The Manscape

Economic and cultural trends transform the demo—but guys are just as manly as ever

Men, who needs them?

A loaded and age-old question to be sure. But in this case, it wasn’t lobbed by Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan or even Valerie Solanas—or, for a more contemporary reference, Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on Fox’s New Girl or Lena Dunham’s Hannah on HBO’s Girls.

Rather, that particular jab at half the population was actually the title of a debate-sparking New York Times op-ed last month by Greg Hampikian, a biology and criminal justice professor at Boise State University, outlining the many ways in which men are becoming, as he puts it, “less relevant” for our species. Comparing them to cars, Hampikian asks, “Who would buy the model that doesn’t last as long, is given to lethal incidents and ends up impounded more often?”

Yet chances are that any man reading that article (and some of the hundreds of online comments it garnered) really doesn’t care what the answer is. Maybe his father or grandfather would have, but the modern guy doesn’t have a dog in that fight.

What does it matter if the professor is onto something, that today’s man isn’t so indispensable for keeping the race going?

He’s OK with that. Because he’s liberated.

“It is an exciting time to be a man,” says David Zinczenko, editor in chief of Rodale’s Men’s Health and one of the foremost observers of the hirsute sex. “Guys I know are taking advantage of relaxed male gender responsibilities to really embrace their role as fathers, to question the breadwinner treadmill they have been on and explore what gives their lives meaning.”

Embracing, questioning, exploring. It’s enough to make Oprah proud. But first, a little something to snack on before picturing all those men rocking themselves gently on the sofa, listening to Josh Groban. If a Martian sent his version of the Curiosity rover to Earth, what precisely would it find as it investigated the human male?

Pinterest-for-men social media sites like Dartitup and Manteresting feature rather base guy stuff like snapshots of half-bare beauties, items about belts that double as beer can holders and odes to Chuck Norris. Then there are such cultural milestones as perpetual juvenile delinquent Daniel Tosh of Comedy Central’s Tosh.O, those sexed-up GoDaddy commercials that air during the Super Bowl (this year’s entry replete with lady-on-lady body painting) and The Expendables 2.

Reports back to the Red Planet might not reveal such an evolved specimen after all.

While sophomoric humor, high-testosterone content and advertising stocked with brew, babes and fast cars are still very much with us, marketers, as anyone paying attention has noticed, have also been speaking to men in another, much different voice lately.

“Definitely what has happened is men are becoming numb to those traditional approaches,” says Derrick Daye, managing partner at brand consultancy The Blake Project and author of blog Branding Strategy Insider.

Cliff Skeete, creative director at Y&R, points to Euro RSCG’s highly popular, Clio-winning campaign for Dos Equis beer, “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” featuring the elegant yet tough 74-year-old actor Jonathan Goldsmith, as an example of how more men want to see themselves reflected in advertising today. “You are talking about a sophisticated man now, a man who is all-world and has decent values, not just out to get women,” Skeete says.

Of the Dos Equis campaign, Daye adds, “There are lots of women who don’t find it as funny as men—and that is further validation it is a good campaign. It’s not targeted to women. They are increasing [sampling], getting consumers who really love a certain brand of beer…to try theirs at least once, which is the key to cracking the marketing code.”

In contrast to Dos Equis’ smooth operator (in one spot, Goldsmith’s character, surrounded by a throng of beautiful women, muses about pickup lines: “There’s a time and place for them. The time is never—you can figure out the place on your own.”), Unilever’s Axe brand of men’s grooming products smashed the marketing code years ago with a sex-sells sledgehammer. But even that younger-skewing brand has moved away from its tail-chasing message.

“Axe changed from ‘Spray and get the girls’ to a more sophisticated way to get the girl,” says Skeete. “Instead of eight girls chasing after a guy to get his clothes off, you have one guy with this one girl and how this body product makes his life adaptable to hers.” (The Creative Effective Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes festival went to Axe’s “Excite” campaign, from BBH London.)

“Adaptation,” quite clearly, has become the key word for men as well as the brands trying to reach them.

Due to economic and cultural factors—some beyond their control, some of their own making—men have been released from the role of sole provider. Of course, the morphing of the modern man from Ward Cleaver to Phil Dunphy and some emasculated, moisturizing, cupcake-baking being is not a new phenomenon. Such portrayals are, in fact, beyond caricature at this point. Yet the transformation of man is clearly accelerating.

Take shaving. Despite the emergence of all those unshorn hipsters and the advent of the casual workplace and the home office, brands like Gillette’s Art of Shaving line of salons and products and Unilever’s Dove Men+Care offering of personal care products (which recently signed pro football legends Doug Flutie and John Elway as pitchmen) continue to flourish. The Wall Street Journal reports that global sales of men’s razors and blades are on the rise, expected to hit $13 billion this year, up from $12.8 billion in 2011.

Meanwhile, driven by the explosion of online shopping and recommendation sites ranging from BustedTees to InsideHook, as well as tablets, volume sales of menswear are expected to spike in 2012 for the first time in five years and are poised to accelerate over the next decade, according to the retail industry paper Drapers. Recently, department stores including Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue have remodeled to be more man-friendly, while the likes of Hermès, Christian Louboutin and Bottega Veneta have opened shops tailored to the male customer and Urban Outfitters has launched a catalog targeted to men, all detailed by the Times during New York’s Fashion Week.

And while a slowdown in the sale of high-end threads threatens to impact brands such as Burberry—whose report this month of steep declines sent shock waves through the world of luxury goods—more moderately priced men’s retailers like Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Warehouse are thriving.

Likewise, it’s a mixed bag for media dependent on brands targeting men.

The tube remains a female-dominant medium, with women 18-49 watching 11 hours more linear TV per month than men in the same demo (148 hours versus 137 hours), according to Nielsen. Of the 44 new series that premiered over the course of the 2011-12 broadcast season, only three skewed more male than female: Terra Nova, Napoleon Dynamite and Allen Gregory. All three aired on Fox, and all three were canceled.

Leading consumer magazines like Men’s Health, Hearst’s Esquire, Time’s Sports Illustrated, Condé Nast’s GQ and Wenner Media’s Men’s Journal continue to struggle with weakened demand for print advertising, reporting either flat or down ad page volume in the first six months of this year versus the same period last year, according to Publishers Information Bureau stats.

At the same time, Fairchild Fashion Media, a unit of Condé Nast, this month will revive the affluent-focused men’s fashion title M, which was put on ice during the recession of the early ’90s. Likewise, Men’s Health’s high-end lifestyle spinoff Best Life, which folded in 2009, will be relaunched next month.

It makes sense that media targeted to men are focusing more on lifestyle, considering that men’s own motivations have shifted.

Could the epidemic of workaholism be a thing of the past? In its most recent ManScan Study, a collaboration with the research company GfK Roper, Men’s Health found that ambition and career success are much less important to guys now.

In an online survey this past spring of more than 3,000 men 18-65, respondents were asked to identify “traits that you strongly or moderately aspire to.” Rather than signaling more material or hard-core career pursuits, a majority of men opted to describe themselves as well-rounded, easygoing and open to new ideas. “Being well-rounded is another way for men to be prepared today and to deal with the new economy,” explains Cary Silvers, director of consumer insights and advertising trends at Rodale.

The recent economic downturn certainly has become the checkmate in society’s role-shifting chess game, and a leading cause for men’s need to adapt. (Remember the “Mancession”?) Even though the equalization of household duties and shared familial responsibilities has been on the rise since the women’s movement of the 1960s, it has become more pronounced in the recent past, impacting households far beyond merely who shops for groceries or does the dishes.

“In every life stage for men now, they have to be on par with women since the likelihood is both in the relationship are working,” says Andrew Beveridge, a demographer and professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “You have a situation where men have to be involved with products, where they used to be left to the domain of the woman.”

According to media consultancy Jacobs Media’s Marketing to Men survey, more than 70 percent of married men and better than half of married women agree or strongly agree that men, whether married or single, are more involved with household shopping than ever before.

“The shopping profile of single males is very similar to women, and 31 percent of males are single,” notes Paul Jacobs, general manager of Jacobs Media. “When you picture a single male, you think of a 26-year-old single guy. But with 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce in this country, demographically speaking the single male is not [only made up of the] young.”

The shift in who does the grocery shopping, and attitudes about it, are particularly telling. The ManScan Study found that 48 percent of men do an equal share of food shopping as women, and 74 percent of men signal that they are “completely happy” about it. Like women, men are using their laptops, tablets and smartphones to comparison shop. According to the study, 72 percent of men check prices online before making a purchase while 56 percent read online reviews before heading to the store.

Meanwhile, another study, this one by the market research firm uSamp, found this month that men are even more active users of mobile when shopping than women are (45 percent of men polled have made a mobile purchase, versus 34 percent of women)—with a larger percentage of men versus women buying products including luxury goods, food and drinks, consumer electronics, office supplies, and digital content. (Women purchase more health and beauty products via mobile.) The study also found that 91 percent of males have scanned a barcode using a mobile device compared to 85 percent of women.

While men are becoming more active shoppers—and many brands have tailored their messages to that trend—still other marketers and retailers seem to have failed to notice, especially the supermarket chains.

“Despite all of the evidence, the food markets for the most part still continue to talk to women almost exclusively,” Rodale’s Silvers points out. “Even children sometimes appear to have a greater vote from a marketer’s perspective than men do.”

Most grocery stores are still designed to attract the female shopper—never mind the emergence of the “man aisle.” As detailed this summer everywhere from The Huffington Post to The Village Voice to The Los Angeles Times, aisles stocked with traditionally male-oriented products (think Tabasco sauce, six packs of beer, charcoal briquettes, Trojan condoms) are springing up in national chains and smaller local retailers alike.

Jacobs calls man aisles a “ridiculous” idea, while adding that they are at least a sign retailers are acknowledging male customers. But if supermarkets truly wanted to attract men, they would do well to follow the media’s cue and “daypart” their stores, Jacobs proposes—“change the music and other things at various times when men typically shop, to enhance their experience.”

While marketers have yet to perfect the art of reaching men in the canned goods section, they at least seem to have mastered selling them grooming products.

According to the research company NPD Group, nine out of 10 men now use some sort of grooming product, and more than 70 percent buy skincare products.

As noted, shaving hasn’t been fully ceded to the hipsters, with dollar sales of facial trimmers over the past year growing 13 percent. (It says something when, in his latest documentary Mansome, Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame shifts his attention from the Big Mac to manscaping.)

“From body wash to deodorant, men now take care of themselves in a different way than they have before—but you never hear the term ‘Metrosexual’ anymore because we all are [doing it],” Skeete says. “You don’t worry about how you are going to be perceived. I think the ads reflect that. Look at Old Spice.”

Wieden+Kennedy’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign for Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice, featuring the shirtless actor Isaiah Mustafa and his comically seductive baritone, became an instant classic—the first spot has been viewed more than 43 million times on YouTube while the campaign was parodied everywhere from Sesame Street to The Soup and snagged multiple honors, including the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Emmy Award. More to the point, it stoked sales and instantly revolutionized our grandfathers’ fusty deodorant brand.

For Old Spice, as with so many established brands, the choice was simple: change or die.

“They had to resonate with the younger demographic or risk going away,” Daye says.

More recently, W+K worked its magic on another long-in-the-tooth product, Brown-Forman Corp.’s liquor brand Southern Comfort, with its impossible-to-ignore “Whatever’s Comfortable” spot. It features perhaps the antithesis of “The Most Interesting Man in the World” and the suave Mustafa: a middle-aged, overly tanned dude sporting a Speedo and pot belly (talk about liberation), strutting along the beach to the strains of Odetta’s “Hit or Miss” as sunbathing lovelies take note.

The juxtaposition suggests that the modern dude refuses to fit neatly into any one stereotype—which, of course, is what liberation is really all about.

Yet for men, that liberty may yet prove to have unforeseen costs.

Take the T&A-themed restaurant chain Hooters—a man-centric brand if ever there was one—which is currently trying to turn around its slumping sales by luring more (gulp) female customers.

The Atlantic summed up that alarming state of affairs with a headline that we’re likely to see more of as the demographic continues to evolve: “The End of Men, For Real.”

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