Why companies are embracing International Women's Day

The Wall Street bull gets company
The Wall Street bull gets company

Starbucks (SBUX) is teaming up with the Malala Fund. Barbie launched an "Inspiring Women" series. McDonald's flipped its golden arches to make a W.

In 2018, brands are leaning into International Women's Day — and using it as an opportunity to broadcast their commitment to gender equality.

Tunay Firat, partnership development specialist at UN Women said that over the past several months, companies have been asking her about ways to get involved. In previous years, she's often been the one to initiate contact.

"I would call it a societal shift," she said. "[Companies are] reaching out to me from all around the world."

Something like this, she added "has never happened since the inception of UN Women," the United Nation's group dedicated to empowering women.

Related: Why McDonald's is flipping its arches for a day

"Brands are always looking for opportunities to leverage events to shape their perceptions," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"International Women's Day is a perfect opportunity for brands to talk about their commitment to empowerment."

For some big companies, the event has become a focal point for major campaigns.

This year, Mattel planned its "biggest global effort to date timed to International Women's Day," said Lisa McKnight, global general manager for Barbie, during an analyst event in February.

Though Mattel (MAT) is only offering three new Barbie dolls for purchase right away, it's planning to roll out another 14 "Shero" dolls — including ones based on Olympic snowboarding champion Chloe Kim and "Wonder Woman" director Patty Jenkins.

The company is also inviting customers to tweet using the hashtag #MoreRoleModels to shout out women who inspire them.

Procter & Gamble (PG) launched its biggest campaign around International Women's Day, called We See Equal, in 2017 and continued to build on it this year.

Allison Tummon Kamphuis, who leads P&G's gender equality program, explained that the company's first big push came after it named gender equality as one of its initiatives in 2016.

In previous years, P&G observed International Women's Day internally, with lectures and events for staff. Now, the company hosts several public-facing events, including a discussion with Katie Couric and an interactive exhibit called "Women at Work: Myth vs Reality."

Firat pointed to P&G as a company that has genuinely committed to promoting gender equality.

Related: Barbie unveils dolls based on Amelia Earhart and Frida Kahlo

While some brands have given International Women's Day a lot of thought, others are still trying to figure out a way in. Firat said that some companies hope a campaign featuring women's empowerment will help them reach Millennials, who tend to value brands that embrace social causes.

Calkins suggested that some companies may also be chasing the success of others.

"Marketers watch what other marketers are doing," he said.

"When companies see high-profile campaigns that get some traction ... they are very quick to jump on the bandwagon."

Though there are advantages to joining a conversation about gender, there are also risks. "If you're going to be out there celebrating your commitment to gender equality, then it does invite some scrutiny," Calkins said.

One example, he said, is the "Fearless Girl" statue.

The sculpture was conceived by the powerful financial group State Street (STT) and advertising firm McCann as a way to spread awareness of State Street's efforts to increase gender diversity on corporate boards.

Related: Awkward! Company behind 'Fearless Girl' settles gender pay dispute

The campaign was an overwhelming success People fell in love with the statue of the defiant girl staring down the "Charging Bull" in New York City, and she quickly became a symbol of resistance and empowerment.

But the sculpture's prominence put State Street in the spotlight when it agreed to pay $5 million to settle allegations that it underpaid female and black employees. The firm denied any wrongdoing.

And McDonald's (MCD), which has faced protests by employees seeking higher wages, is already being criticized for honoring the day with what some see as an empty gesture.

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