From Philip Morris’s 1954 introduction of the Marlboro Man to promote a “universally masculine appeal” to Dr Pepper Ten’s 2011 launch of a diet soda that was proudly “not for women,” marketers have long capitalized on traditional gender beliefs to sell their products. But now, a decade after Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign, brands can no longer rely solely on outdated tropes to connect with increasingly diverse, empowered consumers. Traditional Western views on gender — where people fit neatly into predefined concepts and behaviors of masculinity and femininity — are giving way to inclusivity that allows more individualized and authentic manifestations of gender beyond the binary model.
The winds of change are at our doorstep: According to an Ipsos study in 2019, 34% of all Americans disagreed with the statement that “there are only two genders — male and female — and not a range of gender identities.” Around the world, in 35 countries, 40% disagreed with that binary perspective. Younger consumers are at the vanguard of ushering in change: According to Pew Research, almost 60% of those aged 13 to 21 (“Gen Z”) believe forms that ask about gender should include options besides “male” or “female.”
Older consumers also are no longer locked into binary gender tropes: More than three-quarters of parents look favorably upon encouraging girls to play with toys or participate in activities typically associated with boys.
Marketers Must Ready Their Brands
Astute brands, especially the upstarts, have been quick to perceive and respond to the shift in gender zeitgeist. Women’s shaving brand Billie (recently acquired by Procter & Gamble) satirized how traditional women’s razor brands (many, ironically, also owned by P&G) shied away from showing female body hair. Milk Makeup showcases its products using transgender models as well as cisgender male and female models. Even more indicative of a broader societal and brand strategy shift is that legacy companies, too, have taken bold steps to transcend the binary model of gender, as noted in the examples below.
What is a marketer to do to ready her brand to operate under a different set of gender rules? Using a first-principles approach is the best way to craft a brand strategy along the four axes of marketing:
- Product. Marketers must revisit their product portfolio to assess its relevance to consumers’ shifting expectations. This process has been underway for some time in the personal care category, especially for men’s products, where traditional retailers now stock aisles with products like under-eye and cuticle cream that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Clothing, especially for children, has evolved for several years with brands like Carter’s, Gap, and H&M offering gender-neutral options. Mattel, often under fire for its overly sexualized Barbie representations, has introduced a gender-neutral doll.
- Pricing. The notorious “pink tax” reflects the higher price women pay for many everyday items; one New York city study pegged it at 13% for personal care items. Burger King’s candid-camera version of selling “chick fries” (the usual chicken fries in a pink box at an inflated price) exposed the absurdity of this price discrimination strategy. Marketers must strip pricing strategies of gender distortion. Online bulk products retailer Boxed took up the challenge to undo gendered pricing, and by March 2019, redistributed $1 million in offset discounts among customers. The brand also sells products like tampons and women’s razors at prices that are cheaper than those of their competitors.
- Promotion. A brand must adapt its communication to both reflect the new thinking about gender and to speak to a society that has shown to have a very different gender identity than in the past. In 2018, Coca-Cola gave a subtle nod to gender-neutral pronouns in its Super Bowl commercial. In an Argentinian ad, the company’s Sprite brand went much further, showing a parent helping a transgender child dress. In the U.K., the Advertising Standards Authority, an independent regulatory body, has established guidelines about perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes and has even banned ads from Volkswagen and Mondelez for violating them.
- Place. The shopping experience, whether it takes place at a physical location or a digital one, is evolving to reflect a new gender reality. Target has always been active in this regard, stripping kids’ toys and bedding sections of gender identifiers. Stockmann, Finland’s largest department store, has an entire floor dedicated to gender-neutral fashion. For online shoppers, Birchbox has changed both how it bundles its products and its website navigation from man/woman to beauty/grooming to reflect choice rather than impose gender expectations.
Brands Must Embrace a New Gender Paradigm
It’s not enough to string together a series of initiatives to tackle gender. And brand building is much more than a tagline and a campaign (often poorly thought through — there’s no brand in the world that wants to replicate Pepsi’s fiasco with their widely condemned ad of Kendall Jenner handing Pepsi to a police officer in the middle of a protest). Bringing pervasive cultural change into your marketing strategy needs to be both relevant and authentic.
Be relevant to the changing needs of your customers. This starts with doing the groundwork on how perceptions are changing, then growing the brand to embrace this evolution, all while continuing to remain useful and meaningful to your core customer. Mastercard’s “True Name” feature — which allows transgender and nonbinary persons to have their true names on their cards without having to go through a legal name change — demonstrates recognition of the importance, and the diversity, of identity. In a similar vein, when booking a flight on United Airlines, customers now have the option to select U (undisclosed) or X (unspecified) as their gender of choice.
Be authentic to your brand essence and credibly demonstrate that you stand by your values. Opportunistic positioning will backfire. The Hallmark Channel ran an ad depicting a lesbian couple, then pulled it in response to complaints from a conservative group. This upset LGBTQ advocacy groups, so Hallmark restored the ad, only to face even harsher criticism from the conservative group. A brand must look within and act on what it believes is right. After coming under evangelical fire for an inclusive bathroom policy, Target, for example, leaned into its commitment to allowing transgender customers to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity by investing $20 million in expanded bathroom options.
Smart Marketing Can Replace Obsolete Gender Proxies
Until now, marketers have been taught not to question the concept of binary gender; it’s firmly programmed into muscle memory. Outdated gender constructs still shape organizational thinking — they’re in our biases, personas, databases, insights, and more. Consider, for example, the volume of market research conducted with strict sampling requirements for male and female respondents, with nary a thought to the explanatory power of the full spectrum of gender.
As data proliferate, marketers grow intimate with every desire of their customers and acquire the behavioral and attitudinal insights to hypercustomize products, services, and experiences. Gender is a proxy, and no marketer should have to build a brand based on guesswork that relies on a faulty construct. Smart marketing is about harnessing the intelligence of data and analytics to build a brand that understands and serves the unique and individual needs of customers, no matter where they identify on the gender spectrum.
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This content was originally published by MIT Sloan Management Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By MIT Sloan Management Review