What are retailers supposed to do with International Women’s Day?

By: Andy Mulcahy


The retail calendar is divided up into a series of celebration days and periods that are very well established – Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Father’s Day, Halloween, Christmas etc. But it’s not an exclusive club and every now and then a new one pops up (hello Black Friday, Amazon Prime Day) and becomes significant in its own way.

For many of these, what you should do as a retailer is pretty obvious – structure marketing campaigns and product exposure around love for Valentine’s Day, appreciation on Mother’s Day, scary stuff on Halloween and, around Black Friday, enter the discounting melee.

But when it comes to an event like International Women’s Day, the question is how (or whether) retailers should get involved.

Last year, International Women’s Day (IWD) – which wasn’t exactly an unknown entity before 2017, to be fair – suddenly ballooned into one of those days that is completely impossible to avoid, such is the attention it garners. Broadcasters and news agencies craft large swathes of their content around it and social media is absolutely awash with it; in fact, seven of the top 10 trends on Twitter were related to IWD on the day – it’s become not so much a celebration day as an international movement now:

Twitter trends on Women's Day

Top trends on Twitter on IWD 2018


Meanwhile retailers – and by extension, any kind of customer-facing brand – find themselves in a bit of a dilemma: with so many people being so engaged in debate about the contribution that women make and the ongoing struggle to achieve genuine equality with men, it of course represents a fantastic opportunity for getting involved in that debate in some capacity; but quite how they do that isn’t quite as obvious as it is for, say, Mother’s Day, with plenty of scope for getting campaigns wrong that can expose them to very bad, very loud press indeed (such as happened to Brewdog’s Pink IPA launch – it was intended as tongue-in-cheek, but not everyone saw it that way).

On IWD 2018 (which was on 8 March this year), we monitored 210 retail sites to get a sense of how online retailers are reacting to the growth in the day’s influence and significance. This research threw up three questions, which we will take in turn in this article:

  • What can retailers do on International Women’s Day?
  • What did they do?
  • What should they do?

Before we get into answering those questions though, let’s review what has happened to get us to the point where, as a retail analyst, I find myself writing an article about an event such as IWD, that doesn’t seem to lend itself naturally, or certainly not overtly, to a retail context.

Customer Connect 2020

How did we get to the point where IWD is so significant?

If you want the short version so you can skip this section, it can be summed up in one word – Trump.

The underlying issue here is that human civilisation has been built by men, for men, for millennia. Gender inequality is, therefore, fundamentally built into the fabric of culture, society, business – you name it. There’s nothing new about this information, in a modern sense the push for greater equality has been going on for a few hundred years. There have been notable successes (women’s suffrage, for example) but, despite equal pay acts and anti-discrimination legislation, progress has been relatively slow and ponderous.

Then, during Trump’s 2016 election campaign, recordings of the presidential candidate’s, shall we say, less-than-modern attitude toward sexual assault (or: ‘locker-room talk’) emerged. There seems to have been something about the idea of the ‘leader of the free world’ harbouring such attitudes that served to turbocharge the female cause in response. Progress was slow and ponderous, it is now rapid and uncompromising.

So International Women’s Day in 2017 turned out to be a prominent expression of that momentum, although it had no clear association with retail leading up to that point. Then, on that day, Nike launched a campaign to coincide with the event:

What will they say about you? (Nike)

Nike’s campaign was in perfect alignment with the character of the event, focusing on empowering a female demographic (Muslims) who are not traditionally associated with sport. It was very well received, clocked up plenty of views and engagement and, crucially, demonstrated that retail can have a place in it. The whole purpose of the campaign, cleverly played as it was, is to sell product, after all. Last year that campaign had us wondering whether International Women’s Day had experienced its Black Friday (2013) moment, leading to an eruption of copycat campaigns in 2018 from retailers and brands keen to emulate Nike’s success.

So – did it?

First, let’s look at some of the options retailers could select to run online retail campaigns on International Women’s Day.

What can retailers do on International Women’s Day?

If we’re honest, taking advantage of a day that is supposed to be a celebration of women and the contribution they make to the world for commercial purposes can seem slightly contrived – neither is getting involved, even if in a non-commercial way, entirely without its risks.

There are a number of options for International Women’s Day online retail campaigns; probably the first question relates to how involved retailers want to get. It doesn’t always require a dedicated campaign that focuses on promoting products – it can be as simple as wishing social followers a ‘happy International Women’s Day’. Using social is a popular option, though it requires something a bit smarter to stand out amongst all the other, potentially well-considered content on such networks on that day.

Blogs are another outlet, though again some do that better than others and, in some cases, the content did little more than list a few very famous, very prominent women which didn’t really contribute much overall.

Women's day blog post

Example of blog from IWD 2018

Other options include aligning a brand with the day, launching a dedicated range of products specific to IWD or going full-on with a discount campaign.

What did they do?

As mentioned earlier, we monitored 210 online retail sites to get a view of what retailers were doing – indeed, if they were doing anything – to coincide with IWD. This list of 210 retailers were selected by looking at the 170 participants we have in our sales index and adding in a few others of interest.

Of that 210, 138 had product ranges / categories that were explicitly targeted at women – so a shoe retailer that offered a range of women’s shoes would be included in that number for example, but an electronics or garden retailer wouldn’t be (you don’t typically see women’s stereos or women’s lawnmowers being marketed, after all).

So how many actively promoted International Women’s Day? Less than 10% of the total (20 of 210) mentioned it in some capacity on their homepage, while seven launched a dedicated International Women’s Day product, typically a t-shirt or other garment.

Women's day tshirts

Only five opted for an online retail discount campaign that was specific to International Women’s Day.

Women's day offer

So – for a day that has become so prominent, with so many potential engagement opportunities with the public, why were less than 10% of the retailers covered as part of this research doing anything for it?

There are a number of reasons that might be identified, with each business ultimately making a decision on what they think works best for their proposition and their customers, but there would appear to be three main ones:

  • The scope for retail is not clear – most days in the retail calendar have either a defined character (massive discounting on Black Friday) or are specific to product ranges (gifting for him on Father’s Day, or her on Mother’s Day). Ditto the various seasons, so launching warm ranges of clothing when entering the colder periods of the year for example. What sales campaigns do you promote on IWD? It’s not a logical gifting day and retail is about shifting product fundamentally, so how to get involved (or whether you even should) isn’t immediately obvious;
  • Involvement is risky – taking advantage of a day like IWD in order to sell stock can be viewed as being a bit contrived or in bad taste. This is something that has prevented the biggest overt shopping day in the world – Single’s Day – from being imported from China; it takes place on 11/11, which is Remembrance Day in the UK, so there is a clash that could be interpreted as disrespectful by some. If due care is not taken, brands can end up on the receiving end of an outpouring of anger on social media; and
  • IWD has strong proximity to Mother’s Day – in 2018 (in the UK at least), Mother’s Day (which is the common retail term, though it is traditionally known as Mothering Sunday and occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent) was on 11 March, just three days after IWD. Mother’s Day does present a very clear and overt sales opportunity for retailers, so most sites promote campaigns around that; trying to promote another campaign at the same time would likely detract from the success of the other.

What should they do?

As explained above, there are a number of options for International Women’s Day online retail campaigns. Let’s take each in turn here, to illustrate the pros and cons and which would best suit various retail propositions.  

Option 1 – Nothing

Don’t forget that there is, of course, never any absolute requirement to do anything. Sitting it out can be a better option than doing something that is half-considered, due to the associated risks of getting involved in a Twitter storm.

It also depends on whether you sell product ranges that are specifically targeted at women; if not, then the expectation that you should perhaps be doing something in support is less but, if so, it might seem a bit odd if you avoid mention of it completely.

Option 2 – Focus on social

Probably the easiest way to get involved without too much involvement is to focus communication through social – perhaps a photo, gif, video or infographic that demonstrates support for the cause. Even a simple (but well-considered) tweet or two could be sufficient – so if resource is an issue then this would represent the least intensive way of engaging on the day.

As shown in the intro to this article however, social networks are awash with IWD-related content on the day itself so using a bit of imagination could generate positive results without requiring too much commitment.

Option 3 – Align the brand with the day

Making some kind of alteration to the brand in solidarity with IWD can be effective if it is intelligently-considered and well-executed. It’s advisable to ensure you will not be exposing yourself to criticism in the process however, as McDonalds discovered this year when they were accused of ‘McFeminism’.

McDonald's Women's Day tweet

This option is probably only worth considering for brands who can say they are exemplary in terms of how they have addressed, or are addressing, gender inequality.

Option 4 – Launch a dedicated range of products specific to IWD

This was the approach taken by a few retailers; interestingly, the consensus seemed to be around launching a t-shirt with a slogan on it.

Women's day tshirt

Without having access to the sales figures for those specific ranges, it’s hard to say whether these campaigns were successful or not, but this would seem to be the most logical universal choice for running an overt, sales-driven retail campaign. As the product ranges were quite restricted this year, there is ample scope for innovation and imagination here – something that captures the mood and spirit of the day could perform well.

Option 5 – Run a dedicated discount campaign

Discount campaigns are a tried-and-tested, if margin-challenging method for stimulating sales activity – particularly where the discount is applied across the retailer’s entire range.

Women's Day Retail Offer

These are effectively operating as a flash sale and, in the cases of retailers who are either entirely or primarily focused on female customers, may lead to high sales uplifts. The risk with this approach is that it can lead to a situation similar to that of Black Friday in subsequent years – where shoppers hold out in the run-up to it as they know a big discount day is coming.

In 2018, those running dedicated discount campaigns tended to be those selling products to younger women – ie those for whom Mother’s Day is less of a prominent sales event.

Option 6 – Run a campaign focused on promoting women

Producing content, perhaps in the form of a blog, that promotes women rather than focusing on anything sales-specific is arguably the approach most consistent with the spirit of the event.

There were two campaigns of note in our tracker that particularly stood out in this respect. The first was Pretty Little Thing, who focused on creating a community within their site by encouraging visitors to upload pictures of themselves – a simple enough concept that engaged visitors and built up a library of IWD content without requiring them to produce it all.

Women's day message

The other example was Topshop where, again, the resource commitment on their side was not high but the output seemed well attuned to the event. Their blog featured an article with interviews from female employees, which served as an effective way to demonstrate commitment to the cause on the part of the business.

Top shop women's day blog

It is, of course, difficult to say what impact any of these International Women’s Day online retail campaigns will have in the long-term or which approach was the best overall.

What does seem apparent is that IWD is growing in significance for retailers, as they are public-facing businesses whose customers, in many cases, will be engaged by the event. Where it goes from here is also hard to forecast, but it seems highly unlikely the event is going to fall away into insignificance any time soon so retailers should put some thought into what their role within it might be.


By: Andy Mulcahy, Strategy and Insight Director, IMRG

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