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Shattering Gendered Marketing

Katie Powers

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In industries where products have been historically marketed based on gender, some brands are beginning to shun stereotypes and embrace neutrality

In a 1955 print ad, the household brand Lux presented a woman dressed in a sensible apron and pearl earrings, surrounded by a mountain of dishes. “Get out of the kitchen sooner!” read the text above her. An overlaid image depicted her husband and child relaxing outdoors. In another ad, released 31 years later in 1996, car manufacturer Daihatsu offered an image of a man driving a van full of smiling women below the words, “Picks up five times more women than a Lamborghini.” The logic behind such advertising, of course, is that women are in charge of housework and family care, while car purchases are left primarily to the men.

In today’s social climate, it seems unlikely that people would stand for such egregious stereotyping, but products such as dish soap and cars are still aimed at consumers based on gender demographics—brands are just subtler in their approach. For children, gender stereotyping is on full display in retail. A pink convertible or a doll might be listed for girls online or in stores, while a blue truck or a baseball bat may be labeled as boys’ toys. It’s a relatively modern phenomenon: According to an Atlantic article by sociology professor Elizabeth Sweet, less than 2% of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls in Sears catalog ads in 1975. By 1995, gendered toys made up roughly half of the Sears catalog’s offerings. For adults, brands might aim targeted online ads for household products to women, while a sports equipment company might only portray men in their commercials. 

But this pink and blue divide also persists because brands have traditionally operated on the belief that consumers are making purchasing decisions based on their gender. Marketing to a person’s gender not only risks alienating other potential consumers—ones who don’t conform to traditional gender roles or interests—but it also shows a failure by the company to mine for deeper insights about its audience.

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Stereotypes suggest otherwise, but research demonstrates that humans aren’t defined by their gender. According to a J. Walter Thompson Intelligence report from 2015, 81% of Gen Z members strongly believe gender does not define a person as much as it did in the past. They’re also embracing the idea of gender nonconformity, with nearly 60% reporting that they believe forms should include selection options besides “man” or “woman.”

Ultimately, research from the American Psychological Association finds that a person’s gender has little to no bearing on their personality, cognition and leadership abilities. Sure, a consumer might identify as a woman, but she might also be interested in sports or perhaps enjoy hiking or camping. Maybe she manages a large group of people at her job, or makes major financial decisions. A man may be interested in cars, but he also might do all the grocery shopping for his children.

“There are more differences between individuals than there are between genders,” says Christia Spears Brown, a professor of developmental and social psychology at the University of Kentucky. “If you use gender as your metric, you won’t see what they’re actually interested in.”

Yet brands have caught themselves and consumers in a vicious cycle: Stereotypes trap people into thinking that they are meant to desire a certain product, then brands continue to market said product toward the gender that has typically bought it. As a result, companies have convinced women to spend more on products that are nearly identical to those marketed to men, a phenomenon dubbed the “pink tax.” On the other hand, a man might be persuaded to purchase beer when he’d prefer a bottle of wine, as aisles are stocked with brands such as Mad Housewife, Seduction and Little Black Dress.

The effectiveness of gendered marketing is changing as modern consumers—particularly those of younger generations—are seeking brand experiences that are inclusive toward people of all gender identities and don’t judge their preferences based on stereotypes. “Brands both reflect and influence societal norms, and for much of our existence, our American concepts of gender have always been organized in binary terms,” says Kate Snyder, strategist and head of anthropology at Instant Grass International, a consumer insights and research firm based in Cape Town, South Africa. “We’re in the midst of a powerful cultural movement, one in which people are beginning to embrace the fluidity of gender and that the way we identify and express ourselves doesn’t have to strictly fall under masculine and feminine stereotypes. Brands should be mirroring and representing this shift in order to stay with the times.”

The toy industry is one of the first stops in the life cycle of a consumer, and it’s also an arena where gender stereotypes are built and internalized, says Brown. In a department store, consumers might find dolls and pretend makeup in an aisle labeled “girls” and sports equipment or monster trucks in an aisle labeled “boys.” They might even find the same product—a toy car, for instance—in both aisles; one in pink for girls and one in blue for boys. 

Brown says such distinctions are based on stereotypes about what people of a certain gender might want: that girls, for example, are interested in their appearance and identify with motherhood, while boys are physical, aggressive and athletic. But it also suggests to children that some products are simply not meant for them. “That differentiation seems to tell kids that boys and girls are inherently different,” Brown says. “By gendering [toys], it conveys implicitly that kids are so different that they need different types of toys.”

And like the pink tax, gendered marketing can be a boon for sales: Insisting that girls’ and boys’ toys be differentiated might convince a family with children of both genders to buy double. Plus, in many cases, the “girl” version of a product will cost more. In a 2015 report, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that girls’ toys and accessories in the city cost 7% more than boys’ items, and girls’ clothing cost 4% more.

It may not appear that gender-neutral products would be in a brand’s interests, but modern parents want to protect their children from the stereotypes that could cause a little boy to ask for a toy monster truck when he’d prefer a doll. 

In a 2017 Havas Group survey of parents across the world, 61% of women and 46% of men believe children should be raised in as gender-neutral environments as possible in order to guard them from stereotypes. A 2018 survey from Our Watch, conducted in Australia, found that 79% of parents of children ages 0-3 wanted to act against traditional gender stereotypes in the manner that they brought up their children.

Such insights have important implications for the toy industry. Parents are seeking consumer experiences that recognize their children as multi-faceted, in the same way they do in the products they select for themselves. And consumers are beginning to hold brands accountable for the ways in which they fail to be gender-inclusive.

Let Toys Be Toys is a consumer advocacy and market research group based in the U.K. It urges children’s brands to implement inclusive marketing by ending the practice of marking children’s toys as “for boys” or “for girls” in store, print and online advertising materials. The campaign was launched after a group of concerned parents connected over Mumsnet, a popular parenting message board. Since its launch in 2012, Let Toys Be Toys has convinced 15 major U.K. retailers to stop gendering their toys.

“We ask retailers to just say what the product is, not who it is for, and let children make choices about what to play with or read based on interest, not gender stereotypes,” campaign member Tessa Trabue says. She and her colleagues within the campaign echoed Brown’s sentiments about the ways in which such stereotypes impact children. “When boys and girls are directed and encouraged to play with particular toys, this limits children’s opportunities to develop their own interests, as well as their chance to learn different skills,” Trabue says. 

As more parents raise their children with this mindset, brands that market to gender could be isolating a large portion of their consumer base by making a group feel as though they aren’t meant to be included in the story of a product, even though it might align with their interests. In order to avoid isolating potential consumers, brands should frame their marketing tactics around what a product is for as opposed to whom it is for. Not only will this capture the attention of progressive parents, it will also offer shoppers a more streamlined experience. “Surely grouping items into categories like games, arts and crafts, dolls, musical instruments, science, magic kits, etc. helps shoppers more easily find what they are looking for, as opposed to grouping items under two ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ umbrella labels,” Trabue says.

The results of implementing gender-neutral marketing for toy brands are mostly anecdotal at this point, but Trabue says that none of the 15 brands they convinced to drop gendered marketing have offered negative feedback to the campaign or expressed frustration at their decision to rethink their strategies. “Brands [that] are responding positively to these concerns and marketing more inclusively receive positive feedback from customers, and in turn inspire confidence and loyalty,” Trabue says. 

Target, for one, now sells gender-neutral products for children and got rid of its pink and blue toy aisles in 2015. In 2017, the retailer partnered with Toca Boca to debut a back-to-school line of clothing, accessories, backpacks and bedding intended to appeal to boys and girls alike. Although it’s unclear if this strategy has helped sales at Target, it doesn’t appear to have hurt: Target’s shares are up 33% this year, while other U.S. retailers are on pace for the largest number of annual closings ever.

The Instant Grass International report “Trends 2016: Gender Neutral Marketing” breaks down four questions brands should consider in order to execute gender-neutral strategies:

  1. Question what’s “normal”: Does your brand reinforce old stereotypes of what men and women should wear, say or do?
  2. Check your messaging: Does your brand communication perpetuate sexist or harmful stereotypes, i.e., women are sex objects whose bodies sell?
  3. Rethink your segmentation: Are there ways that you can embrace female consumers in previously male-dominated categories or brands?
  4. Beware of tokenism: Make sure that if you create a gender-friendly campaign, it delivers as authentic and believable.

In other industries, the pink and blue divide persists, as marketers work on the assumption of difference and stereotypes. But some brands are beginning to see the importance of responding to the current climate surrounding gender, and in a reflection of trends in the toy industry, consumers are holding brands accountable for failing to offer authentic representations and experiences. 

A few years after its release, the Bic pen “For Her” began attracting online ridicule. The pen was “designed to fit comfortably into a woman’s hand,” featured pastel colors and was priced at a 70% increase from Bic’s non-gendered pen. Consumers disagreed with the brand’s assumption that women want pens based on appearance and their feminine characteristics, not their functionality. They also took issue with the pen’s higher price.

“Before these pens, I was nothing. I was a mere inconsequential woman, stumbling around writing nonsense with big pens that made me look ridiculous,” one customer wrote sarcastically in an Amazon review. In response to consumer concerns, Bic released a lukewarm statement that fell short of an apology. 

This year, in Kantar’s “Getting Gender Right Report,” 45% of consumers reported that marketers portray women in outdated ways, and ad targeting in many categories is based on stereotypes. What’s especially telling is 92% of marketing professionals reported that they believe they are portraying women positively and are successfully avoiding gender stereotypes in their work. “It’s precisely the brands that tend to be categorically ‘for men’ or ‘for women’ that should be more introspective about the stereotypes they’re spurning,” Snyder says.

She offers the “Find your magic” campaign from Axe, a company notorious for its promotion of masculinity. Although it still markets products by gender, the brand has worked to change its values by rejecting stereotypical ideas surrounding manliness and recognizing individuality among its consumers.

The Green Gender Gap

For the researchers and organizers at Let Toys Be Toys, emphasizing the sustainability issues that stem from the pink and blue divide is a key aspect of their campaign.

“For families with both boys and girls, this means more toys being purchased and less toys being handed down, and therefore getting less use overall,” says Tessa Trabue of Let Toys Be Toys. “This all has a negative impact on the environment in terms of more toys being manufactured, purchased and discarded.”

Sustainability and environmental responsibility have become a greater concern for consumers, and this includes modern parents. Millennials want their children to play with more eco-friendly toys and games, according to a report from Let Toys Be Toys. Toy brands that market for sustainability understand the role that gender plays in the life span of a product.

“Interestingly, many of the new toys on the market that are advertised as more environmentally friendly and sustainable also tend to be much more inclusive, both in packaging and the products themselves, moving away from the pink–blue divide,” Trabue says. Research from the University of Notre Dame also identifies a green gender gap: Men do not behave as environmentally friendly in their consumption as women. This, according to another study from the Journal of Consumer Research, is because men associate concern for the environment and green behavior with femininity.

This year, a study from the journal Sex Roles assessed the social consequences that men face when they choose to engage in pro-environmental behaviors, finding that these men were more likely to face judgments about their sexuality and have feminine traits ascribed to them. Echoing previous studies, the Sex Roles research found that men were likely to distance themselves from pro-environmental activities for fear of social repercussions.

Let Toys Be Toys maintains that the process of dismantling gender stereotypes associated with environmental behavior could start in the toy industry. “[The green gender gap] suggests that when boys are expected to identify with mainstream ideas about masculinity, they learn to shun eco-friendly behavior,” a member of the organization wrote in a blog post. “For a more compassionate and sustainable future, part of the answer may lie in doing away with the stereotypes—we need to see more boys with butterflies.”

“Men’s deodorant brands have an abysmal record of being ‘for bros’—that is, hypermasculine and hyper-, heterosexualized chick magnets,” Snyder says. “But Axe’s ‘Find your magic’ campaign broke down these unrealistic boxes for what a man ‘should’ be by portraying a beautiful, hilarious range of masculinity. It reminded us that men are free to express themselves in whatever way they choose, independent from traditional, rigid stereotypes.”

Brands that take the time to listen to feedback gain insights about what their consumers want out of the products—and they’re finding success. Bic released the Made For YOU razor blade system in June, marketed as a gender-inclusive product and designed for anyone who wants to use it. Although it’s unclear if this was an effort to distance itself from the gendered pen controversy, consumer feedback played a role in the Made For YOU development. According to a Bic spokesperson, it was created in response to a survey in which 67% of adults ages 18-24 expressed a desire for gender-neutral grooming products. They added that as consumers have a wide range of choices when it comes to selecting shaving products, Bic is excited about the prospect of offering a product that any person is invited to experience, regardless of their gender identity.

“There is still a market for men’s and women’s razors—we will certainly continue to sell those—but there’s a new market for a segment of consumers who are stepping away from traditional gender stereotypes and prefer a gender-neutral product,” says the spokesperson. And while the official numbers are unavailable, the brand maintains that it’s pleased with the sales momentum of the product thus far.

There are also the products for which stereotypes about the roles of men and women drive brand perceptions of who might be using them, which impacts who marketers target. Brands are missing the mark here, too: 98% of baby, laundry and household cleaner ads are targeted at women, according to Kantar Millward Brown. But according to Kantar TNS’s annual Connected Life study, most domestic buying decisions are now made jointly by men and women. In a 2015 report from Kantar, 76% of female consumers and 71% of male consumers believe that the way men and women are portrayed in advertising is “completely out of touch.” In order to correct such oversights, Snyder emphasizes the first and most important step brands and marketers must take to implement a gender-inclusive strategy: They must listen to consumer feedback in order to understand who buys their products.

She offers the beer and cosmetics industries as examples of areas where marketing efforts have been historically targeted toward men or women, respectively, but have made significant progress when it comes to understanding their consumer base.

“The shift is slow, but brands are beginning to realize that a solid portion of their consumer base is women,” she says of beer brands. “Where they have historically portrayed their consumer as a hyper-masculinized, working-class male, now we’re starting to see brands also speaking to women in mixed-gender occasions and in a more neutral context that invites anyone, regardless of gender, to enjoy.”

Products in the beauty industry have been heavily marketed toward gender demographics, but as gender norms become less definitive, the consumer base has widened. Snyder says that companies have made impressive efforts to recognize this. “More and more masculine consumers are buying beauty products for a whole host of reasons—self care, improving complexion, self expression—and now more brands are beginning to reflect this wider consumer profile through the influencers they hire as ambassadors and the models they employ in campaigns,” she says. “It all begins with expanding your understanding of who buys your products.” 

In 2016, Instant Grass International developed a report outlining the rise of gender-neutral marketing across the world. It emphasizes that this is no fleeting trend; brands must embrace it if they wish to stay modern and relevant. The research was spearheaded by Snyder. “I have always had a personal interest in gender studies and the way in which the advertising industry has historically entrenched unhealthy expectations for women in terms of beauty, body and other submissive norms,” she says. “I’m happy to see the shifts that are taking place that show all of us as consumers of brands and advertising that those expectations are breaking down.”

In an Adweek op-ed, Benjamin Lord, executive director of omni-channel marketing at makeup brand NARS, wrote that gender-neutral marketing should be a priority for all brands across all industries, particularly if they wish to capture the attention of young consumers. Supporting brands that stand for self-expression, inclusion and social progress is deeply important to younger generations, he wrote. But in their approach, brands must listen to their voices and their stories if they want the strategy to come off as authentic.

“This means marketers might have to change their approach to consumers and talent alike,” Lord wrote. “Because we’re moving beyond marketing to sexes, it isn’t just products themselves that can be gender neutral: distribution, packaging, advertising and even communications should be as well. This is an opportunity to create new campaigns whose images showcase fluid identities, communities and even families. Simply put, it’s time for brands to be as brave and real as Gen Z is. … An estimated 69% of Gen Z uses adblockers, so now is the time to be curious and get them on board.”

Consumers want brands to understand them and reflect who they are; and if brands want to deliver, they’ll need to think beyond gender demographics. “Stereotypes are limiting,” Brown says. “The reality is that gender doesn’t predict very well what a real person is actually like.”

Photos and layout by Vince Cerasani; reviews by real Amazon customers.

Katie Powers is editorial content intern at the American Marketing Association.