Clarks’ misstep in race against gender stereotypes

In August 2017 British shoe manufacturer and retailer Clarks faced accusations of ‘everyday sexism’ by a London-based Labour Party councillor, with many others following in her footsteps on social media.

The furore kicked off because of the name of a range of children’s shoes. While the boys shoes are called ‘Leader’, the girls are named ‘Dolly Babe’.

Dolly Babe outrage tweet | New Product Disasters | Bad Marketing

The Leader range features harder-to-scuff material, footballs on the outside and insoles, and a sturdy design. The Dolly Babe has a patent exterior, heart print on the insoles and an exposed forefoot.

The products and names certainly do not fit with Clarks’ mission to “ensure our ranges reflect our gender-neutral ethos”, and after they received this customer feedback they took the Dolly Babe range off their website. The Leader is still on sale (and is surely still perpetuating a gender stereotype?).

Clarks confirmed on Twitter that the shoe was “being phased out” and that they will be “changing the way we market our shoes for future ranges”.

It might only be relatively recently that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced that they will be getting tougher on adverts that feature gender stereotypes, based on their report Depictions, Perceptions and Harm – but this is not a new issue for Clarks, and one they should be trying to address a lot quicker than they seem to be.

Earlier that month, a parent posted another message of disappointment and anger towards Clarks in this Facebook post – which gained a lot of public support – while one year beforehand another frustrated mother posted a similar complaint.

What does good look like?

The increasing public profile of gender stereotypes and their negative place in society – particularly where children are concerned – has resulted in a lot of talk and column inches on the subject. From the outside it looks like Clarks hasn’t reacted to this trend in a timely manner – and managing to do so is a key factor for success in any business.

On the one hand, you can understand that if Clarks have high-value stock they won’t want to dispose of it or sell for less than its value – that’s not good financial sense. However on the other, anti-gender-stereotyping has been a sociological trend for some time and they’ve had direct complaints from a year beforehand. You would expect the Market Research or Insight or Online/Social team to be picking up on these trends and influencing the New Product Development and Sales teams.

This begs the question about whether the marketing team are working in silo from these other departments – which can be damaging to a brand. A business’s brand is so much more than the designed look and feel of its logos and packaging. It’s the feeling and experience a customer has when they interact with any part of the business. If the company is proclaiming to have a “gender-neutral ethos” but this isn’t demonstrated in their product range – customers will lose trust and vote with their feet. Clarks need to ask themselves if that ethos really does exist throughout the whole business – and, if not, do what they can to make sure it is.

Tread carefully, Clarks.

Moving forward

Will the ASA guidelines on gender stereotyping influence how you advertise your products or services? How can you make sure Market Research/Insight influences your business/marcomms? What will you change in your work going forward?

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Chris Rogers

I curate stories of #badmarketing so marketing professionals and business owners like you can learn from the mistakes of others - and produce better marketing that’s right first time. Bad Marketing also aims to be essential reading for marketers, academics & students – and anyone interested in the challenges of marketing.

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