It’s in the Jeans

Do you know a denim dad? He is one of nine multidimensional consumer types that shed light on evolving attitudes and represent some of the key behaviors shaping tomorrow’s consumer landscape. And he’s part of a group with obvious and far-reaching implications for any marketer with even a passing interest in reaching mainstream American families.

Denim dads are a segment of Gen X fathers, roughly 25- to 40-years-old. While moms in this age range also differ significantly from prior generations, the shift that has occurred among Gen X dads is even more pronounced. Denim dads have a new style and attitude about what it means to be a man with kids. Without much soul-searching or critical thinking, they’ve made parenthood and the maintenance of a household a priority equal to, or sometimes even surpassing, career. Consider some revealing numbers: Today’s moms spend about the same amount of time doing things with and taking care of their kids as moms did 25 years ago, but modern-day dads spend twice as much time with their kids, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute. Having enough flexibility in their work schedules to allow for this increased familial involvement often means more to them than climbing the corporate ladder.

Denim dads are products of the 1970s. They belong to the generation that lived through what some called the “demise of the American family.” One-third of Xers had divorced parents, something that made them determined to do things differently when they had their own kids. More positively, feminist mothers raised sons not constrained by old notions of how boys and men should behave.

Whether as a result of this upbringing or the reality that in many households wives now work and earn as much as their husbands, denim dads are more likely to share in housework than their own fathers did. They are often significant, if not primary, caregivers to their kids, and that includes cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, playing nurse and even acting as psychologist. If you want to reach denim dads, you need to start viewing men as being interested in categories and products that are primarily used in caring for the kids and the home. Denim dads view advertising through the lens of the family. So put them in the picture, literally and figuratively: Show dad as a caregiver, with a baby on his hip, not just behind the wheel of the car. Be empathetic about the stress he feels as he tries to balance home and work. Present family-focused brands with warm and fuzzy cues that relate to both men and women.

One caveat: Just because denim dads take responsibility for more housekeeping chores than previous generations of fathers, they still don’t take these tasks as seriously as moms do. There is a substantial difference — a crucial one if you happen to be marketing household appliances or cleaning supplies — between seeing themselves as homemaking fathers or male housewives. Anecdotal evidence shows that denim dads are not really interested in keeping a “perfect” house. They prefer to concentrate on dad duties like helping with homework instead of vacuuming. And they suffer none of the guilt moms often feel when their house doesn’t pass the white-glove test.

These days denim dads can be found in all of the places traditionally inhabited only by moms: the PTA meeting, the playground or soccer field after school, the kitchen table at lunchtime on a weekday. And what’s remarkably evident is just how comfortable the denim dad is in these scenarios. Denim dads are confident about the choices they’ve made, and happy to share their experiences. Consider having your brand sponsor a dad blog or align with local PTAs or youth sports organizations to create a “dad caregiver” appreciation day.

Perhaps the most influential subset of denim dads is the primary caregiver, staying at home with the kids while his wife works. Although there are no concrete statistics on how many men would consider themselves stay-at-home dads, the best estimates put the number in the United States at around 2 million. (The statistics are complicated by the fact that stay-at-home dads include those whose wives are the sole breadwinner, as well as part-timers and telecommuters.) Marketing to these stay-at-home dads means thinking about them as a new opinion leader, not at the water cooler but in the car pool. Stay-at-home dads are still relatively novel in most suburban communities, but they can be great brand ambassadors to stay-at-home moms. Imagine the intrigue that a company could create if it were to seed a product with stay-at-home dads rather than moms.

There are some brands that are already doing a good job appealing to denim dads.

Johnson & Johnson’s 2007 campaign, “Having a baby changes everything,” consists of a series of commercials about the way in which having a baby alters consumers’ priorities. Over half of the spots feature a baby alone with a nurturing father. A recent Sprite commercial also speaks to the unself-conscious attitudes of today’s dads. In the ad, a young father lets his young daughter make him up — eye shadow, lipstick, the works — and doesn’t mind at all the strange looks when he opens the front door to some visiting workmen.  (Being a good dad is far more important to him than outdated ideas of masculinity.) Hallmark now offers cards that portray fathers changing diapers, in addition to the ones with pictures of the traditional briefcase-toting dad. According to Ali Nicolle, associate product manager for Hallmark, the new cards are for “the wife thanking the husband for his help with raising the kids.”

Placed as they are at the center of an extended network of family and friends, denim dads are extremely influential. Reaching them means reaching all the consumers whose lives intersect with theirs. Creating a sensibility for your brand or business that takes denim dads into account as you go forward can lay the groundwork for future relevance. If you do your job right, you may create awareness among 10-year-old boys (and future dads) who will see the brand or product as more relevant because it was dad who once-upon-a-time introduced it to them.

Ron Rentel is founder of brand agency Consumer Eyes and author of ‘Karma Queens, Geek Gods, and Innerpreneurs: Meet the 9 Consumer Types Shaping Today’s Marketplace.’ He can be reached at ron@consumereyes.com.