Adam Irwin
Adam Irwin

Bra Burning Needs Brand Planning

Unless you’ve recently awoken from a coma or you live in a cave, I will assume you’re well aware of the controversy that has erupted around Protein World’s outdoor print campaign. Feminists kick-started a national debate from a campaign that I doubt was intended to be so controversial.

But in my view the actions of the more extreme feminists have undermined the endeavours of those who are genuinely fighting for equality – they have accentuated the movement’s perceived humourless, stiff, intolerant profile and have served to further alienate people from their core brand messaging. The pressure groups need to start thinking about a long-term strategy for their ‘brand’ and how they can engage the wider populace without losing the potency of their message.

Blown out of proportion 

Let’s clear one thing up. Even in this bizarre, PC obsessed world we live in, this level of controversy is utter lunacy. The ads were put in places where lots of people see them, like The Underground, so it wasn’t long before feminists and some people without the body of a demigod noticed them and got really cross. Cross about a model in a bikini and headline carrying a sentiment commonly expressed amongst the target audience in offices and homes up and down the country. Social media channels were ablaze with literary duels between the brand, feminists, brand advocates and anyone else who decided to be angry about it; leaving the rest of us wondering what on earth was going on. People began vandalising the ads, setting up petitions and planning protests. Then it was on the actual real news.

Positive Chaos

Someone asked me, as a brand planner, if I thought all this pandemonium was good for Protein World? Well yes, of course it is. Obviously their brand awareness has sky rocketed. To pay for the same level of media exposure would cost millions of pounds, so they’re winning there. But most people jump on the negative publicity, the libel, the slander. It is almost completely irrelevant. If the brand in question was Slim Fast, I would be more concerned. But consider Protein World’s target audience. These consumers are taking protein supplements, most will combine this with a dedicated gym workout, and even if they’re not serious yet, they’re aspiring to be. All Protein World has done is rally its own troops and bring them along to the party to stand in its defence.

The only obvious downside is the ASA’s decision to uphold the ludicrous complaints and ban the ads. This is certainly a point to the feminists who are leading the charge on Protein World’s campaign.

Tone of voice

One thing I did observe was the belligerent manner in which the brand responded to the onslaught. I suspect it was reactive, rather than planned. I doubt their brand guidelines state that they are passionately against feminism, but that is how they’ve positioned themselves now. Would I advise them to change their tone? A little. At times the brand comes across a little churlish, but this is a relatively minor tweak. But to make the brand more diplomatic or apologetic, certainly at this stage, would be a huge mistake. It would undermine the personality the brand has adopted and in a market where product differentiation is difficult, it’s arguably their biggest asset.

I’ll explain my support for the cavalier attitude of the brand:

Take a series of TV ads promoting skin care from as many brands as you like. I guarantee they will all look and sound roughly the same. They will all have the camera panning over a model’s immaculate face (presumably feminists don’t watch these ads or there would be protests about these too). The voiceover will mention perfect skin made possible by some made-up terminology that sounds like science, and there will be some CGI imagery to help explain this. The camera will then pan back to the smiley model and the brand logo to remind you which counter you need in Harvey Nicks. My issue is that this similarity is boring. It washes over consumers as just another ad from that category. None of the brands are being remarkable in their communication.

In the sports supplement market, brands will talk about science, perhaps natural ingredients or price. But Protein World’s cock-sure, confident, even arrogant personality has made the brand famous for being a belligerent ambassador for all body sculpting enthusiasts. Their unique tone of voice now cuts through any other brand in that market. It’s the equivalent of Max Factor changing their strapline from ‘The makeup of makeup artists’ to ‘The makeup of fit people’. Protein World’s brand personality is the most noticeable one in that category and I suspect it will continue to be so for some time.


One of the biggest challenges I’ve heard from people attacking Protein World, is that the ad makes women feel inferior because it tells women that, for their body to be ‘beach ready’, they should aspire to have the body of Aussie model Renee Somerfield.

Aspiration is used in advertising a lot and has been since a bloke made a wheel and rolled it down a hill shouting, “hey everyone, I bet you all wish you had one of these!” Advertising is used to promote aspiration of all sorts of things. ‘Be healthier.’ ‘Eat better.’ ‘Wish you were here?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to own this car?’ ‘Get rid of all your spots.’ But you can’t blame advertising for aspiration. Media amplifies. Advertising makes ideas more compelling, yes. But if advertising didn’t exist, other factors in society would still affect aspiration. Just interacting with other humans would cause the best (and oldest) form of advertising: word of mouth. Aspiration, jealousy, smugness and so on would all still exist.

What the feminist messaging seems to imply, is that people feel pressured to conform to the aspiration (in this case, to have the body of a model). But this seems to me to be terribly condescending to all women. It implies they need guiding through life, protecting from macro factors that might somehow cloud their fragile judgement. No. What they have is choice. They can choose to aspire or not, and whether they do or not is, frankly, no-one else’s business, feminists or otherwise.

Aspiration exists in society because we have the freedom to think for ourselves and decide whether or not we want to motivate ourselves to change or acquire something. If a chap drives past me in an Aston Martin, I might well aspire to own a car like his. That’s not Aston Martin’s fault. It’s deep-rooted choice. That may be affected by advertising, but ultimately it’s my decision how I act. So if I decide to rob the local branch of NatWest at gunpoint to attain an Aston Martin, that’s not the fault of the brand either. It’s my choice as a consumer to be a lunatic, not the brand being irresponsible. Equally the opposite of bank robbing petrol head, is a mate of mine who drives a Micra and couldn’t give two hoots about owning an Aston – it’s not environmentally friendly and it’s expensive to buy and run – what’s to like, right? That’s his choice not to aspire to buy into the Aston Martin brand.

Why feminism needs a brand planner

So Protein World’s brand has accidently been catapulted to fame. I think the feminist pressure groups are causing chaos and the ASA will probably feel compelled to do something, but I can’t help feel all this is at the detriment of their cause and the image of the feminist ‘brand’. If I was working on their brand strategy, I’d have my head in my hands. So, why are they making such a hash of it? There are lots of reasons, but here are two big ones you might not have considered:

Don’t talk to your adult audience like a nagging mother

For one thing, vandalising media space that someone has paid for is, in my view, appalling. You might as well key the CEO’s Mercedes. More than that, if you start censoring stuff on behalf of your audience, you come across like an overprotective mother figure that won’t let your audience watch an episode of South Park. An interesting and poignant article in the Spectator observed the synergies between the behaviour of feminists and the behaviour of Islamist groups who pulled down advertisements for push up bras in 2003. The tone of the feminist ‘brand’ needs to change. Using humour for example would be a great way to challenge some of the negative perceptions people have about feminism’s intolerant and rigid personality.

Ensure your message is clear (not ironic)

Think for a second about Dove and what their brand says to consumers. I like the whole real women thing. It has a rally call, it’s different and it’s a big idea that the brand can get consumers behind. But flip it on its head. Let’s take the creative brief for Protein World and warp it to Dove’s brand personality. We would need to write to poor Renee (the model) to say:

We’re terribly sorry; your body isn’t ‘normal’. Most people think you’re a genetic freak of nature. No one looks like that in a bikini! What we need are some ASDA mums. Sorry Renee.

So the ‘brand message’ from the feminists, is an ironic one in my view.

The petition to the ASA says: the ad is, ‘offensive, irresponsible and harmful because it promotes an unhealthy body image’. But this implies that eating pick ‘n’ mix for breakfast is acceptable because you can be overweight and happy in yourself. But in turn this implies that women hitting the gym to burn calories and be skinny are ‘unhealthy’ and ‘harming’ themselves. The claim equates to double standards because it doesn’t actually promote empowering women. It tries to tell them what to think and do, in the same way they [feminists] think the ad does).

Provoking the ‘competition’

It’s no wonder that many skinny women and gym goers are furious. The feminist campaign preaches to the converted, it doesn’t recruit new people into their ‘brand’; it drives a wedge further between very large groups of women and simply alienates many more. Ironically, it now fuels a rival faction with a brand to fly their flag and rally behind: it’s called Protein World.


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