Women picking up the laundry, men polishing cars, gender stereotypes used to be rooted in marketing. Yet, advertising as seen in Mad Men is long gone.
In recent years, there’s been a noticeable shift away from societal gender norms. Followed by a 2019 rule introduced into the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) and UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code), banning harmful gender stereotypes in advertisements.
As breaking away from gender norms become more prominent, brands are taking notice. And one can’t help but wonder if the reign of gendered marketing is finally coming to an end.
What is gendered marketing
Pink for girls, blue for boys. Household products for women, sports equipment for men. Brands have traditionally operated on the belief that consumers are making purchasing decisions based on their gender. This assumption not only reinforces gender stereotypes but also traps people into thinking that they are meant to desire a certain product. Most of all, this practice completely alienates potential audiences from your targeting.
Traditional gender roles are blurring. Marketing strategies should follow suit. Especially as gender neutrality has become more and more accepted.
The future is non-binary
According to a 2021 study published by advertising agency Bigeye, half of Gen Z and 56% of Millennials surveyed, agree that binary gender labels are outdated. Yet, these biases are rooted in marketing. When starting a campaign, our first approach is usually to “put ourselves in the consumer’s shoes”. Who are they? Are they a man or a woman? This is where traditional marketing is flawed.
What is gender-neutral marketing?
Gender-neutral marketing is becoming increasingly expected, especially by Gen Z and Millennials who are making up 40% of the UK population (Statista, 2020) and are more comfortable expressing personal identities beyond the gender binary. Gender-neutral marketing is about focusing on what your audience needs, their values, their personality traits, their lifestyle, and not selling products that force them into traditional gender roles.
Gen Zers and Millennials value individual expression and uniqueness – consumption becomes a means of self-expression. Let’s take fashion as an example. They won’t hesitate to boycott a brand, call them out, and literally wear their values (sustainable, ethical, inclusive, environmental-friendly…) on their sleeves.
Why should you embrace it?
48% of Gen Zers said they value brands that don’t classify items as male or female (McKinsey, 2018). For most brands, that’s a new territory full of opportunities. If we keep using gender as a metric, we’re simply ignoring part of our audiences and thus, impacting negatively the brand awareness and potential sales. Adopting a gender-neutral approach allows us to create new possibilities for our customers, be more inclusive and more reflective of our changing society.
By creating an inclusive environment, brands will stand out, reach a wider audience and provide access to their products to people who may not know them. Additionally, gender-neutrality encourages gender equality. When we adapt to society and the gender spectrum, our audience feels more valued and welcomed. Finally, we can’t deny that it’s more sustainable and cost-effective (less waste, fewer resources used). A gender-neutral product marketing strategy is advantageous for both consumers and brands alike.
How to get started
It can feel a bit daunting, especially as a marketer. You need to align with the brand’s tone of voice, values, branding, and so on. There are some steps that you can take to help your clients become more inclusive when building a social campaign or playbook.
1. Take a closer look at the audience
Who are they? Go a little deeper. How are they currently being represented or not represented? Where do they live? What are their values? What are their interests? Focus on the product benefits over identity aspirations. How will your audience’s life be better with your product?
2. Use gender-inclusive language & design
Yes, it starts with using gender-neutral pronouns like they, you, we, or us instead of he and she. But that’s not enough. Be mindful of job titles (ie: chairman – chair or chairperson) and descriptive terms (ie: manly for strength). Don’t make assumptions when it comes to gender or sexual identities. Use terms like partner instead of girlfriend or boyfriend, spouse instead of wife or husband.
Keep in mind that it’s not because you’re adopting gender-neutral marketing, that your creative should be void of expression. Adapt your colour palette and your icons. Add inclusive imagery that represents the consumers who are using your products and services.
3. Start targeting more creatively
By continuing to target binary genders, you’re ignoring an incredibly diverse non-binary audience that’s continuing to increase in number. So, stop segmenting your audiences based on traditional gender norms, and focus on behaviours instead. How can you appeal to more nuanced and intersectional audiences? Explore life stages, product affinity, education level, household income, past purchase behaviour…
And as for any campaigns: A/B test it. Report on it and build on your learnings to create more inclusive experiences for your customers.
4. Revisit your campaign
Once you think you’re done, go back to your audience. Are they being represented in your campaigns? If you’re not sure about the lingo, leverage language analysing tools like Textio, Applied, Gender Decorder, or Gender Bias Decoder to help you remove any gender biases, stereotypes & buzzwords. Rest in peace girlboss, you won’t be missed.
Yes, gender-neutrality is becoming increasingly expected
… but it’s not a marketing trend, stunt, or new strategy.
Yes, gender-neutrality is more sustainable and cost-effective
… but being inclusive isn’t about boosting sales.
Yes, gender-neutrality is helping brands reach a wider audience
… but it’s not a way to cater to certain demographics.
It’s about being relevant, being intentional, and showing that we care and value our audience.
More brands are breaking down the stigma surrounding issues of gender, not just in the beauty, fashion, or sports industries. They are rising to the challenge of creating a more inclusive world. However, using gender-neutral pronouns or inviting an LGBTQ+ advocate to join your campaign isn’t enough. Becoming gender-inclusive needs to be a comprehensive initiative and start from within – your employee makeup and your values. Brands that fail to see this will pay the consequences. Consumers can smell BS from a mile away and they won’t be quiet about it.
In the end, it all comes back to your audience. By creating a well-rounded picture of who uses your product, understanding their needs, and focussing on the benefits, you’ll inspire a broader, more devoted customer base.
Dear brands & marketers, the ball is in your court.