Did International Women’s Day Just Have Its Black Friday Retail Moment?

By Andy Mulcahy - Editor at IMRG

Last Wednesday, 8 March, something happened that can’t possibly have escaped your notice – it was International Women’s Day.

There is nothing new about that. According to the timeline on the International Women’s Day website, its roots go all the way back to 1908. But this year seemed to be a bit different due to the sheer scale of it.

It was the top trend on Twitter all day, media (broadcast, papers, online) were all over it; everyone seemed to have something to say and share on the matter. It was absolutely everywhere – you just could not avoid the massive focus on, well, anything and everything to do with women.

All of which led me to wonder: did International Women’s Day just have its Black Friday moment?

Black Friday: a UK history 

Black Friday 2013, that is. Easy to forget now, but before 2009 most people in the UK were blissfully unaware of Black Friday. At best the only time we encountered it was once a year on the news around November-time – as doors were opened on shopping malls in the US and seemingly deranged hordes of people elbowed each other in the face so they could be first to reach the piles of TVs.

Must be an American thing, we thought. We don’t carry on like that here…

We imported it quietly at first, it built up in the UK over a few years. Then in 2013 there was a notable upturn in activity and Black Friday became confirmed as something that retailers could no longer ignore – it was now a ‘thing’.

And that set it up to explode onto the scene in 2014, when the huge scale of the event exceeded all forecasts and expectations. Everyone and their dog got involved that year.

The tipping point for brands?

And that may be where we find ourselves with International Women’s Day now. Some of the messaging coming out of companies in 2017 seemed a little rushed, as if they were unaware of the event but suddenly realised it was a big deal – just saying ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ for example. Next year you suspect activity might be a little more scheduled in nature.

There was however one notable campaign that rather stood out as a relevant and well-timed connection with the event – Nike’s launch of the sports hijab.

Now, it’s not a completely straightforward event for retail brands to get involved in. Black Friday is an overt sales event, where people are primed to shop and flock to retail sites in their droves to actively seek out the best deals. International Women’s Day is more focused around highlighting the contribution women have made (and continue to make) to the world.

It doesn’t seamlessly translate to become a major sales opportunity (ie ‘It’s International Women’s Day – browse our best deals’). But what the Nike campaign did was demonstrate that retail brands can make a big splash if done in a smart way.

After all, this video was only ostensibly about highlighting women’s contribution – it was actually marketing content for a product they are trying to sell to people. It’s retail collateral. Yet it was done in a way that was fully engaged in the spirit of the event – and many other marketing teams would have watched the coverage it received with considerable interest (and, perhaps, just a smidge of envy).

What could happen next year?

We now know that in 2017 it garnered a lot of focus as an event (which may have been boosted by derogatory comments made about women by a certain recently-elected president), but what could happen in 2018? 

Before we get too ahead of ourselves here, let’s remember that a number of things could happen. It is conceivable that it doesn’t really build on its popularity from 2017, if supplanted by some other major event or development. But that does seem very unlikely.

As with Black Friday in 2014, there will just be too much attention from too many interested parties for it to not grow again. The question is whether people are responsive to it. So what could it look like in 2018?

1. It gets bigger, but its character remains the same

After so heavily influencing the news agenda on the day, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which media completely ignore it next year. That’s not to guarantee it will get significantly bigger again, but scaling coverage back would seem a risky PR strategy for anyone who went big in 2017.

We will almost certainly see far more brands launching dedicated ranges around that period – some already have been doing that of course, but now the noise generated by the event has gone up a notch, the size of the opportunity for retailers has also grown.

We will also see far more well-considered campaigns in 2018, given more prominence in marketing discussions over the course of the year (as with Black Friday – they don’t start talking about what they are going to do the week before).

But that could be all ancillary noise that doesn’t alter the actual character of the day – which is primarily to celebrate the contribution that women make.

2. Its character changes or fragments

That said, maintaining the character of something can become a challenge once it reaches a certain saturation point. Now that it has come to dominate media agendas on the day, there is a far wider audience engaging with it than has previously been the case.

There is also the issue of control in the social media age – the messaging pushed out to coincide with some large events (the launch of a new series of a popular TV programme for example) are tightly overseen by a small number of companies (producers, TV channel etc).

There is no such singular ‘owner’ of International Women’s Day, which means multiple, unrelated, even contradictory messages can be pushed out from numerous sources. The meaning of the event can therefore become fragmented and it becomes possible that…

3. It starts to become a bona fide retail event

As it hasn’t been a genuinely-acknowledged mass retail event previously, the opportunity is there for a brand (or several) to claim a position as leading source of content on that day each year – one that people know to look out for.

As there will be retail brands among those, they will want to ultimately convert an engaging campaign into tangible commercial gain. Hence this strand of brand involvement in International Women’s Day would be a bit more retail-focused, which may find a willing audience and may not. 

Either way, there would always be a certain percentage of people who would get annoyed if it got too commercial a la (you guessed it) Black Friday.

What could that all mean?

We already have Black Friday (November) and Prime Day (July). If the event does start to develop a retail-focused side to its character, it could become the major sales event for Spring (March) and continue this apparent move toward a calendar divided up around big seasonal sales events. But – would it come to be primarily about discounting as with those other days, or have a different character entirely?

Who can say. When events reach the kind of scale that International Women’s Day appears to have achieved, it could get pulled in any direction. Equally, it might not take on a retail flavour at all, perhaps its existing character will prove strong to allow that to happen.

A few weeks back a PR agency sent me a document with key dates to look out for over the coming year. International Women’s Day wasn’t included in that list. I’ll wager it will be in future editions.

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