Gender-Based Branding: Is It Finally Time to Be Neutral?

by | Sep 5, 2016 | Uncategorized

In this hyperengaged world of social media in which we live, consumers are unabashedly vocal in both cheering for things they believe in and rising up against the things they believe are wrong. Outdated gender biases are on the front line of this battleground. Maybe it’s time to make peace with it.

There is hard data out there to suggest that gender neutrality is quickly overtaking gender-specific branding. This survey conducted by JWT Intelligence, the trend-forecasting arm of J. Walter Thompson, reveals that Generation Z strongly prefers gender neutrality over “his versus hers” messaging. Seventy percent of the 13- to 20-year-olds fully supported gender-neutral bathroom facilities and a solid one-third of them were in strong agreement that gender does not define a person as much as it used to.

There are also dozens of live examples of this trend succeeding over and over again with consumers. Take this video featuring a little boy promoting Mattel’s new Moschino Barbie doll. Clocking in at around 3.5 million views at the time of this post, it’s the first time a young male has been used to promote Barbie in nearly six decades, and people are clearly into it.

Then you have things such as Leo Burnett’s “Like a Girl” campaign for Procter & Gamble’s Always brand, which features young women literally kicking down negative gender messages without a single sparkle, flower or butterfly in sight. It was also ranked as the top digital campaign of the 2015 Super Bowl based on volume of social media mentions and has won a slew of awards. Yes, you read that right: A stereotype-neutralizing campaign selling feminine hygiene products took top honors during what is arguably the most testosterone-fueled sporting event in North America. What does that tell you?

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I mean, it’s not like this is a new development or anything. Looking back, we collectively cringe at the sexist messages that used to be so commonplace in advertising. We started on this path toward gender equality in the 1960s – an era of outrage, breaking the boxes open and tossing out restrictive rules we didn’t want to follow anymore.

Some women want to wear pants, become neurologists and play sports. Some men want to wear pink, become hairdressers and make pottery. What we don’t want is to be patronized, segregated or told what’s acceptable for our gender.

o-VINTAGE-facebookThe world is so fortunate that time travel doesn’t exist. I swear I would be opening ketchup bottles and wearing cargo pants all over you, 1945 …

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So why is it, after all these years, I still have to stand there in the shaving aisle at the supermarket feeling like I’m on the invisible line between the “men’s razors” and “women’s razors,” as if I’m being forced to pick a team even though these are essentially identical products?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy into all the multiblades and titanium polyalloy, hojo-mojo, developed-especially-for-men’s-skin razor. I actually use the generic orange BIC razors that are always on the bottom shelf, awkwardly stuck between the XXXtreme MegaForce ULTRA Man Bladez and the Silky Glide Deluxe Elegance Lady Shavers. Nothing bad has EVER happened to my legs because they are not the delicate slips of petal softness which require special lotion formulations to properly maintain, as marketing would have me believe.

IMG_20160816_125554Seems like they survived despite my callous disregard for my sensitive girlish skin.

Besides, women’s razors always seem to cost more for some reason. I became suspicious about this once and discovered it’s not just the razors, but rather the practice of so-called “gender pricing” which applies to these products – the impact of which is estimated by Forbes to cost the average female consumer a whopping $1,400 a year!

All sorts of these examples of gender contamination in branding are flying around. It’s an all-too-common strategy where you take something that’s normally marketed to a particular gender, then present an identical product but brand it “exclusively” to the opposite gender. Personal care and hygiene products are the worst offenders for this – see my razor rant above – but you see it in lots of different places. Increasingly, consumers are media-savvy and can tell when this kind of thing is happening.

DrPepperUnneeded disclaimer: It’s actually Diet Dr. Pepper in a gray can. You won’t grow chest hair if you drink it. Image source:

Not that you need to be terribly savvy to notice, but this sort of strategy tends to be really obvious for its own sake. As an example, I was recently made aware that Lamborghini plans to launch “a car for women” to increase their female market share. In concept, that sure sounds like it’s a good idea. According to at least one source, only 5 percent of the company’s buyers over the past decade have been female. But creating an entirely new car and calling it “gentle” and “practical” doesn’t sound a whole lot like the Lamborghini brand to me.

“If you are going to do an SUV, you better understand that there will likely be children in the back; women transport kids, whether they are working mothers or not,” says the research firm. I nearly forgot how women are always chained to children and only the fathers get to enjoy luxury sports cars. Thank God I can buy a $200,000 SUV with the same logo as my husband’s Murciélago LP650 so I can feel good about myself while running errands.

In essence, this is the whole problem with the situation: I’m completely aware that I’m being marketed to on the basis of gender for no obvious purpose, except maybe as an excuse to apply surcharges to things I use every single day. It’s annoying, and it’s not just me who’s annoyed. Consumers are more intelligent than ever before. The numbers have been coming in: We don’t like it.

I suppose I understand the logic on some level where personal hygiene products are concerned. Men and women do have at least a few unique physical attributes and some degrees of separation exist in how these things are maintained. But is it really necessary to call it out so blatantly?

The feminine care aisle is a magical, for-women-only realm. A floral, pastel-colored wonderland beset with pearls, glitter and ribbons. Seriously though, no amount of script typography is fooling anyone into thinking they’re going to buy some tampons and then go riding around on white horses in white pants or do yoga on a white sand beach this weekend.

All that this seems to accomplish is that it causes every single package in that section of the aisle to look alike, which is the polar opposite of what good branding is supposed to do. Why do we need to market it based on gender at all? We’re aware that men don’t use these products, so you don’t have to color everything pink and bedazzle it to make sure we understand.

I was reading a blog recently that celebrates a couple of brands that are challenging the status quo of swirly whimsy as far as having periods is concerned. The branding was quite well-designed, clean, appropriate and, in my opinion, refreshing to see.

Astonishingly, one of the aforementioned products has been thrust into public debate recently for its take on the marketing of feminine products. It seems that a photo of a tangerine placed next to a woman in a chair wearing (admittedly modest) underwear was deemed “too racy” for the New York subway. Excuse me? What?

landscape-1445443755-thinxleadImage source:

This is one of the ads. Shocking, right? How dare they crudely objectify female body parts with slightly suggestive fruit images to sell things? Er, wait a second …

CDc1M1JUUAIrJHaImage source:

This is an advertisement that did make it onto the New York subway. The lesson here appears to be that, when marketing to women, it’s only appropriate to use fruit as a euphemism for genitalia if you’re trying to fix her tiny, undesirable breasts, but if you try to sell something to help women with a universally present concern that they have – well, you’ve just gone too far!

You know what? Social media networks are really, really ticked off about this, and they are very happy to let us know! There is a guerilla sticker campaign going on right now, pioneered by everyday, angry female consumers who think this type of biased, sex-based marketing is demeaning, body-shaming and stereotype-perpetuating. Aggressive statements like defacing ads in this fashion are a pretty popular, tweetable pastime, so it’s worthy of notice.

Thus we have an excellent example of how good branding, and also good design, is supposed to operate. I’m quite sure Thinx isn’t complaining about causing a fuss with the Establishment for putting a new spin on a staple of every woman’s bathroom cabinet. They broke some rules that people want to break. And all this social media chatter pointing in their direction is definitely doing them more good than not.

It is also a fine example of how consumers are capable (and very willing) to flatly tell us what they like and what they don’t like, what’s acceptable and what isn’t. You don’t even have to go out of your way anymore to hear them. It will be the companies that actually listen to them that are going to end up being successful.

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Gillian Kunis
Integrating high-energy creativity with a concrete foundation of technical skills, Gillian is an avid artist and illustrator with more than 10 years of experience in graphic design and print production. She graduated at the top of her college program in Canada and has honed her multifaceted skills through a diverse project background, including everything from identity development for locally owned startup companies to overseeing the production of provincial government collateral materials and global clients in medical and other industries.

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