A recent marketing gaffe by IBM highlights the importance of knowing your audience before launching a significant initiative. The campaign, #HackAHairDryer, was meant to encourage women to get into technology but ended up turning off the very audience it was trying to reach.
As reported by The Guardian, IBM launched its campaign with a YouTube video showing a number of experiments involving hairdryers. The video—which has since been pulled by IBM’s marketing team—features a voiceover encouraging women to participate:
“You, a windblaster and an idea, repurposed for a larger purpose, to support those who believe that it’s not what covers your cranium that counts, but what’s in it. So hack heat, re-reoute airflow, reinvent sound, and imagine a future where the most brilliant minds are solving the world’s biggest problems regardless of your gender.”
People were quick to react, especially on Twitter, where women chimed in with sometimes hilarious and often seething comments that pointed out how the campaign, in its attempt to correct gender inequality, instead perpetuated a stereotypical image of women and their interests.
The failure of the #HackAHairDryer campaign isn’t an isolated case. Employee data from companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft show a serious lack of gender diversity. In the past few months, the tech industry has been under pressure to launch initiatives to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Some of these initiatives received backlash. For instance, an initiative by the energy company EDF called “Pretty Curious” met criticisms for its “girlified” approach. Others, like Twitter, have been criticized for setting recruitment goals that aren’t ambitious enough.
These blunders just go to show that IBM and other tech companies need a smarter approach to boosting female representation in their companies. Instead of launching initiatives that are based on misguided stereotypes, companies must listen to the very people they want to attract: women.
Engaging in an ongoing, two-way conversation with female customers and employees can help companies develop a more nuanced and accurate understanding of this audience. Testing early-stage messaging and asking for input throughout the campaign-development process can help ensure companies are speaking the right language and communicating the intended message.
Thanks for the feedback on our campaign. We heard you and we apologize for missing the mark. We promise to do better in the future.
— IBM (@IBM) December 7, 2015
To be fair, IBM listened to the public, apologized and quickly pulled the plug on the campaign. But #HackAHairDryer is a painful reminder that even well-intentioned campaigns can fail miserably when they’re not grounded in an accurate and holistic understanding of your audience. As IBM discovered this week, companies that don’t engage first are just blowing hot air.