If you haven't yet heard, the retail space has a new trending TikTok term that is all the rage. Called "girl math", the trend involves rationalising big purchases by breaking them down using largely ambiguous justifications. These include stating that a product is cheaper than it actually is if you plan to use it multiple times, making it cheaper per cost of use.
The trend started to gain popularity in July when a New Zealand radio show called Fletch, Vaughan & Hayley helped a listener justify an SG$267 dress she was hoping to buy by saying that she was going to wear it three times and so the dress was actually worth a third of the actual price tag. The deejays on the show termed this rationalisation as 'girl math'.
The trend quickly picked up particularly on TikTok with men and women alike making videos justifying their purchases. Some of them said that when they load money into cards such as a Starbucks card, the drink they then buy with that card is free. Others came up with justifications such as that concert tickets were cheaper if you filmed it and watched it back a few times, thus reducing the amount spent on the ticket upfront.
In fact, media intelligence firm CARMA noted that the trend started to pick up traction locally in early September.
Sentiments regarding the term 'girl math' stood at 8% positive and 6.9% negative. CARMA noted that interestingly, most of the sentiments were neutral, indicating possibly that people have accepted girl math as an everyday part of life
While certainly a warped concept and a particularly insulting one to women when considering the name, it is a tool that can be used to drive purchases. This is especially so because many content creators, such as local TikToker Chloe Liem, are using it to justify massive luxury purchases such as an SG$3,950 pair of Cartier Trinity earrings.
So how can marketers hop on the trend and is it even ethical to do so? MARKETING-INTERACTIVE reached out to industry professionals to find out more.
The first thing to understand is how one views girl math. Marketers must remember that this is a trend, not to take advantage of, but to be considerate of, according to Kate O'Loughlin, associate strategy director of Initiative Australia.
"Born from spending guilt during this cost of living crisis, it would be unfair to consider girl math as something brands should exploit," she said, adding:
Rather, marketers should be thinking of how they can use girl math to understand how to help their consumers through the uncertain economic climate.
She illustrated this by saying that since girl math logic suggests that things like easy refunds and free shipping are reason enough to make a purchase, brands should be seeking ways to give back to shoppers through gift-with-purchase incentives or lowered shipping minimums.
Additionally, because girl math tends to use emotions to justify purchases, markets can lean into it with their marketing communications, she said.
"Girl math has demonstrated that spending as a form of self-care is still a reality, no matter the rate of inflation. Buying that new workout set from Lululemon is going to give shoppers a more immediate joy than saving the money for long-term goals like buying a house," said O'Loughlin. "Marketers can then learn from this yearning for immediate gratification by leaning into joy and humour through their marketing comms. Making people laugh or smile through your advertising will only benefit your brand," she said.
O'Loughlin added that it is also tough to get people to part ways with their money during a time when shoppers are finding it tough financially.
"If our audiences have to use the complex (albeit hilarious) methods of girl math to justify a purchase, then we need to make sure that purchase is worth their while," she said, adding:
Marketers need to optimise the entire consumer journey – from advertising, to website, to purchase, to follow up comms – to make every interaction meaningful for their audiences.
Agreeing with her, Ivan Ng, creative director at Yatta Workshop, a creative digital agency that specialises in social media management, noted that an important thing to understand is that while this might be a new and fun way to justify the purchase of a product, the underlying concept does not change. It is still about maximising return on investment (ROI).
"I find it relatable because as consumers, we pretty much relate to each other in the same way when we correlate the value of something to either an emotional or tangible benefit. For girl math, it’s all an emotional play," he said.
At the end of the day, it is all about a brand giving a consumer a reason to buy a product, according to Alvin Kok, managing director and co-founder at Actstitude.
"It's just part of crafting a marketing message to convey to consumers. The brand itself is not lying nor is it being deceptive. It is just about the brand giving the consumers a reason to buy it. And if girl math isn't the reason, marketers will always find other reasons too," he said.
An ethical marketing trend?
Saying that, brands should be careful about using the trend in marketing campaigns because it might not land well for all consumers, according to Ian YH Tan, a lecturer in strategic communication at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, NTU
"Marketers risk backlash as some people may not get the girl math joke and they may accuse the marketer of leading customers into poor financial decisions," said Tan. Instead, he suggests adopting a leaf from luxury watch brand Patek Philippe’s playbook instead.
In the 1990s, the brand rolled out its now-famous tagline, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
By positioning a luxury watch as a family heirloom that can last decades, Patek Philippe made it easier for consumers to justify the cost of haute horology. It’s a classy marketing pitch that focuses on family relationships more than the price tag of a watch, said Tan.
He explained that marketers should instead focus on the factual truths of their products, such as unique features and user benefits.
"Girl math is a comedic device, not financial advice. Furthermore, there is a risk that consumers might take the concept seriously and feel misled later," said Tan, adding:
Good marketers should not be focusing on the price tag; instead, they should highlight the value of the product.
Adding to his point, Shufen Goh, co-founder and principal at R3 noted that while trend-jacking is undeniably a viable tactic for brands to increase awareness and participate in cultural conversation, not every trend is worth participating in.
"Impactful marketing aligns and reflects brand values. Without that, any marketing activity risks being seen as opportunistic and ingenuine," she said. "Sometimes the best things marketers can do is watch and learn. What does this say about consumers? What are the emotions and concerns motivating the trend?"
The fickle nature of trends
This is particularly important because trends come and go extremely quickly. In fact, just a few months ago, the trend gripping the world was deinfluencing, something that goes almost directly against girl math.
Deinfluencing is a trend in which creators discourage users from indulging in a consumerist lifestyle, and from buying everything that is marketed to them on social media.
The idea behind the concept is that while it is acceptable to buy things we really need or want, we should not feel compelled towards a life of overconsumption simply because of influencer marketing.
The idea rose to popularity early this year when beauty influencer Mikayla Noguiera posted a review of a L’Oreal mascara on TikTok. In the video, Noguiera praised the mascara for making her lashes look like she had on false lashes. Netizens however were convinced that she had on actual false lashes and many came out to say that they felt cheated despite the fact that Noguiera made it clear that the video was sponsored and that she was not wearing false lashes.
The video sparked many content creators to come out in her defence, openly admitting the need to use grandiose language and tactics to sell a product online. This caused many creators to also begin speaking out against a culture of consumerism and to push 'deinfluencing'.
Industry experts MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to at the time agreed that a worsening economy could largely be to blame for the move away from influencer marketing, adding fuel to the fire of the new trend.
“I think the community as a whole has gotten tired of caving in and spending tons of money on products that they have realised aren’t what they’ve been hyped up to be, more so at the hands of their once ‘trusted sources’ aka influencers,” explained Kimberley Olsen, the director of Yatta Workshop at the time.
She added that consumers have been questioning the authenticity of influencers for a long time now, which also gave rise to many brands turning to ‘micro influencers’.
“Legitimate influencers will always be crucial to a brand’s sale or a product’s positive word-of-mouth,” added Althea Lim, co-founder and group CEO of Gushcloud International, an influencer marketing agency at the time.
“Now that deinfluencing is such a popular concept online which isn’t likely to go away, it’s a good reminder for content creators to always reconsider where and how consumers shop and who they listen to for recommendations,” added Lim.
What will deinfluencing's impact be on cult branding?
TikTok's new tool helps creators label AI-generated content
TikTok to remove personalised algorithm in EU: Could it sully the name of targeted ads?
Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top marketing stories.
We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's marketing development – for free.subscribe now open in new window