Latest thinking from Lauren…
With International Women’s Day last week, it got me thinking about gender stereotypes and equality. Thanks to politics, media and celebrity prominence the feminist movement has gained huge traction in recent years. It comes as no surprise that an increasing number of brands are tapping into this wave by targeting inclusivity, questioning gender norms and championing female causes.
However, gender stereotypes are still rife; men don’t cry, women are emotional, boys like blue, girls like pink – the list goes on and on. They’re even entrenched in our everyday language, with phrases like ‘run like a girl,’ ‘cry like a girl,’ and ‘man up’ commonly thrown around. Both male and female stereotypes are dangerous – they invite discrimination and impede equality. While some brands are taking positive steps towards breaking them down, others are unintentionally perpetuating them. Gender equality is a sensitive issue and brands need to get it right.
Many brands are guilty of perpetuating gender stereotypes…
Despite positive intentions, brands can still be seen as reinforcing stereotypes. Most recently, some looking to roll out specific female and male products have caused quite a stir. With the topic of gender equality so hot, treating genders separately is a controversial game to play.
For example, Pepsico faced huge backlash when it was suggested they were looking into a less crunchy Doritos product just for women (so they feel more comfortable eating them in public). It feeds into the ridiculous notion that some behaviours are simply more acceptable for men than women i.e. crunching on crisps in public – which jars with progress towards equality entirely.
Another interesting example is Johnnie Walker’s recent announcement to roll out a female variant of their drink, known as ‘Jane Walker’. It’s an opportunity for them to celebrate women and lessen the intimidation of the scotch category. While championing women and donating to their empowerment causes is undeniably a good thing, I can’t help but question whether going as far as creating a special female bottle is really necessary? Surely this only separates the genders further? Additionally, does releasing ‘Jane Walker’ reinforce the stereotype that scotch is a ‘man’s drink’ – otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for it?
In current news, Brewdog have controversially released their own ‘beer for girls’ – PINK IPA – which through sarcasm calls an end to tired stereotypes. The brand has been vocal about its motives – to shine a light on the gender pay gap and poke fun at other brands’ attempts to capture a female audience through fundamentally sexist marketing that further enforces stereotypes. However, there’s still speculation around how much this is a marketing and PR stunt aimed at driving female sales. Despite Brewdog’s intentions to ridicule, it’s ironic that a brand criticising stereotyping is then following suite. The approach they’ve taken is risky – without knowledge of the brand’s intentions or marketing, it isn’t immediately clear Brewdog are aiming to challenge as opposed to conform to stereotypes. While selling the beer at a lower price and donating to women’s causes should be commended, I believe the issue of inequality warrants a more sensitive and less sarcastic approach. It needs to be very obvious to consumers what the brand’s motives are, with little room for confusion.
Overall, brands have to tread with caution when rolling out products aimed at specific genders. Anything that further separates women and men without any good reason, is likely to be questioned.
Some brands are moving in the right direction…
However, certain brands are effectively using marketing and comms to question gender norms and encourage inclusivity in an honest, authentic and empowering way.
A growing number of retail brands are moving towards gender neutral clothing lines – particularly for children. This reduces the stereotypes and limitations imposed on kids from the outset, encouraging freedom of expression. John Lewis has been lauded for ditching its separate female and male children’s lines in favour of one. It sells a large range of clothing (including dresses and skirts), but doesn’t specify gender. More recently, Abercrombie announced its unisex children’s line – the ‘Everybody collection.’ However, while this is a progressive move for the brand (and therefore should be praised), they haven’t been quite as bold as John Lewis. There’s a sense the collection is missing anything considered overtly ‘feminine’ e.g. dresses and skirts. Irrespective of this, I see it as a respectable move to limit colour and style restrictions based on gender.
In the personal care market, specific brands are doing exceptionally well at marketing the qualities of a product instead of overtly calling out gender. Byredo and Aesop use clean, neutral, stripped back packaging that communicates information on ingredients, without mentioning gender. Consumers can make decisions wholly based on their personal preferences, without being influenced by the brands’ perceptions of masculinity or femininity.
Additionally, increasingly more brands are using comms to challenge gender norms. At the end of last year, beauty brand Julep launched their ‘throw anything at me’ campaign. As part of it, a video was released showing a woman physically fighting female stereotypes and pressures, such as unrealistic beauty expectations and a washing machine. It’s an empowering message for women to break free from the limitations imposed by stereotypes.
Most recently, River Island launched their ‘gender free’ campaign – through a diverse range of people it calls for an end to stereotyping, with the powerful tagline ‘labels are for clothes, and not people.’ While it does well in breaking norms and making a statement, some criticise it for not having taken it far enough – they still separate their collection by gender, which feels at a disconnect from what the campaign stands for. However, I think it’s an admirable move to spread awareness and a step in the right direction. While going all the way would be progressive and bold, brands have to be careful and consider their consumers. Stereotypes when it comes to clothing are so embedded into our society e.g. skirts and dresses are for women, not men. It’s hard for consumers to move away from these instinctive associations. Additionally, consumers are used to navigating online and physical stores based on gender; removing that tool is a massive change, which they need to be open and ready for. Increasing awareness for the fundamental issue and in turn altering perceptions, is a necessity before drastically acting on it.
With so much focus on feminism, it’s imperative brands don’t forget that equality is as much about men as it is women. In light of this, Harry’s shavers recently released their ‘A man like you’ video, questioning perceptions of masculinity. By showing a young boy teach an alien about how men behave, it conveys the crucial message that there isn’t any one way to be a man – it’s ultimately about being a human being. The powerful and touching film effectively tackles the harmful perception that men should be tough and fearless. It’s vital other brands follow suite and focus on altering male stereotypes as well as female.
Some key ideas on what brands can do…