When most of us were growing up, boys and girls were placed unilaterally into blue and pink buckets without anyone asking whether this was a good idea. Even with my own pregnancy, not knowing the baby’s gender put families and friends at a loss of what color to buy. It was gender normative marketing at its strongest.
Enter Gen Z, the new kids on the block. And how things have changed. Today, in the narrow circle of young people I know, six are not currently living in their assigned gender categories. Kids today are aware of gender in a way that’s different from previous generations. A recent survey of 12 to 19-year-olds found that 82 percent agree that gender does not define a person as it used to do.
So, what exactly does this mean for brands? Should we should start targeting these new identities? Perhaps. Several social media platforms, and Facebook above all, make it easy to reach these new genders at scale, which could prove to be a powerful tool. But the more important point is that the brands targeting Gen Z must be identity-aware.
The first point is to understand that gender is not simply a language issue. It’s not merely about including additional options for gender in drop-down menus and learning how to address people by their preferred pronoun. Today we face a landscape in which traditional assumptions about our audience have changed. Gender has always been an extremely important demographic data point, but it is getting blurred, which affects everything from the messaging we use to the data targeting assumptions we make. The challenge is not cosmetic. Instead, brands need to become fluent in the mindset of the coming generation of consumers.
What’s more, as we’ve seen with several other recent cultural movements, what starts young may end up much more generally accepted. Attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, for example, have changed remarkably in the United States in the last 10 years, but such support was always overwhelming among millennials. If such a shift is coming for gender fluidity, brands will need to be ready.
Gen Z hostility to stereotypes is well-established. Having grown up in non-traditional households, often with single parents, they don’t respond well to seeing others still living in 1950s categories. For them, a Barbie ad featuring a boy is hardly a shock—and is welcomed. It’s time to think beyond traditional demographic-based marketing, as CoverGirl has. The cosmetic giant made history when it appointed James Charles as its first male spokesmodel.
Don’t be bland
H&M and Zara, for example, have come out with gender-neutral lines that garnered praise for their existence. But that’s exactly where the praise ended. The clothes were shapeless, bland and more reminiscent of prison garb than the bright colors of the Instagram generation. Alternative gender identities do not meet in a perfectly bland middle between male and female. They are different and occupy their own spaces. A Los Angeles brand that gets it, 69, describes itself as a non-gender, non-demographic clothing line, and its creations are anything but bland.
Embrace new identities
Brands have done a better job in recent years of reflecting the racial diversity of their audiences. But for Gen Z, that also means embracing a range of identities as well. Major fashion brands in recent years, for example, have feature male models wearing makeup and not traditionally-male clothing. Other brands can be subtler, but marketing should reflect the new, more identity-rich makeup of Gen Z. Being inclusive matters.
Live the truth
Gen Z is really good at knowing if you’re being fake, and they don’t like it. They are overwhelmingly supportive of diversity and alternative identity. Companies need to make it clear they are open and welcoming and communicate that effectively.
With binary norms flying out the window and one-third of Gen Z saying they’ve felt excluded by a brand based on their identities, it’s time for brands to pay attention to the changing ideas about gender. Gen Z is, as Marlo Thomas once sang, free to be me and you.