Back when I first became aware of how vulnerable I was to others’ opinions about my face and body –did they, or didn’t they matchup to a specific standard of beauty and sexuality — I mindlessly embraced what I heard and saw in media. I was magnetized by one brand in particular that skyrocketed in popularity and market share just about the time I entered young adulthood. The beautiful models, lounging in sumptuous boudoirs, seduced via catalogs; but also in ‘fashion’ shows and brick and mortar stores. Nevermind that these women often wore (ridiculous-looking) wings and struck poses akin to soft-porn: I wanted, I needed whatever they were selling.
How many females– how many males – were influenced by the fantasy Secret that became a billion dollar brand? How many young girls were convinced that this type of beauty and allure was not only real, but attainable, and a major key to personal happiness?
Today, news surfaced that the 82 year-old CEO of this particular holding was ready to concede: something had gone terribly wrong. His other brands – that still include successful fashion chains as well as “bed and bath” products – were continuing to make him a lot of money. But revenue for the one that marketed super-sexy underthings with hidden promises had dropped a whopping 29% in just over three years. It wasn’t the team, which had been rearranged a few times; it wasn’t the marketing, which had remained a combination of aggressive and pragmatic. The CEO realized, as he announced feeling ready to “step down” from his role, that he may have missed a few important cues along the way. The decline had been deepening since 2015, but 2018 saw the most dramatic losses.
How relevant, he may have wondered, is the idea of continuing to market ‘sex’ in the branding process for clothing? The CEO didn’t come right out and reference the #MeToo movement in a recent interview, but danced lightly around it. Here’s where age lends perspective. In the era of Mad Men and Women’s Liberation, roughly the 1950’s to the 1970’s, women learned the value of presentation. What social or economic power there was available was not going to be shared (by men) in any meaningful way. Women understood this; many chose a different strategy, using certain tools they had ready access to. But, as they soon discovered, exerting power and influence through presentation was a circular firing-squad of sorts.
William Shakespeare, in 1606, gave words to Cleopatra that continue to be relevant to the ‘branding’ efforts (an intentional double-entendre, on my part) targeting women in the 21st century. As the brilliant, powerful and (apparently) irresistibly- seductive queen contemplated the power she’d attained by seducing Julius Caesar, she was wistful and sad. Cleo had achieved a romantic conquest that made her an Influencer in the world, but longed for “…my salad days: when I was green in judgment and cold in blood.” Cleopatra had come to terms with the trade-off, using sexuality as currency. No turning back for her, and of course it ended badly — albeit on her own terms.
For the first time in my own lifetime, it feels like women are re-evaluating what it takes to achieve personal and professional success. We are now, as a ‘marketing’ presence, more influential than men. We are more likely, in our families, professions and our politics, to actively live our beliefs in inclusivity, compassion and fairness. We’re more likely to put children first — even if we don’t have any of our own. Most importantly, we’re seeing and feeling our bodies in new, more respectful ways: the evidence is not only in the #MeToo movement, but in films and books created by women that support healthier attitudes and self image. Attitudes of empowerment.
Yes, Mr. Wexner: women have changed; we are changing. We may, or may not want to continue to buy your apparel. My suggestions to you are as follows: do your best to ensure that a woman replaces you in your role as CEO; increase the number of women on your board of directors; and, accept the fact that women are now defining themselves. When it comes to seduction, we choose where, when and how. There are, you see, as many different definitions of what is ‘sexy’ as there women on planet earth.