Object of the Week

Hershey’s Repackaged Chocolate Bar Is Peak Performative Feminism

At a time when women have been hit hardest by the recession, brands are making International Women’s Day about themselves

A Hershey’s chocolate bar with packaging designed specifically for International Women’s Day, with the letters “SHE” highlighted. Above the Hershey’s logo, there is the addition of the word “Celebrate,” so that in its whole it reads: “CELEBRATE HerSHEy’s.”
A Hershey’s chocolate bar with packaging designed specifically for International Women’s Day, with the letters “SHE” highlighted. Above the Hershey’s logo, there is the addition of the word “Celebrate,” so that in its whole it reads: “CELEBRATE HerSHEy’s.”
Photo illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: PRNewsWire: The Hershey Company

“There is no Hershey’s without ‘SHE,’” the candy behemoth announced recently.

The occasion for this, uh, insight was International Women’s Day, this past Monday. To mark the day — and March as Women’s History Month — the company “developed a small batch” of its flagship chocolate bars, with the package design tweaked to highlight the “her” and particularly the “she” elements of the name, and adding the word “celebrate.” The gesture was meant “to honor all the women and girls out there,” the Hershey Company’s press release stated.

Sure. Of course, it was also meant to perform brand awareness and empathy — and to get a morsel of free publicity for doing so. The announcement was accompanied by a HerSHEy Bar giveaway at retail locations, and a short video praising Billie Jean King, Gloria Steinem, Marsai Martin, and others.

There’s something about a slightly modified Hershey bar wrapper design — a literal repackaging of the same old thing — that perhaps accidentally captures the disconnect between brands and the women they say they want to celebrate.

It was also accompanied by women-centric promotions by many other brands. Google launched a campaign featuring pathbreaking women from Marie Curie to Cardi B, and a related global $25 million fund focused on economic prosperity for women. Secret, the deodorant brand, unveiled a partnership with the YWCA to tell stories of (and pledge money to) women impacted by the pandemic downturn, with a “Secret Superhero Moms” series. Netflix donated $5 million to “programs that help identify, train and provide work placements for up-and-coming female talent around the world,” described as the first step in a larger effort benefiting “the next generation of women storytellers.” Mattel’s Barbie added Eleanor Roosevelt to its “Inspiring Women” series of dolls.

And of course, Burger King trumpeted a scholarship program for women pursuing culinary careers — with the unfortunate tweet, “Women belong in the kitchen.” That one went rather poorly.

Some of these efforts seem helpful, some misguided, and some in between. But somehow, there’s something about a slightly modified Hershey bar wrapper design — a literal repackaging of the same old thing — that perhaps accidentally captures the disconnect between brands and the women they say they want to celebrate.

It might be worth it for companies and brands to give some fresh thought to how they approach International Women’s Day, which seems to have evolved into International Women-Focused Marketing Stunt Day.

International Women’s Day traces back to the early 20th century, with roots in labor movements and socialist politics. In time its broad women’s rights agenda enjoyed a more mainstream embrace, including adoption by the United Nations in the 1970s. In the 21st century, it’s gradually become a trigger for brands to tout their values; today, International Women’s Day’s official supporters (can we just call them sponsors?) include McDonald’s and Northrop Grumman. In recent years it’s been critiqued as more of a corporate PR opportunity than a political one.

And those PR opportunities — like giving away candy bars — may feel like particularly empty calories this year, after a pandemic-driven recession that has been distinctly hard on women, who lost about 1 million more jobs than men did. In the December jobs report, for example, male employment broke even, while women lost more than 150,000 jobs, thus making up the entire job shortfall that month. This trend has reversed decades of progress — the “first female recession in 50 years,” as The Economist put it.

This is why it might be worth it for companies and brands to give some fresh thought to how they approach International Women’s Day, which seems to have evolved into International Women-Focused Marketing Stunt Day. Clearly business has a critical role to play in encouraging more equal workplace and economic structures and outcomes. But maybe that’s a job that transcends the annual one-off. And maybe it’s not about a quick grab for attention through a fleeting tweak to a public-facing appearance that promptly goes back to “normal” when the hubbub fades. Maybe it should mean something that at least tries to be more permanent.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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