The ‘Gender Brand Gap’ Has Costs Beyond Marketing Dollars

Engine's study focused on advertising bias in the beer, automotive and SPF skin care categories

Engine discussed the study at an Adweek event at Cannes on Wednesday. Sean T. Smith for Adweek

CANNES, France—Advertisers have contributed to the unfortunate creation of a “gender brand gap” when it comes to shaping and influencing consumer behaviors, reveals a new study from Engine, presented at an Adweek talk at Cannes on Wednesday.

Engine selected a representative group of categories, including alcohol, beauty and automotive and surveyed 2,000 U.S. consumers for their attitudes and participation in those categories, as well as their views on brands within the categories and if they viewed those brands as “for you.”

The study found that, despite women representing 83% of purchasing power and the ubiquity of gender issues in marketing campaigns, brands still are largely failing to create meaningful connections with female consumers.

In the case of beer, decades of advertising targeting men may have actually impacted preference for the alcoholic beverage; 55% of men participating in the study and 29% of women reported liking the taste of beer. Preferences for the taste of soda and cocktails are neutral, with 68% of both men and women reporting that they like the taste of soda, while 44% of men and 46% of women reported liking the taste of cocktails.

Of the beer brands surveyed (Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois, Heineken and Coors Light) there was around a 20% difference between whether women and men felt the brand was for them. Budweiser was the brand men were most likely to say was for them, at 53%, while only 32% of women felt that way about the brand. The brand with highest discrepancy between men and women in the survey was Heineken, with 51% of men saying it was for them and only 25% of women. Of the brands surveyed, Corona seemed to appeal most to women, with 37% saying the brand was for them, compared to 49% of men.

Automotive was another category skewed toward men, even though 84% of women surveyed were car owners and 82% of men. Despite this, only 37% of women saw it as a category for them, compared to 70% of men.

Men and women are largely aligned in what they are looking for when purchasing a vehicle, with the top response from women (97%) and men (94%) reliability. The largest discrepancy in genders was that only 78% of men consider how comfortable a car is as an important factor in buying a new car, while 89% of women said it was important.

Some automotive brands are doing a better job of appealing to women than others.

Toyota, which features a female spokesperson in its advertising, was the only brand surveyed to break through and appeal to women at a higher rate than men. Sixty-two percent of women responded that the brand was for them, compared to 61% of men. Volkswagen also approached equal appeal, however, with 41% of men responding that the brand was for them, compared to 39% of women. The largest discrepancy of brands surveyed was BMW, with 53% of men responding that the brand was for them, compared to 34% of women. Mercedes-Benz was close behind at 51% and 34%, respectively.

Not all categories skew toward appealing to men, however.

Men are at a higher risk of developing melanoma than women, and a leading factor seems to be behavioral.

“The reason is because the majority of men do not apply sunscreen at all,” Ellen Marmur, associate clinical professor of dermatology, genetics and genomic research at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said, as quoted in the study.

SPF skin care brands are much more likely to appeal to women, which seems to be a leading contributor to the behavioral divide in sunscreen application.

Both men and women view skin cancer as dangerous (92% of men and 96% of women said skin cancer was a dangerous disease). Yet men were less likely to be fully aware of the risks of skin cancer and to view sunscreen as an important defense to be applied regularly. Eighty-six percent of men in the study said they were aware of the risks, compared to 97% of women, and 86% of men said sunscreen was an important defense against skin cancer, compared to 94% of women. Eighty-two percent of men said it was important to apply sunscreen whenever exposed to the sun, compared to 92% of women.

According to the study, an advertising bias in the category toward women has contributed to the use of SPF products as less socially accepted for men. The study points to a quick Google search for “applying SPF” as illustrative of the phenomenon. Just 38% of men in the study responded that they viewed the SPF skin care category as for them and all brands in the category were identified as more for women, by both male and female respondents.

Engine argues that these blind spots contributing to gender brand gaps aren’t just bad for consumers, they’re bad for business. As a result, beer brands and many automotive brands are missing out on opportunities with female consumers at a time when these categories face new challenges, while SPF skin care brands are largely ignoring male consumers equally in need of protection against skin cancer.

So how can brands correct the unconscious biases contributing to these divides?

According to Engine, such change begins internally with the brand restating their belief system and creating a manifesto for change. Since marketing alone can’t reverse entrenched biases, “Brands need to address the structures, processes, attitudes and behaviors that underpin the organization operationally and culturally,” Engine says.

Advertising and marketing can play an important role, of course, although Engine cautions against overcompensating. Instead, brands need to focus on removing bias and challenging expectations with advertising that aims to shape behaviors and attitudes rather than addressing gender. Data and insights, as well as creativity, can play a role in speaking to individuals, Engine concludes.

Of course, gender is only part of the story when it comes to the impact of unconscious bias on advertising divides, and Engine cautions that brands will need to address similar issues around race, age and disability.

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.