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

Stereotypes won't work on younger consumers

Headshot of Kristina Monllos

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

As brands consider their targets, that doesn't mean shoehorning a particular set of consumers into a campaign if it doesn't make sense. Rather, the point is acknowledging how brands are already being used and by whom, and reflecting that reality.

"As androgyny and gender fluidity become the norm rather than the exception in today's cultural landscape, brands are faced with the challenge of tackling gender norms both in their advertising and the products they offer," says Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and chief strategic officer at Yard.


For example, Thinx entered the market in 2014 with the tagline: "Underwear for women with periods." But as some consumers pointed out, that positioning excluded menstruating transexual men from its brand. The company remedied that by adding a new Boyshort product for trans men.

In May, as part of a placement in New York's Union Square subway station, Thinx introduced ads featuring a trans man, showing that cisgender women (or women who identify as the gender they were born as) weren't its only customers.


Instead of targeting consumers based on perceived gender norms, the company now seeks to speak to those who align with its mission "to reclaim the anxiety and shame surrounding your period, and to aim fire at the patriarchy with our humorous, cheeky and infectious feminist voice," says Miki Agrawal, Thinx's co-founder and CEO.

"In crafting an effective brand strategy that is gender ambiguous, marketers should begin by sketching out a brand muse: a personification of the brand where the company's values meet the consumer's aspirations—aspirations that are not limited to gender," adds Bernstein. "A brand muse takes you beyond a demographic to create gender-neutral marketing. It allows marketers to develop a voice that resonates with an entire lifestyle rather than being confined to the limitations of gender."

Matt Weiss, global CMO at Havas Worldwide, agrees. "Consumer behavior is now a function of personality rather than gender," he says. "How people view themselves and the personality traits they hold, good and bad—ambition, athleticism, superficiality—drive purchases more so than gender. As we move further into gender-fluidity mode, products across gendered categories should become increasingly more inclusive and marketed based on personality."

Zara's Ungendered line Zara

Listening to consumers

That's why brands and retailers like Zara, Selfridges and Guess are creating entire collections of products meant to appeal to any consumer, regardless of gender. Zara's Ungendered line, introduced this year to mixed reviews, was the result of the chain's relationship with its customers, which "plays an intrinsic role in the design process in that our proposals are drawn from their needs and demands," says a spokeswoman. (Zara isn't alone, as other gender-neutral lines have been poorly received. One of the gripes is the products can be devoid of color or personality. "It's an ignorant way of trying to create gender neutral," says NPD's Cohen. "No, gender neutral doesn't have to be gray.") "The question of gender in fashion is helping to put the light on a broader cultural question and it feels like there is progress in that sense," adds Nicola Formichetti, artistic director at Diesel, which released its first gender-neutral line in 2014. "Designing gender neutral is a special process, as it is for any gender. It is [designing] for any kind of shape. It's about playing with the codes of male and female and blurring the lines, going one step beyond the stereotypes of design." Just last week, the company tapped Anomaly of Amsterdam to help develop a strategy that "transcends fashion and leverages culture" and that will be "worthy of 2020 consumers."

The trend has ushered in a new crop of indie clothing lines like GenderFlux and TillyandWilliam. "Being gender fluid, GenderFlux naturally started as an extension of myself," says founder Elliott Alexzander. "The brand later became an extension of the nonbinary/gender-nonconforming community through vessels of popular social media and guerilla marketing."

Meanwhile, TillyandWilliam was borne of a desire to "make clothing that embraces all bodies and that is really shareable between different people," notes co-founder Jessica Lapidos (the brand's titular Tilly).

Looking at the long term

Apparel isn't the only category creating more gender-neutral products. Another is cosmetics. CoverGirl describes its new mascara brand So Lashy as "a universal mascara designed for anyone wanting to transform their lashes into a bold look—regardless of lash type or starting point," says a spokeswoman. For CoverGirl, such products are part of its plan to accommodate consumers who might not fit its traditional gender target.

CoverGirl's announcement last week of 17-year-old James Charles' new role was met with the expected media fanfare—fellow CoverGirl ambassador Katy Perry wrote on Instagram that she was "honored" to introduce Charles to her 56.9 million followers—but the brand says it isn't looking to make a big announcement and then simply go back to focusing on women. The move is the first step in a long-term investment to "continue to partner with unique individuals who resonate with what it means to be a CoverGirl," says the spokeswoman.


Staying authentic

But even as brands like CoverGirl promise consumers that this shift is a fundamental reset, marketers have to be sure it's right for their business.

"Brands want to appeal to all people of all genders, sexuality and interest, and there's a billion permutations of that," says Jason Stein, founder and CEO of social media agency Laundry Service. That said, if "99 percent of your sales are one gender, I don't think you're going to force yourself to appeal to everyone. You still have to be authentic to what your brand is and who your brand is, so it's not fair to say that every brand will appeal to everyone."

Still, there is a sea change happening that will cause many marketers to reexamine their strategies, Stein points out. It's "a reflection that gender stereotyping is completely unacceptable in society today. Assuming that a male [only] wants sports and females want pink [is] insulting, and you can't do that anymore. People on the internet will really destroy you if you try to do that. No one wants to be painted into a box because of false stereotypes from the past."

As ever, the message is crucial.

"We believe that advertisers and marketers, merchandisers, retailers have an obligation to understand the values they're shaping in society," says SheKnows' Skey. "It is our hope that marketers will continue to bust stereotypes and enable more options for all people. It's not only in the products you create and how you market them, but it's the images you use in that marketing … it's where they're positioned on the shelf.

"You can really address some of these stereotypes in a productive way through your marketing," she adds. "Advertisers have long been exempt from sort of owning their values and owning the perceptions they're putting out there in the public, and I think it's nice that they're now being held accountable."

This story first appeared in the October 17, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.