Fashion companies could be missing out on the bottom line when they use only one kind of model.
I also discovered that women—especially those seldom reflected in fashion ads—felt beautiful and confident when they saw models who reflected their traits and felt motivated to buy the dress. When one mature woman saw an older model, she explained: “[The model] does more than make me feel beautiful; she inspires me to go out and get this dress and celebrate my beauty.” While some women in my study felt insecure when they saw idealized models, their insecurity didn’t translate to purchase intentions as the industry hopes; it actually turned them off the product. As one of the participants summarized: “Ads like this want us to be part of their world, but they have the opposite effect for me. I feel excluded.”
Contrary to long-held marketing wisdom, fashion ads don’t need to lead women to aspire to an unattainable ideal to sell products. Instead, women will buy fashion when models convey a realistic, attainable image and make them feel confident; they will continue to demand the products to maintain the advertised look and their feelings of empowerment. To unleash this economic potential, brands should cast models who mirror the diversity of their target market: If a brand sells sizes 2 to 14 and the age of their target consumer is 18 to 35, the models should reflect the same size and age ranges. It’s clearly in a brand’s financial interest to create samples in a few sizes to reflect the diversity of their consumers.
My focus groups also revealed the conditions that need to be met if diverse models are going to be effective. Younger to middle-aged women explained that a fashion brand’s commitment to diversity is just as important as showcasing it. As a result of online media, consumers— not only fashion journalists—now see the latest collections from fashion weeks around the world. When two of 20 models on a runway are larger or older, consumers appreciate the gesture but believe it’s tokenistic. As one participant noted: “Showing one older woman out of 30 is really a marketing ploy—it’s not a genuine appreciation of our beauty and, more important, our spending power.” Tokenism also springs to mind when brands feature diverse models on their runways but not in their campaigns or merely as a one-time occurrence. Similarly, when a brand showcases curvy or older models in clothes that don’t quite fit or flatter them, it looks like they’re trying to grab a quick headline.
Marketers may also assume that using a larger or older model allows them to skimp on the creative direction—resulting in an image that looks more like a passport photo than a fashion ad. This practice reverses the positive effects of casting diverse models. The women in my research want models—regardless of size or age—to inspire them with glamour, artistry and creativity. One woman said it best: “What’s the point of buying fashion if you’re going to look unfashionable?” The underlying message is that fashion needs to sell aspiration, but it is not a standardized model’s age, size or race that is aspirational; it is the clothes, styling and creative direction of the shoot.
What would our world look like if the results of my research influenced reality? Imagine this: You open a fashion magazine. It is filled with stunning glossy ads from the top fashion and beauty brands. You see gorgeous clothes, dramatic hair and makeup and breathtaking photography. Starring in these ads—showcasing fashion’s glamour, artistry and creativity— are models who reflect the full panorama of women’s beauty. So, brands, I ask you this: Will you continue to use an outdated marketing model or adapt to the new consumer mindset and reap the rewards?
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