The Power of Repulsion

First published on Huffington Post on 01/13/2018 05:30 pm ET


Scrolling through my Instagram feed this week, I came across a post that stopped me in my tracks. A kitchen scene in which a Barbie doll held Ken’s head on a platter, his bloodied, headless body shoved into a refrigerator behind her. The caption: “When he tells you to make him a sandwich.”

The poster? The women’s community and coworking space, The Wing.

For those who aren’t familiar, The Wing is a women’s club and coworking space in NYC. Particularly popular with millennials, it offers beautiful work-and-hang-out spaces with amenities “designed with women in mind,” as well as regular events focused on topics relevant to women: from political to social to personal development.

The bluntness of the post and caption made me smirk before I recoiled. While I appreciate a good counterpunch to the demeaning “make me a sandwich” meme, this went too far for my taste. Then again, I arguably fall just outside of The Wing’s target age demographic. (Ok, maybe not just outside.) I’m also extremely squeamish when it comes to violence or gore, even while I’m usually good for an inappropriate laugh.

But as a brand strategist, what this post really made me feel was curiosity.

The post, which over the past three days has garnered over 14 thousand likes and 635 comments (and counting), drew equally passionate horror and support from followers. Supporters argued that the image and caption are simply “dark humor”, and should be appreciated as such. They asserted that art is meant to be provocative, and that those offended are being overly sensitive or missing the point. Other supporters made the point that inequality remains a very real issue that can and should inspire feelings of anger:

“This is funny yes, but also fierce. We are angry for a reason. Who here hasn’t worked through their feelings with a good game of Barbies?”

Critics argued that the post is exactly the kind of statement that gives feminism a bad name - that it supports the notion that feminists are angry “man-haters.” There were “unfollow” declarations, threats to cancel membership, and assertions that this was a grave misstep for a business claiming to champion the advancement of women.

“This image and caption is highly offensive and hateful. This is not feminism, and not in the spirit of creating an inclusive world for all genders.”

“This is thoroughly disappointing and sad. Young women who are looking to be empowered by this platform are going to easily translate this into hatred towards men. That does nothing but cultivate hatred.”

[The photo, it should be noted, was a regram from “thealleyofthedolls”, who chimed in to add that the caption added by The Wing was misleading and that the original intent of the humor had nothing to do with feminism, but rather was simply a dark-humored pun on the name of a popular refrigerator brand (i.e. “KillKenMore”).]

The Wing, as of this writing, responded only once, directly to a poster requesting membership cancellation - neither apologizing for nor defending the post:

“Hi. We really appreciate your honest feedback and we feel badly that this Instagram post has shifted your feelings about The Wing. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to a Community Manager if you are interested in continuing this conversation or if you have questions and concerns about membership. We are here for you.”

What’s happening here?

The Wing is owning their brand.

To this casual observer, The Wing’s ideal member avatar looks like a smart, hip, social, irreverent, assertive, progressive, ambitious millennial woman who is passionate about women’s issues and appreciates dark humor. Their brand tone? Wry, direct, irreverent, empowering. They don’t shy away from pushing the envelope. (This is simply perception, but when it comes to branding, perception is reality.)

The Barbie post, while alienating some of us, reinforces The Wing brand.

A powerful brand, particularly one aiming to cultivate a clearly-defined community, isn’t going to simply attract the “right” customers. It’s going to repel the “wrong” ones.

Why is it so important to repel? Why not attract everyone? Because attracting the wrong customers will gradually erode your reputation. The “wrong” customers will never be happy with what you can offer them, because the business wasn’t built for them. It won’t be a good fit and they’ll complain (often rightly so), they’ll demand their money back, they’ll ruin the vibe of the community you’ve worked hard to cultivate.

By referring to themselves as “a coven, not a sorority”, The Wing offers a clear sense of how they view their community. Their magazine, called “No Man’s Land,” is for “women with something to say and nothing to prove.”

This isn’t your typical women’s group.

While it’s not my personal style, I admire their commitment to a take-no-prisoners, in-your-face, fiercely female voice. Building a powerful brand takes commitment and consistency. It won’t resonate with everyone. And it shouldn’t.

What do you think?

Does a 100% women-centric organization have a responsibility to focus on positivity and inclusiveness? Did The Wing overstep the line, or does turning up the volume on the voice of women in society require a willingness to be bold, indelicate and provocative?

Time will tell if they’ll back-peddle on their unapologetic brashness. Purely for the sake of brand consistency, I’d like to see them stick to it.