THE NEW GENDER RULES
By Sara González
In today’s society, gender is not the same as sex; the former is a socially constructed definition while the latter is a biological characteristic. We can’t truly pick or alter sex, however that is not the case when we talk about gender. The latter is determined by tasks, functions and roles attributed to them, and as these are increasingly being challenged, so is the concept of gender itself.
1. The big issue
Gender has always been a topic for debate, but the latest developments prove that this time, discussions might trigger real, deep changes.
Looking back it feels like until not that long ago, gender and sex were used as interchangeable words. However, reality is that regardless of how society has been using these two terms, it was as early as 1955 that sexologist John Money first introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender. But this distinction was never so relevant as in the last decade, when society as a whole began to recognise the gap that exists between one and the other, and started questioning their definitions.
In recent years we have seen a clear evolution in how we construe and relate with both concepts. This trend is just a natural extension of how the changing views about the importance of gender and biological sex are shaping who we are and how we interact with the world: furthermore it captures the increasingly pressing feeling, which has spread across a part of society, that we should be free to define our own personality and follow our interests, without gender labels and stereotypes swaying us in any direction.
What started as a breeze, with the most progressive department stores experimenting with blurring the distinctions between men’s and women’s sections is now a storm in full swing, and it is going to eventually impact every brand and transform how they sell and communicate with consumers.
2. Why this is important now
We are in the midst of a change in paradigm; a revision of the rules and principles of what gender is, and therefore how people’s relationship with this concept is going to evolve.
A proof that this movement is more than a temporal trend is the UK’s advertising Standard’s Association report addition of a gender stereotype initiative that includes a set of guidelines, which require companies to comply with new advertising standards that avoid the promotion of gender stereotypes.
Even if this initiative has faced a rather uneven welcome, it is needed, as often culture is slow to change, especially when social norms are so deeply embedded into the fabric of our everyday life that profoundly shape the way we think and behave.
If you think that you are not skewed by these stereotypes, indulge me for a second and try to answer the following question; A father and his son are involved in a car accident in which the dad dies and the child is seriously injured, the kid is taken to hospital for an urgent operation. Once he is in the hospital the surgeon sees him and says “I can’t operate him because he is my son.” Who is the surgeon? If you haven’t been able to find a simple answer to this, you might be more skewed than you’ve realised.
It will probably take another generation for this kind of change to become fully embraced, even if recent studies show that younger generations already exhibit a more open attitude towards gender.
According to a piece of recent research by the Innovative Group and JWT Intelligence.
- 38% of Gen Z respondents and 27% of millennial respondents “strongly agreed” that gender no longer defines a person as much as it used to.
- 56% of consumers 13-20 years old say someone they know uses gender neutral pronouns “they”, “them” or “ze” versus “he” or “she”
Many Millennial and Gen Z don’t necessarily perceive gender as a social construct that needs to define their identity. They refuse to be restricted by the binary gender identities, and this is reflected in the new “beauty standards” that they are building through celebrities such as Ruby Rose or Lucky Blue Smith.
3. How this affects you
As gender fluidity becomes the norm rather than an exception, brands are faced with the challenge of tackling the new gender norms both in the products they offer and in the way they talk to consumers.
Segmenting the market by sex has long been a key standard marketing strategy. However, in the light of current events, it might not make sense for much longer, as brands that are too heavily skewed towards men or women can easily risk alienating the other half of the population, thereby endangering a potential source of income.
Therefore, unless your brand is offering products that really need to be targeted this way, a more profitable strategy is to understand how your brand is already being used and by whom, and reflect that reality instead of supporting a social construct that is clearly becoming obsolete.
Aligning your brand’s marketing and communication strategy with the new gender paradigm goes beyond removing the ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ style marketing, it is about analysing what your brand is already saying about this topic in every point of contact; packaging, environments, communication. Because assuming that males only want sports, competition and power, or that women love pink and only buy diet products is no longer acceptable, and can turn your audience against you.
4. The solution
Brands have to rethink their depictions of femininity and masculinity, and explore other ways to segment their target audience beyond sex.
1. Rethink you depiction of femininity and masculinity
Under Armour a traditionally male focused brand has recently recognised that women are also athletes. Even if they had been selling women’s apparel since 2004, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the brand started to really try hard to engage with the female shopper. Its latest campaign “Unlike Any” talks about women and strength in a very distinctive way that stays away from stereotypes.
Under Armour “Unlike Any,” marketing campaign
The company has taken a stand on the matter beyond mere communication. At the launch event for a new campaign, Adrienne Lofton, SVP of global brand management, noted how during the Olympics in Rio, every time a woman won, she was compared to men. “We had to start thinking about how to change this conversation. Why is there always a framing that when a woman does well, she’s compared to the greatness of a man? We needed to remove gender from the conversation”
Likewise, female-skewed brands are rethinking their businesses. Thinx entered the market in 2014 with the tagline: “Underwear for women with periods.” But in an effort to include every gender they launched a Boyshort product for trans men and changed their tagline to “For People with periods”.
Left: Boyshort product for trans men, Right: Line of tampons for menstruating humans
By doing this, they moved away from targeting women and instead they aimed to connect with anyone who aligns with its mission. “Every person with period deserve peace of mind”, regardless of their sex.
2. Explore other ways to segment your target audience
When formulating an effective brand strategy that is gender ambiguous, it is important to understand your consumers beyond sex. Find out how people view themselves, what personality traits they exhibit and what their aspirations are. Personality traits and aspirations are not limited to gender and as we move further into gender-fluidity, they have greater potential to capture your consumers’ hearts.
Zara is one of the retailers that have released a gender-neutral clothing range. With Ungendered, Zara has taken a step towards breaking the current binary model that shapes the fashion industry and put the focus on style-conscious consumers regardless of their sex. There is still work to be done in understanding that gender neutral doesn’t have to be grey, boring or lacking personality, but it is a step in the right direction.
Apparel isn’t the only category creating more gender-neutral products. Another one is cosmetics; we are all aware of how CoverGirl enlisted James Charles, a 17-year-old boy, for its 2016 campaign; beyond that they launched a gender neutral Mascara. So Lashy is described as “A universal mascara designed for anyone wanting to transform their lashes into a bold look—regardless of lash type or starting point”
5. The bottom line
It is our responsibility to create and market products that will help bust these stereotypes and enable more options for everyone.
Consumers want brands that are socially responsible. This is achieved by becoming aware that the products we market and how we promote them create and shape perceptions, so beyond complying with legislation we have to decide how we want our brands to impact the social construct of gender.
Key steps to consider to reassess your brand relationship with gender
- Understand your consumer beyond sex and socio-demographic factors
- Re-evaluate how you are segmenting your market
- Analyse what your brand is already saying about gender and whether it supports old stereotypes
- Rethink your depiction of gender across any point of contact that your brand has with consumers
- Finally, create more inclusive products across gendered categories
It is in our hands to either perpetuate or overcome stereotypes, and enable a healthier and more open gender construct. So next time someone asks you who the surgeon is, you will answer “the mum” without thinking twice about it.