risk aversion can be an advantage; managing risk from the onset means women tend to research ventures thoroughly and calculate potential costs and benefits. In some cases, a slight tendency for risk aversion is a strength that can lead to higher returns: firms managed by female CEOs have lower risk levels and outperform firms managed by male CEOs, and startups with at least one female founder outperform those with all-male teams by 63%. Know which tools you have and when they can be leveraged to your advantage.

3. Build women’s brand equity for the long run

The best brands think long-term.   

Successful brands know that it’s not enough to build brand equity—it’s maintaining it in the long run that matters. Nasty Gal, for example, is a venture-capital-backed online retailer that was able to generate a massive amount of buzz at the beginning through heavy advertising and marketing, but failed to convert the buzz into loyal customers, resulting in faltering sales. Furthermore, employees spoke out against the brand’s founder Sophia Amoruso, accusing the company of being “a horrible place for professional women who become pregnant.” These allegations made it harder for the brand to gain brand advocates, and the company went from generating $85 million in revenue in 2014 to filing for bankruptcy just two years later.

To maintain female brand equity, we must also think long-term.

Achieving gender equality is like building brand equity: there’s a lot of upfront work but maintenance is key for long-term success. One long-term strategy is to harness our power to advocate for others. Today it’s not enough just to reach the top . As Kevin Spacey once said, “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.” We have to think long-term and ask ourselves: are we helping other women get to the top? Are we making it easy for other women to lead in the future?

Studies show that female leaders are less likely to help other women professionally when they work in male-dominated fields. Examine the context in which you work and assess whether it is conducive to women advocating for other women. One may mistakenly blaze a path only to block others from traveling down the same road. Realize that, at least for now, equality is not permanent. Instead, it’s an active and ongoing effort.

4. Be self aware, and true to yourself

Successful brands have a firm grasp on their identities.

Brands struggle when they lose sight of their identity. Take Yahoo! as an example—the former tech pioneer was recently bought by Verizon. Its demise is due, in large part, to its identity crisis. It tried to be everything: a mail provider, a search engine and a news aggregator, without doing any one exceptionally well. In the process, it confused its customers and fell behind other tech giants that were more confident in their identities and value propositions.

Be true to yourself.

In her book We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.” Changing perceptions or building the female brand does not mean changing our identities. Career advice is not prescriptive; we shouldn’t adhere to an archetype of female success but reinvent and embody our version of success.

Therefore, in navigating one’s career or deciding what type of professional one wants to be, perhaps what’s best is to develop a self-awareness, understanding and articulation of your own identity. And with all our individual identities, we can then collectively build—and define—a stronger female brand for the future.

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