Fearless marketing: A closer look at the iconic statue and what's next

"Fearless Girl" became an icon overnight -- expressing volumes without saying a single word, going global without moving an inch, showing up in every medium without paid support.

Recognized with 14 awards at Cannes including the Titanium Grand Prix, “Fearless Girl” is a remarkable feat (or feet!) of storytelling. To better understand how this unique idea came into being, I spoke with the CMO of State Street, Stephen Tisdalle. While the themes will sound familiar (simplicity, clarity, timing), the actual outcome was as big a surprise to Tisdalle as it was to an inspired world and also represented some fearlessness on the part of the marketer.

What was the strategy behind “Fearless Girl?”  

We have this asset stewardship program where we are voting for greater gender diversity on the companies we invest in on behalf of investors. It was a matter of bringing that to life. We also had a series of investments. One in particular was the SHE Gender Diversity Index, which invests in companies that have a significant majority of women on the leadership and on their boards. We wanted a physical manifestation of how we were taking measures to protect the long-term growth interests of our client portfolios. What better time to do that than on International Women's Day [the day the statue was installed]?

What did the brief look like for this campaign?

The brief was fairly straightforward. It was detailing a lot around what our voting track record has been, what our objectives are and why we believe what we believe, because companies that have greater gender diversity on their boards and leadership outperform companies that don't. There's an inordinate amount of studies and facts that support this, so it was a matter of communicating that principle. Asset managers are not in the statue-making business, so there was quite a bit of risk to go ahead with this. When I was working with our agency partners and we settled on the idea of doing a statue of a girl. One of the things I wanted her to communicate was optimism. We wanted to present the factors that do impact long-term performance and appeal to everyone. It was never meant to be a political statement. It was meant to be about performance.

How was the physical stance for “Fearless Girl” decided upon?

The stance was very important, and we wanted her to have an optimistic tone versus a defiant or combative tone. I think everybody wants their daughter or their sister to feel confident in who they are and feel like they have something to contribute. The one thing I was really adamant about was that the posture really reflected that confidence and not being afraid. Thus, the name "Fearless Girl" was really birthed from that.

Why take a chance like this in such a risk-averse category?

It was important that the message was very simple, very clear and was true to something that we had been doing for a couple of years in the asset stewardship program. We've done a great job in fitting in the category since our inception over 40 years ago, but if we were going to lead the category, we were going to have to make a bold statement. I think this form of communication is absolutely out-of-the-box thinking for the asset management category, and even for the broader financial services category.

How did your leadership respond?

There were no big banners. There were no big slogans. It was a simple statue with a very clear message that we were ready to tell behind it, and that was attractive to the leadership. There was a lot of nervousness though because we were under enormous constraints on the time front. Decisions had to be made quickly, and this one went all the way to the top to the CEO. He thought about it and agreed with moving forward.

What was the internal reaction of the State Street employees?

The campaign allowed us to be very open and transparent, and it also fostered a sense of enthusiasm within the organization. When employees saw the success of “Fearless Girl,” they wanted to know how to embrace this change. Most campaigns are all external, and most of the employees might be interested about the creative aspects and take some pride in their communications team. In this case, it was all of that and more. It was getting people to think about it, think about the type of people we recruit, and think about the type of organization and the composition of talent that we want to have on all levels.

This campaign also put the spotlight on your internal diversity efforts, didn’t it?

This was also a huge inspiration for us to walk the talk and change our own diversity levels. There's been as much impact on our company as there has been externally, and that’s pretty extraordinary. We're trying to improve and live by this set of values, and we wanted to influence the companies that we work with to embrace them too. It's not imposing our values. It's saying, "there is greater value when you do this" and I think that message sustained us through any kind of criticism.

You obviously had a very specific message for “Fearless Girl” to communicate, but how did your team make sure that the actual story got told after the statue went up?

The “Fearless Girl” campaign is not just about an idea, it's actually about the actions that we take. We have a whole division that runs our asset stewardship program that works with proxy voting on the companies we invest in, on behalf of shareholders. More than 300 companies that we reached out to have actually responded to our call by adding a female director, and another 28 have committed to do so. These are companies that had no women on their boards. It's not just about having the idea. It's about the actions that we're taking to make the change happen.

What are some of the lessons in strategy that you think other marketers could take away from your experience with the “Fearless Girl” campaign?

First and foremost, it’s all about the message. You've got to have a very clear idea about what you're communicating. You need to formulate the message at the time of release and also the ongoing message. It’s also imperative to tie it back to the company's business strategy. Last, but not least, you've got to anticipate and prepare for public reaction -- both the positive and the negative. We had no idea that we'd be dealing with a billion and a half social engagements within two days of the installation. We hadn't put in policies and procedures for how we would deal with the publicity. And in the midst of all of that, you’re still trying to keep your sights on communicating the original objective. Planning is key when releasing a campaign like this, no matter what you expect it to look like.

Listen to Drew Neisser's full podcast interview with Stephen Tisdalle.

Drew Neisser is the founder & CEO of Renegade, the NYC-based strategic boutique for B2B renegades. He is also the host of the #2 podcast for CMOs, Renegade Thinkers Unite and author of “The CMOs Periodic Table: A Renegade’s Guide to Marketing.”

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