Brands Are Throwing Out Gender Norms to Reflect a More Fluid World

Stereotypes won't work on younger consumers

James Charles may not seem like the typical ambassador of a beauty brand—and he's not. Meet CoverGirl's first CoverBoy.

No doubt the half-century-old brand raised a few eyebrows last week when it introduced its latest model. But this was no mere stunt. Coty's CoverGirl says Charles will be an important part of growing the brand moving forward. At a time when gender identity and the turning on their head of gender roles are dominating the conversation, the move shouldn't seem so controversial. "We're more in the gender fluid space," explains Samantha Skey, president and chief revenue officer of SheKnows Media.

As gender stereotypes lose favor culturally, marketers would be wise to promote that a "product is for a certain kind of hair or a certain kind of body type," says Skey, because "you can subscribe to that hair or that body type regardless of who you are."

Demographic insights support that thinking. According to a report by the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, 56 percent of consumers 13- to 20-years-old say someone they know uses gender-neutral pronouns—"they," "them" or "ze" versus "he" or "she"—significantly more than the 43 percent of millennials who do. Plus, more than one-third of Gen Z respondents in the study strongly agree that gender does not define a person as much as it used to. To underscore the importance of that demo to marketers, Gen Z represents annual purchasing power of $44 billion, per Mintel, and will account for 40 percent of all consumers by 2020. 

 

 When it comes to gender, we are in the midst of a "tectonic shift," argues Shepherd Laughlin, director of trend forecasting for the Innovation Group. "So it's difficult to even pin down the specific ways that it's manifesting itself because it's so pervasive. Retail in the future will be far less segregated by gender."

That is already the case at Minneapolis-based Target Corp. Last year, in a move that made headlines everywhere, the chain removed gender-based signage in some key areas of its stores, including the toy, entertainment and home departments.

"The signs, if you will, made product suggestions based on gender," says a Target spokesman. "We [removed them] for a couple of reasons, but it was largely based on guest feedback. We never wanted and we don't want our guests and their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way that things are presented in our store."

(Meanwhile, Target was also the subject of a much-publicized boycott after it said it would allow transgender customers to use the bathroom of their choosing.)

Despite more relaxed views about gender clashing at times with those who favor historical norms, some marketers seem to be paying more attention to the views of younger generations of consumers than the traditionalists.

"The whole notion that gender is a performance is something that's been playing out in academia for a very long time," notes JWT's Laughlin. "Young people today are rather accustomed to the concept of identity, in general, as performance. That's really what social media is."

So the question is not if but how soon brands will ease away from targeting consumers based on gender—and how that will play out. Here are actions some marketers are already taking.

Redefining the target

A handful of traditionally male-focused brands have reached out to women via recent campaigns. Adidas and Under Armour, for example, recognized that women are athletes, while Coors and Michelob Ultra acknowledged that women drink beer. Likewise, female-skewing brands want to sway men. Last month, SheKnows Media expanded its #Femvertising Awards to recognize all genders and added a category that considers how fathers are portrayed. Brands like Pantene and Quaker Oats were singled out.

Those are just some of the ways marketers are rethinking portrayals of femininity and masculinity. "What it comes down to is picking your target audience," explains Marshal Cohen, NPD Group's chief retail analyst. "Do you want to be progressive or do you want to be resistant?"

With the introduction last fall of Moschino Barbie, Mattel demonstrated that it wanted to be part of the club of more progressive marketers in regard to gender.

In a 30-second spot created by its in-house marketing team, the company introduced the limited-edition Barbie with a video that "celebrates how boys and girls alike play with Barbie," according to a spokeswoman. "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."

Personalities trump gender