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Are campaigns like 'Real Beauty' real empowerment?

By: Alison Earl

When it comes to empowerment, everyone jumps straight to Dove. Few brands get remotely close to the impact that Dove’s Real Beauty campaign has had on culture, which fundamentally changed the way we view beauty and liberated women to feel comfortable in their own skin, stretch marks and all. It was such an important shift in our culture, acting as catalyst for a wave of female empowerment campaigns.

As I reflected on the well-deserved praise for the campaign, it got me wondering: is liberation the same as empowerment? Is it enough to make someone feel good about herself if the goal is to motivate them to do something to improve their life? Or does it just make them settle? And does it make sense for all the other female empowerment brands to adopt the same strategy as Dove? Or are they just noise?

People often think of self-esteem and self-efficacy as the same sort of thing, but there is a big difference, particularly in terms of how empowered they leave someone feeling. Self-esteem reflects a person’s subjective evaluation of their worth. Self-efficacy refers to the personal belief about one’s ability to perform specific tasks or achieve specific outcomes. Put another way, self-esteem is belief about who you are, which can be somewhat fixed, whereas self-efficacy is a belief about what you’re capable of.

Dove falls into the self-esteem camp, which was an extremely effective strategy, considering the beauty industry’s history of tearing a woman’s confidence down and fueling the inner critic that lives within us. For decades, women were depicted by unrealistic images, which were devastating to the self-esteem of women everywhere. It was liberating and empowering when Dove turned this on its head and made the beauty industry the enemy. However, self-esteem is not always an effective strategy.

Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, is famous for her research on mindset. Dweck showed that person-praise, such as "you’re so smart, talented, gifted, brilliant, beautiful," etc., while it helps someone feel good about themselves, leads to what she coined a "fixed mindset." Someone with a fixed mindset is likely to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless, or, worse, ignore negative feedback, be threatened by the success of others, and as a result fail to reach their potential. This is not empowering.

Conversely, process-praise, which emphasizes the process someone went through to achieve an outcome, cultivates a growth mindset and builds self-efficacy, as it enables the person to learn and replicate their behavior. Someone with a growth mindset embraces challenges, persists in the face of setbacks, sees effort as a path to mastery, learns from criticism, finds lessons and inspiration from the success of others, and, as a result, can reach ever-higher levels of achievement. This is real empowerment.

Michael Jordan is probably one of the best examples of growth mindset individuals on earth. He was cut from his high-school basketball team and saw it as a challenge to work harder. He was known to be the first to arrive at training and the last to leave. Over the years, Nike’s Air Jordan brand has more closely reflected the growth Mindset of its namesake.

Initially, the advertising was like that of any other superstar brand. It’s actually quite entertaining to watch the old advertising reel, featuring Jordan achieving the impossible. Flying through the air like some kind of superhuman. He makes it look easy. It’s pure, natural talent. The advertising is praising the person, Michael Jordan. Inspiring, but not that empowering for anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps.

Contrast this with a recent campaign. The monologue from Jordan sums it up. "I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

The later campaign praised the journey that led to his success, celebrating his failures as opportunities to learn and grow. It reinforced that anything was possible through hard work and the importance of perseverance. It left aspiring basketball players feeling ready for the challenge. The brand went from sponsoring sporting legends to creating sporting legends.

Brands have a unique ability to shape the mindsets of the people for which they are created. We need to use that power to make sure we’re doing more than just making people feel good about themselves. Let’s help them believe in themselves. This is real empowerment.

Alison Earl is the director of strategy for Burns Group. This column first appeared on 

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