Every brand marketer understands the importance of knowing their target audiences. For most, it’s ongoing education — from obsessing over brand awareness drivers to re-shuffling market segmentation, there are always more things to learn about likely prospects.
And, when you factor in the added layer of our ever-changing world — from shifting cultural norms to evolving priorities — it can be difficult to know exactly what is it consumers want from brands. However, over the last few years, it has become apparent that — as a means for customer segmentation — we should reconsider how gender is used for marketing purposes.
Therefore, this article will discuss why gender-based marketing may no longer be the ticket, as well as showcase three brands that are already championing gender-neutral marketing and reaping the rewards.
Why Gender-Based Marketing No Longer Works
Gender is a traditional, easy criterion for segmentation — meaning it’s a simple parameter to establish and personalize around. “If it’s a female product, we should make it pink” — you’ve probably heard a marketer or two say this before.
“Because gender is such an easy thing to find in the market, to target, and to talk about, it actually distracts you from the fun things that could be driving growth for your brands. At the same time, it (gender-based marketing) continues to create separation around genders and perpetuate stereotypes.”
Barrios and her team at BCG conducted in-depth research on global consumer choices. They statistically compared how different variables affect our purchase decisions, and it turned out that demographics, gender, and income did not influence most consumer decisions as much as marketers believed they should have.
Instead, context — as in where we are, whom we are with, and what we are up to — has a much greater impact on consumer decisions than gender or demographics. Perhaps, this is why many companies chose to create immersive brand experiences instead of purely marketing by segment.
At the same time, gender as a concept is growing more contested. In Western societies, many are switching from a bipolar male/female understanding of gender to one of a spectrum — where your gender self-identification can evolve over time.
Globally, about 2%-3% of populations in European counties identify as transgender, gender fluid, or non-binary. In the US, one in five adults knows someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun (they).
The shift to gender-neutrality is even stronger among younger audiences — as seen in Gen Z and Millennials consumers. Among these groups, over half believe that binary gender division is outdated. Instead, they celebrate queerness in all its presentations and progressively stip away trite “labels” and “checkboxes”.
They expect other members of society to ditch those dividers, too. According to a McKinsey study, 48% of Gen Z consumers and 38% of consumers in other generations value brands that don’t classify products by gender.
Gender-Neutral as a Branding Maxim, Not a Trend
The affinity for gender-neutral products and marketing is already prevalent in apparel, cosmetics, toys, and FMCG segments, among others.
The gender-neutral clothing market, in particular, is booming. Both Vogue and WWD proclaimed that the future of fashion is going to be genderless — and this shift begins now. Countless fashion houses — from Gucci and LV to Levi’s and Urban Outfitters — brought gender-neutral collections to the stores, much to consumers’ delight.
Across social media and at OOH locations, we now see brands hiring more diverse models — in terms of ethnicity, gender, and body types — to promote new product launches. And many consumers find this inclusivity refreshing.
Remember: consumers’ contexts and social values are the two shaping forces in decision-making. Your brand’s overall positioning and campaign-specific creative decisions can either validate or contradict those principles. Moreover, younger consumers take greater notice of inclusive advertising when making purchase decisions.
By making your marketing more inclusive (and dropping what younger consumers view as cliches and biases), you can significantly improve key brand funnel metrics — such as brand consideration and preference.
The best part? It’s never too late to address past blunders. Take it from Mattel — a brand that’s been under heavy criticism for promoting unrealistic standards with its Barbie doll. In 2019, Mattel presented the first gender-neutral doll series which enjoyed a rather impressive positive reception.
3 Brands Championing Gender-Neutral Marketing
When the bulk of your brand equity was built on gendered premises, transitioning to gender-neutral marketing may seem like a daunting task. But it could be a smart move for brands that want to future-proof their numbers.
Below are three major brands that have only grown stronger with gender-neutral marketing.
1. Calvin Klein
Like many other clothing brands, Calvin Klein received its share of criticism for over-sexualizing women’s bodies for marketing purposes. But as of late, the team appears to be genuinely moving in a new direction.
In 2020, Calvin Klein re-launched its gender-neutral fragrance, CK Everyone — a product idea they tested back in the 90s with lesser success. But, the fresh, citrusy smell did land with consumers better this time around. The brand didn’t just change the marketing narrative — it also updated its contents. The new perfume is made from naturally-sourced materials and comes in eco-friendly packaging.
The global “I Love Everyone Of Me” campaign for the fragrance gently promoted self-love and self-acceptance using a fresh roster of celebrities including Evan Mock (of Gossip Girl Reboot, South-Korean rapper and designer MLMA, singer Eliot Sumner, and rapper and dancer Priddy.
After this first foray, CK took its brand marketing a step further by launching a major 2021 Global Pride campaign — aimed at promoting gender-neutral denim, underwear, and other garments.
The campaign not only featured a bunch of LGBTQIA+ faces, but it also shared their personal stories of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Apart from empowering its ambassadors to share their voices during new product launches, CK also works with several LGBTQIA+ organizations year-round.
Linh Peters, CMO at Calvin Klein, also explained the rationale behind their new brand marketing vector:
“(If) you think about (our brand) 10 or 20 years ago, our creativity was really at the forefront of perceived sexuality and sensuality, and that evocative campaign imagery. Even though that has shifted in terms of what that looks like, at the heart of it, it’s still really about redefining what sexuality and sensuality mean. It’s (redefining) gender, it’s inclusivity. It’s expanding what that definition is and being that platform for customers to express themselves.”
This redefinition of the brand's core narrative landed well with its target audience. In Q1 2021, Calvin Klein saw a 65% spike in business — despite the ongoing slump in retail sales. International revenues grew by 91% and North American revenue increased by 27%.
The Takeaway: Gender-neutral marketing requires a deep understanding of cultural contexts and shifting societal norms. If you lack in-house knowledge, go into the field.
Tap into the know-how of brand ambassadors and use customer voices to shape a new narrative for your brand. Then, use brand monitoring software to determine if you’re moving in the right direction.
2. Milk Makeup
Milk Makeup was among the first cosmetics brands to start marketing to men and non-binary people. Back in 2017, the brand rocked the cosmetic industry with a massive “Blur the Lines” campaign — poised to challenge the traditional ways of thinking about and using makeup.
The brand enlisted seven models of diverse genders and sexual orientations to share powerful messages about their self-identification, attitudes to the world, and makeup in particular. The promo video opens with bold lines of “What is gender?” and “Are we still talking about this?”. Then continues to discuss how masculinity and femininity are not “gender-reserved” notions.
Since then, Milk Makeup has partnered with an array of non-binary, queer, and straight makeup artists, celebrities, and influencers to further normalize and destigmatize the usage of makeup among men, non-binary, and queer people.
Apart from being bold in its marketing, Milk Makeup also ensures that gender-neutrality is reflected in its product design with unisex packaging. The brand also boats accessibility, as product application is simple for makeup beginners, and they don’t need any special tools or tips to effectively use Milk products.
Milk Makeup also formalized a set of brand diversity + inclusion commitments they operate by:
45% of Milk Makeup employees in the US are BIPOC
50% of the people we featured in campaigns since 2020 identify as BIPOC
Finally, the brand donates a percentage of product sales to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities around the world.
The Takeaway: Think beyond your brand marketing materials — if you want to champion “inclusivity” and “diversity” authentically, these principles should be reflected in your team composition and internal operations, too.
Hire more diverse folks — ones that are representative of the people you want to market to. If you want to project an impactful internal image and fully remove “gender” as a criterion from your operations, train your people on new brand values and address internal biases.
Everyone’s beloved building block company is among the latest “converts” to gender-neutral marketing. But, unlike others, they decided to explore complex, underlying issues instead of addressing surface-level problems.
In 2020, Lego conducted an in-depth study around gender-based biases by surveying 7,000 parents and children around the world to better understand how they play with Lego toys. They found that:
In the area of creative play, 72% of boys and 62% of girls think some activities are just for girls, while others are for boys.
Parents were almost five times as likely to encourage girls over boys to engage in dance and dress-up activities.
At the same time, boys were more encouraged to program games, do sports, or code toys.
Gender biases start forming early and, therefore, are harder to address later in life. Data from Fawcett Society also backed issues with gender-based toys segregation — calling it “lazy stereotyping” that is said to fuel a mental health crisis among young adults and limit perceived career choices.
So, Lego decided to take action. The company will no longer label its toys as “for girls” or “for boys”. Instead, the brand’s new website now categorizes suitable products by age, themes, or interests. They also plan to make product design more gender-neutral and place a greater emphasis on celebrating female creators.
Julia Goldin, Chief Product and Marketing Officer at the Lego Group, said:
“We’re testing everything on boys and girls, and including more female role models. Our job now is to encourage boys and girls who want to play with sets that may have traditionally been seen as ‘not for them'”.
In 2021, Lego also launched their first-ever LGBTQIA+ specific set and plans to add more toys to this vertical this year.
The Takeaway: The way you design, position, and market your products can perpetuate gender-based stereotypes. Acknowledging this isn’t always easy. But, it’s an important conversation to have internally if you want to remain relevant to the current and new generations of consumers.
It’s always tempting to stay safely within known territory, which is why many brands don’t rush to fully drop “gender” from marketing and product creation. And for other brands, their target audiences value and desire gendered marketing. For these brands, going gender-neutral would likely backfire.
But, for brands that target younger consumers and want to make a move towards gender-neutral marketing — similar to greenwashing — some settle for purely “cosmetic repairs”. For example, dropping the pink/blue product packaging or making their language more inclusive.
However, merely adding a “unisex” descriptor to your products isn’t enough to get your brand into “neutral” territory to better connect with your target audience. The changes in your marketing have to be more meaningful, well-thought-out, and intentional. For example, you could consider helping to close the influencer pay gap by paying all parnters the same rate, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
Remember, the best thing you can do as a brand manager is listen to your target audience. So, if your gathered consumer insights point you in a gender-neutral direction, then it may be time to make some changes.