Is gender-neutral branding the future?

The gender-neutral branding debate resurged this summer when shoe manufacturer Clarks received a barrage of complaints over its “sexist” school shoes, and in particular a girls’ range named the “Dolly Babe” (which compared with its “Leaders” boys’ range). Parents were also appalled by the difference in quality between the two ranges, with the boys’ shoes being far more robust and suitable for running and climbing. Unsurprisingly, Clarks was forced to pull these ranges from its website and said they would be discontinued in-store, and apologised for any offence caused. Yesterday it announced that its Spring/Summer 2018 line is set to be “entirely unisex”, in an obvious move to distance itself from the gender bias debate.

Of course Clarks isn’t the first brand to come under fire for its gender stereotyping, which has pervaded branding and advertising for many years. Gap, for example, was criticised recently for referring to girls as “social butterflies” and boys as “little scholars” in an advert promoting its new clothing range. To add further fuel to the fire, women pay a premium for what is termed “gender pricing”, the impact of which is estimated by Forbes to cost the average female consumer a whopping $1,400 a year! Personal care and hygiene products are the worst offenders…have you ever noticed how much more expensive women’s razors are compared with men’s?

But times are changing, and brands need to keep afoot. A survey conducted by JWT Intelligence, the trend-forecasting arm of J. Walter Thompson, found that Generation Z strongly prefer gender neutrality over “his versus hers” messaging. Only 44% of the 13- to 20-year-olds questioned said they always bought clothes designed for their own gender, compared with 54% of millennials. Gender neutrality is rapidly gaining traction, and brands such as John Lewis are taking note, with it becoming the first UK retailer to remove gender labels from its children’s clothing, at the start of September. In addition it has also launched a new unisex clothing line for children, featuring dinosaur print dresses and spaceship tops.

Caroline Bettis, the head of childrenswear at John Lewis, said: “We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within our John Lewis collections and instead want to provide greater choice and variety to our customers, so that the parent or child can choose what they would like to wear.”

In the US, discount store chain Target made headlines last year by removing signs that were labelled “boys” and “girls” from its toy and children’s bedding aisle signs, saying it believed that products should no longer be categorised by gender. Make-up brand CoverGirl by Coty also took the bold step of using a male model within its recent advertising campaign, or a ‘CoverBoy’, transitioning its brand towards a more fluid gender space.

Redefining the target audience

As we move towards a more gender-neutral future with the upcoming Generation Z particularly, some more traditional brands are beginning to rethink their target audience, and their understanding of masculinity and femininity. Mattel demonstrated this recently with the launch of it Moschino Barbie. Its TV ad campaign featured boys and girls, promoting the message that it’s cool for boys to play with dolls. “It’s all about self-expression, fashion, imagination and storytelling…We are proud that the Barbie brand ignites imagination and storytelling amongst a diverse range of fans,” said a Mattel spokesperson.

 

Of course not all brands or products have the capacity to be gender neutral, and in some cases it simply wouldn’t be desirable. But brands need to be honest about who their customers are, and reflect that reality within their brand positioning, even when it feels uncomfortable to do so. In some cases this may mean adapting the product range accordingly, or completely breaking from tradition, to be inclusive of all gender groups.

A case in point is Thinkx, a refreshingly honest underwear brand specifically designed for women when they are menstruating, which is happy to call a spade a spade and makes no attempt to be discreet in its marketing (so much so, that one of its ads was recently deemed too racy for a New York subway). After initially targeting its product and advertising at a purely female audience, consumer feedback soon made it aware that it should also be considering menstruating transexual men. As a direct result, a boyshort range was added to the collection.

(Image courtesy of Thinx)

Nowadays consumers buy into authenticity, and gender stereotyping has no role within that. Time will tell whether gender-neutral branding is the solution, and currently not everyone is in favour. For online shopping particularly, it can often be quicker and easier to have products categorised by gender, if there’s something specific that someone is looking for. The battle lines are still be thrashed out, but the majority of brands will need to be inclusive of all genders, sexuality and interest, moving forward. Society is changing, and with people are exploring their gender identity more than ever before, it’s important that branding keeps pace with this.

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