When the Australian fashion brand Kholo announced its “#MeToo Collection” last week, a swift backlash spread across social media.

It didn’t help the site featured products with names like “Sex on Legs” and “Take Me Off Slip Dress.” However, the crux of the issue was the company’s overt capitalization of a global movement against sexual assault and harassment. Ultimately, Kholo renamed the line “The Magnificent Women Collection” on its website, along with a note that briefly explains the name change. (“Yes, this once was the #MeToo Collection,” it reads.)

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The Kholo incident is just one of many recently that has sparked discussion about marketing in the #MeToo era, including how to determine appropriate protocol in a particularly fraught political climate. Just like the Women’s March inspired the rise of feminist merchandise, for better or for worse, the #MeToo movement is leaning toward not only mass commodification of a social movement but a shift from long-held advertising tactics. As a result, brands are taking stock of how they should be interacting with consumers and creating campaigns that, for decades, adhered to the “sex sells” mantra.

In an age in which sex may no longer sell, fashion and beauty companies are now tasked with the challenge of targeting shoppers more mindfully, while also finding ways to tap into a movement of inclusivity and empowerment. The danger, of course, is coming across as insincere.

Authenticity in the #MeToo era
As retailers like Patagonia and Nike continue to make pointed statements on social issues, including various Trump administration policies in the past two years, politics and branding have become increasingly interconnected. Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and CEO of creative agency Yard NYC, said the trick is understanding when to engage, and shifting your messaging and your imagery, accordingly.

“While brands may feel compelled to enter the dialogue, if there isn’t an obvious link between their overarching brand purpose and the social cause or movement, their insertion into the conversation can come across as disingenuous,” she said.

Brands must now weigh the pros and cons of taking a stand while also possibly alienating certain demographics, or altogether backfiring. The efficacy of these campaigns comes down to authenticity, that ever-popular buzzword in the marketing community. A consumer is more likely to find a #MeToo-adjacent campaign impactful coming from a company that has long advocated for women’s issues and empowerment, like Aerie, versus one that has remained stuck in antiquated over-sexualized ways, such as Victoria’s Secret, she said.

“Most of our clients that have the right to genuinely speak on matters of female empowerment have already built a long-standing brand and associated campaigns to incorporate this,” Bernstein said. “Now, if they are responding to the #MeToo movement, it’s not haphazard, but instead a continuation of the narrative they’ve been telling to consumers, which is far more effective than jumping on the bandwagon for the sake of it.”

That doesn’t mean a brand that wasn’t founded with women’s rights at its core can’t make a statement; it just requires them to be more tactful in their approach, said Amy Hufft, president of HL Group, which works with several fashion brands like Diane von Furstenberg and Ugg, as well as more polarizing companies like Mattel.

As the parent company of Barbie, Mattel became the source of criticism in the past decade due to the unrealistic body proportions portrayed by its popular plastic dolls. Ultimately, Hufft said, Mattel rose to the occasion, apologizing for its faults and recently debuting a new line of Barbies of all different sizes and races. Hufft said this is a tactic that can be employed by other brands looking to shift perception and foster an important dialogue.

“[The #MeToo era] has changed the way we advise our clients and changed the way our clients approach messaging, verbally and visually,” she said. “Frankly, when thinking about consumer targets, brands have to think much more carefully about what they’re saying in their messages and more deeply about what they’re trying to communicate.”

Still, red tape and bureaucracy can create hurdles in making impactful changes within large-scale, traditional companies. Quynh Mai, founder of Moving Image and Content, said startups and direct-to-consumer brands have the biggest opportunity to make timely statements and create campaigns driving the conversion around topics like #MeToo. Companies like Everlane and Glossier, she said, have been particularly responsive to consumer feedback asking for increased inclusivity across the board, and have responded by diversifying their campaigns.

“What’s been really changing in the age of #MeToo is the shift of perspective. It’s an awareness of women being exploited, of things that were once societal norms that don’t link up anymore,” she said.

Redefining sexy
Hufft said rethinking marketing is particularly prudent for companies that have historically catered specifically to men, which traditionally may have sold products using “sex sells” tactics. “It’s tricky — we’re a society that’s used to a certain kind of vernacular and way of marketing. Brands focused on the male consumer, especially, are taking a step back and asking, ‘Does marketing to a man require a stereotypical approach?’”

However, part of the issue surrounding tone-deaf campaigns or insensitive imagery rests largely in the gender gap, not only among executive leadership but also behind the camera. The rise of sexualized fashion advertisements in the ’90s and early aughts can largely be attributed to the comeuppance of photographers like Mario and Patrick Demarchelier, who dominated the fashion industry with a particular type of male gaze, said Mai.

“[These photographers] controlled the image of multiple brands, dozens upon dozens globally. Their point of view became the prominent point of view for fashion and beauty,” she said. “With a lot of them being called out in the #MeToo movement — and the boycotting of brands that are accused of these transgressions — it’s opening up the door for a new type photographer, or a female point of view.”

Bringing more women on board can help preserve the strides made in celebrating women and the sexuality in campaigns, Mai said. Though marketers are advising brands to be more cognizant of sensitive issues surrounding #MeToo, the trick is to create campaigns in a tasteful, rather than evocative, way that is more collaborative with women both in front of and behind the camera.

Joanne McKinney, CEO of Burns Group, said it’s also important for brands to understand that these shifts don’t necessarily have to be monumental. She cited more subtle changes, like American Apparel’s recent relaunch, which features softer, more toned-down imagery that’s moved on from pure sex to sexuality.

“The landscape is shifting, in terms of how the world views and depicts women,” she said. “Perhaps the shift will ultimately be seismic, but for now, it has caused a ripple effect in the business of brand building and advertising. The ripple has appeared through the rebranding of some brands that have been built on sex symbols, through a revised depiction of women in categories that have typically been deeply sexualized, and through a shift from overt sexiness to more of a female ownership of their own sexuality.”

Further, William Watson, founder and CCO at Watson & Company,  said encouraging dialogue about #MeToo throughout the campaign development process — from the boardroom to the greenroom — is important to avoiding brand snafus and developing thoughtful advertisements.

Still, he said there is concern that brands will end up being overly cautious to a point that might be detrimental to the creative vision. Watson — who has previously worked with Mario Testino on various projects — said that while he is not holding Testino up as a “positive figurehead,” he helped cultivate a type of aesthetic that was important to fashion.

“It’s important we don’t get too carried away. There has to be more conversation and more openness and inclusion on set,” he said. “Some of the smaller brands are doing that intuitively, but we don’t want to lose sight of women celebrating their sexuality with consent. It would be a real shame, because it would become incredibly homogenized.”

However, Mai argued the solution to this is to hire not just more female photographers and videographers, but also women leaders across the entire industry, from the leadership of fashion brands to the heads of the agencies that work with them. That way, conversations about equality start internally first.

“Give a seat at the table to women in their organizations that are close to the target these brands are trying to reach,” she said. “CEOs and creative directors need to start asking their opinions. It’s an easy transition that any brand can make.”

Image courtesy of Everlane