Cultural sensitivity: the not-so-secret ingredient to maximizing the impact of your marketing campaigns in Russia, on International Women’s Day… and for the rest of the year

Will you be able to stay true to your brand values in a country where “feminism” is a swear word for a majority of the population, and publishing “girl power” ads leads to a social media backlash and lawsuits?

Capitalizing on in-country purchasing habits and sales patterns?


Running campaigns for country-specific holidays?

Also smart.

Adapting products for a specific market?


Making sure that your ads are culturally sensitive?

Of course!

Except when “culturally sensitive” also means “running against brand values” — or against values accepted outside of a specific locale.

International Women’s Day with its messages of empowerment, as observed in the US, is an excellent example of the possible ways in which global brands may unexpectedly run afoul of gender biases in Russia.

It's easy to see the potential for capitalizing on the 8th of March — aka International Women's Day — in Russia.

Particularly so for brands in such sectors as flowers, cosmetics, jewelry and apparel. It's trickier to determine how best to interpret the holiday's meaning when creating your campaigns.

How does one celebrate women in Russia?

According to a Locaria blog post by Anastassia Prohhorenko, “…this day has long lost its original meaning. It has since become a true celebration of women, bringing with it an appreciation of their work, and roles in society.”

This “true celebration” looks like this: flowers, hearts, cute critters and sweet children bringing gifts to their mommies.

Messages on the cards are mostly wishes of happiness, love, peace and joy.

If you think that this means that women’s traditional roles in society are primarily decorative and family-related, you would not be far from truth.

Gender roles in Russia — on International Women’s Day and beyond

It is true that American admen outdid themselves in producing sexist ads throughout the 50ies, 60ies and even into the 70ies .

Now, however, there is a significant difference between the kinds of messaging that are considered acceptable in advertising in the US and in Russia.

An excellent example is the recent scandal around Reebok’s Russian female empowerment campaign.

Yulia Vakhonina’s analysis shows the mismatch between public perception around the issues of gender and the intent of an ad, highlighting the ingrained attitudes regarding gender roles.

For a summary of reactions to the recent Gillette's ad (not aired in Russia, but widely discussed there on social media), read this post by Bella Rapoport.

Attitudes toward gender in real life: a deep dive into the world of barbershops

Moscow barbershops are apparently facing a tough task: convincing their target audience that “real men” can (and even should!) take care of themselves.

To that end, most barbershops position themselves as a refuge for men, where women are not allowed.

Example 1: Barber-Hall: Welcome to Men’s Territory

Website: Date of access: 06/09/2018

Website: Date of access: 06/09/2018

Having established that getting a haircut does not lead to becoming less of a man, Barber-Hall then offers additional reasons to schedule a haircut. This is where the transformation from “manly men” to “gentlemen” happens, as they start positioning themselves as “a place where men's exclusiveness is valued”.

Example 2: OldBoy Barbershop: Exclusive Family

OldBoy Barbershop is even more explicit in their positioning: "There are no women here, no empty chitchat about nothing in particular. Here reigns the atmosphere of manliness and masculine spirit that was inspired by European standards of style and quality".

Website: (currently unavailable… sorry to see it go -> but check out the 404 visuals). Date of access: 06/09/2018

Website: (currently unavailable… sorry to see it go -> but check out the 404 visuals). Date of access: 06/09/2018

Interesting on so many levels - first of all, foreign, especially European – apparently still equals cool.

And (at least before the page was removed) Sinatra quotes were in.

All in all, OldBoy is portraying itself as a selective club (or, rather a "big family" everyone is "proud to be part of") ... with style know-how from Europe.

Example 3: Top Gun: Also. Very. Exclusive.

Top Gun barbershop claims to be "exclusively in the sphere of male interests".

Accordingly, they have refused to cut women's hair in the past, since this would be totally "outside of the concept".

Website: Date of access: 06/09/2018

Website: Date of access: 06/09/2018

But exclusivity and manliness are not the most interesting part of this positioning battle between the different barbershops.

There is, in fact, a barbershop named "Barbarella" that employs only "young ladies" (as opposed to "women"; not much of a selling point, apparently).

Its founder was interviewed for the delightfully named website in December 2017.

In the great stand-off between those barbershops that only hire guys and the barbershop that only hires girls, the big question is not "why can't girls get hairdos in a barbershop?".

The big question is "are women allowed to cut men's hair in a barbershop" (and if not, then why?).

If you were wondering why "young ladies" are a better choice for men that are in a desperate need of a haircut or a beard trim, here's the answer from Barbarella:

  • dear manly men, you know you'd much rather have gentle female hands on your hair

  • don't be suckered by Western marketing tricks saying only men can be good barbers

  • there are great male and female barbers, but just by virtue of gender differences, men are more interested in the result, and women are more focused on the process ... so women are better at cutting hair because they are capable of empathy and are better at caregiving

  • also, they don't try to one-up the client and show that they are better that he is

  • women are more objective as far as knowing what makes men more attractive

The talking points are reflected in the Barbarella website copy.

Barbarella: We are Here for You

Website: Date of access: 06/09/2018

Website: Date of access: 06/09/2018

The value prop is just that — "we are all [professional barbers] girls".

Although the color scheme and design are similar to those of the "men for men" barbershop websites, the copy explicitly promises "a cosy and positive atmosphere" and "care and attention [to your needs]" ... and the unique perspective (again): "only women know what makes men attractive”.

This line of arguments is in line with the general attitude towards women in Russia.

Russian women are meant to:

1. Put kids and marriage first.

2. Properly decorate their men’s lives and not usurp men’s places

3. Be inept at driving, technology and thinking in general.

For example, in this white paper Vadim Tylik not-so-adorably dismisses “women on maternity leave” as “people who not only have zero idea about advertising and marketing, but who also don’t even try to get this sort of knowledge”.

4. Be gentle flowers that require protection from the harsh realities of life.

Going back to the barbershop example, here is one of the quotes explaining the reasons why women are not allowed to be inside, whether as clients or not: “We show that we care – it’s better for women not to know what men talk about in barber shops (they’ll sleep easier at night)”.

Conversely, some other explanations are along the lines of “we protect men from meddling women that would invade our clients’ space and not let them have a drink while getting a haircut”.

Capitalizing on the mainstream attitude towards gender roles in Russia: some cringeworthy campaigns from the past

When global companies enter the Russian market, sometimes they (or their local offices) follow a mainstream local approach to depicting gender roles.

It comes as no surprise that the results can clash with their brand values, or Western values in general.

For example, Burger King in Russia has managed to publish – and delete – several campaigns that were inspired by local news and events.

In this case the ads were very much in line with the prevalent culture (as seen from a male perspective), but still objectionable for many reasons.

Examples of a backlash against female empowerment messaging in Russian campaigns of global brands

In 2017 Nike ran an ad with a "girls can play sports and achieve results" theme.

Here is a short post about the ensuing lawsuit for "causing moral harm", and endangering Russian girls with their insidious messaging.

I'm not sure if this was a PR move or a heartfelt plea for justice, but many of the comments left on YouTube were in the same vein and brought up all of the usual “girls should be delicate flowers” arguments.

It's interesting to note that both men and women are arguing for and against the ad without leaving this frame of reference (just as the Barbarella copy also stays firmly rooted in the “women are there to care for men” frame of reference).

As an example of how apparently innocuous campaigns can be misread or misinterpreted by a more conservative Russian audience, here is a review of the Spring 2018 H&M campaign that “celebrates female empowerment and friendship”: "... despite a hint of feminism, it [the ad] turned out to be very positive, colorful and compelling". A telling usage of “despite” damns the campaign with faint praise, it would appear.

Interestingly, reactions to “mainstream sexism” posts can differ depending on the social media channel — according to this post on, the Facebook audience was not impressed by an IKEA post comparing woman to dogs, but VKontakte followers did not find it to be objectionable.

Entering the minefield of adapting your marketing content to the Russian market without going over to the Dark Side

As the examples of campaigns falling flat show, finding the right balance in your marketing messaging can be extremely hard (especially if you are hoping for a viral campaign).

An additional challenge for global companies advertising in Russia is the necessity to make content adjustments in order to stay on the right side of the “propaganda” law, just as IKEA has had to make changes to a magazine to comply with it.

Being aware of the relevant legislation and prevalent attitudes, as well as being able to anticipate possible reactions to a message that is not in line with the prevalent view on gender roles is a good first step.

However, instead of making assumptions or following one of the many one-size fits-all approaches that can be found online, I would suggest researching your target audience to decide just how much — or how little — you need to adapt your messaging.

After all, despite the fact that declining to cut the hair of a potential customer based on gender is illegal, Top Gun has only reported an increase in sales after the news coverage of this incident.

Hopefully the same will be true for messages promoting gender equality, creating brand fans and loyal customers despite comments decrying your brand for “sabotaging” traditional values.

Ekaterina Howard: research-based localization of website and email copy into Russian

I help US-based companies localize their copy for the Russian market based on user and competitor research — to form meaningful connections with their target market and drive sales.

I wrote a guide on localizing website copy into Russian to make your customers feel like VIPs, not a “third-tier market”, even if you do not have a huge budget.