Why marketers should think less gendered and more neutral

Imagine a world without gender. Where colours, smells, tastes, clothes, cosmetics, cars and toys are completely gender neutral. Blue isn’t for boys and pink isn’t for girls. Dresses and floral perfumes are made for people, not just women. Sports cars and beard grooming products are marketed to everyone, not only men. Shoes are shoes and lipstick is lipstick. Children can wear and play with whatever they want because there are no socially constructed rules determined by an X or a Y.

The way we think about gender is changing. Where once it was something shackled to us at birth, traditional assumptions around gender are being challenged, especially among younger generations, and identification is increasingly becoming less binary and more fluid.

This in turn is impacting the way brands communicate with people, and there are a growing number of product innovations and marketing campaigns which are helping to pave the way for a more inclusive future.

A more neutral view

Gender neutrality is simply taking away the intention of the product and not making assumptions about who does and doesn’t use it.

Beauty brands are doing a good job of positioning themselves in a less gendered way. From newbies Fluide, Jecca Blac, Milk Makeup and Fenty Beauty, to stalwarts such as MAC, Illamasqua and L’Oréal, their products and marketing are finally beginning to reflect the diversity of their consumers.

“YouTube and Instagram have profoundly democratised the vision and versions of beauty and it has really embraced us as brands – makeup brands especially – to open up our whole portfolio of options and images,” says Lubomira Rochet, L’Oréal’s chief digital officer.

“We should see more brands as platforms of expression to give people in the community a voice. Today our brands are completely embracing diverse and different ways of thinking of beauty.”

Subscription beauty brand Birchbox, meanwhile, recently changed the name of its BirchboxMan product to Birchbox Grooming to be more inclusive.

The decision came after receiving feedback from a gender non-conforming customer, which Birchbox says made it realise having a brand name with ‘man’ in it put a limit on the type of people that should buy its products.

Marketing can be an amazing tool for public education and furthering narratives, but it’s so much more effective if it’s authentic.

Munroe Bergdorf, model and activist

Most of the time it is design and marketing that are gender-specific, rather than the product itself. Even items that might typically be assigned to a gender, such as beard grooming products, aren’t used exclusively by cisgender men, as adverts so often portray.

This is something Gillette finally acknowledged in its latest campaign ‘First Shave, the story of Samson’, which shows a transgender man shaving for the first time. The 118-year-old shaving brand says it wanted to do something to demonstrate its ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ tagline includes all men, and not just those whose gender corresponds with their birth sex.

Munroe Bergdorf, a transgender model and activist, says if brands are going to be heavily marketed towards men, they must challenge masculinity and how men think, to be better and more inclusive.

“Shaving is something everybody may want to do. Trans men are obviously going to have beards so it’s a great way to educate Gillette consumers,” she says. “Seeing the pushback from a lot of men, that’s when you’re doing a good job. When people become challenged in their views it opens a conversation.”

While Bergdorf believes more big brands should use their platform to challenge outdated views, she says it must be done in an authentic way, rather than just using buzzwords and hoping people will buy into it. “That isn’t real, that’s just branding and marketing,” she says.

“Marketing is great and can be an amazing tool for public education and furthering narratives that need to be furthered, but it’s so much more effective if it’s authentic.”

Male makeup brand War Paint, which describes itself as ‘makeup for men, designed by men, for men’, recently came under fire on Twitter for claiming to be a gender-neutral brand.

In response to criticism from users, War Paint said: “If females can have products just for women, why can’t men? Our aim is to allow makeup to be gender neutral and to do that we must have male-specific brands also.”

Other brands are struggling to grasp the concept of gender neutral too, with Nike advertising a t-shirt from its gender-neutral range as a ‘Men’s Logo Skate T-Shirt’, and gender-neutral lines from Asos and Zara mostly featuring women wearing typically male clothes rather than vice versa.

These mainstream brands only need to look to the catwalk to see how behind they are when it comes to challenging heteronormativity in fashion. Future lines will indicate whether they are in it for the long-run or simply jumping on a buzzword until the next one comes along.

This man can, too

There will no doubt be instances where people will argue gender specific products and marketing makes more sense, such as ‘feminine hygiene’ and some hormone supplements.

But all those adverts of women having a great time in white trousers overshadow the fact that many transgender men and gender non-conforming people menstruate and go through the menopause as well.

This has led to the development of a number of less-gendered menstruation products in recent years. While most sanitary towels are designed to fit feminine underwear, Pyramid Seven, Lunapads and Thinx have all created period-friendly boxers for people who might not want to use traditional products.

“It’s absolutely crucial to acknowledge that women are not the only people who menstruate,” says Siobhan Lonergan, chief brand officer at Thinx, which became the first menstruation brand to launch a campaign featuring transgender men in 2016.

“While Thinx did not begin as a gender-neutral brand, our community let us know they wanted products to support people with periods of all identifications, and we delivered that demand.”

There has been a consumer shift and we are following what the customer wants.

Vera Breuer, Kipling

Like Thinx, much of TomboyX’s product development has come from listening to its customers over the last seven years. The inclusive fashion brand, which recently received $18m (£14.3n) in investment from cause capital fund The Craftory, is now looking to accelerate its product innovation and up its investment in brand-related campaigns.

“We’ve learned that people are tired of being limited by having to shop for clothing based on their gender,” says co-founder Fran Dunaway who works alongside her partner Naomi Gonzalez. “Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, clothing should just be made to be comfortable and fit well.”

Proof that it is not just young brands that can move with the times, Kipling rebranded last year in an effort to make its products appeal to a younger demographic in a more inclusive way.

Once seen as a “very pink” fashion accessory brand for women, the 30-year-old business is now aligning its product design and marketing with changing consumer trends.

“There has been a consumer shift and we are following what the customer wants,” says Vera Breuer, Kipling’s global president. “Today there is a fine line in terms of ‘this is for women’, ‘this is for men’, there’s a lot of gender-inclusive pieces. A big change has been putting men and women in our campaigns with the same product or lines.”

While Breuer says Kipling wouldn’t ever go entirely gender neutral, because it has a strong customer base that still want to shop the more “classic” ranges, the plan is to progressively move towards new styles.

“Our customers will decide which direction we’re driving the brand,” she says.

Food for thought

The Co-operative is prepping the launch of a gender-neutral gingerbread person and has asked customers to help it come up with a name. Naturally, Twitter had something to say, including: “Inclusion is a great policy, but making the Gingerbread Man gender neutral is just political correctness gone crazy”.

But whatever your view on de-gendering baked goods, unconscious bias in language is something that marketers should think carefully about.

Research suggests language plays a particularly important role in forming people’s attitudes towards gender and occupation. Ask a child to describe an engineer, policeman or astronaut and they will probably describe a man. Ask them to do the same for a teacher or nurse, and they will likely describe a woman.

ElaN Languages launched an ‘unbias button’ earlier this year to challenge the way we subconsciously gender language. It is an online plug-in that offers unbiased translations of biased words. For example, fireman becomes fire fighter, mailman becomes mail carrier and midwife becomes birth assistant.

Meanwhile, terms such as ‘period-having people’ and ‘pregnant-capable people’ are increasingly being used to break down our assumptions about fertility.

The benefits of doing more gender-neutral marketing seem obvious. Most importantly, it challenges stereotypes which in turn should help to tackle prejudices. Second, it makes people feel more included and not defined or constrained by their gender. Third, it can open a brand’s product or offering up to more people and improve brand perceptions.

It goes without saying that the strongest products and campaigns will come from having diverse teams. This is something that most forward-thinking brands have in common – and it goes beyond just having an equal split of men and women.

Marketers, too, must hold themselves to account and challenge their own biases, many of which will be so ingrained they might not even know they have.

But if brands want to be a genuine force for good, they need to listen to people and not only look through a commercial lens. They must not give an illusion of inclusion. Otherwise consumers will see right through them.