Opinion

A gender neutral future

02 April, 2019 Share socially

Gender inequality is a topic that remains in the headlines, with the debate raging across education, business, employment and society as a whole. Unequal treatment for men and women is a fact of modern life, from higher price tags for women due to the infamous “pink tax” and barriers to same-sex marriage to the gender pay gap and discrimination for more vulnerable groups.

Fortunately, in recent years greater efforts have been made towards achieving equality, with support from eminent and charismatic spokespeople and public figures. The recently published book Invisible Women by journalist and activist Caroline Criado Perez highlights how women live in a society designed around men borne out of gender biased data. Seeing the imbalance in percentage terms gives the process of understanding and combating it an important dimension. With that said, many critical issues on gender and inequality are still far from being resolved.

In the marketing and communications industry, the rise of younger consumers has had a considerable impact on these issues, leading to a greater awareness. Driven mainly by Generation Z consumers who are all about self-acceptance and protecting their individuality, this tidal wave is opening up new areas for brands. Brands now have a chance to really get to know consumers, giving them free reign to express themselves and reveal their true selves. A study by JWT Intelligence showed that the clued-up, engaged Gen Z kids are more open to non-gendered products than their older siblings, the millennials.

Compared to this new generation, previous generations are still influenced by the psychological barriers of traditional codes and a clearly defined gender separation. For them, buying unisex products is a liberating act in itself and in part a provocation that shows how deeply entrenched their ideas on what male and female really is. Proof can be seen in the most popular toys of their generations: Barbie for girls and G.I. Joe for boys, symbolic of the careers each sex is assigned as adults.

But it is not just women who are victims of inequality. For years now, marketing has been delivering a one-sided view of masculinity, constantly telling us how a “real man” should act. As a result, many consumers are often affected by performance anxiety and feel constrained, coerced into buying brands not out of choice, but because they do not want their masculinity to be questioned. A new report published by Taobao, the largest e-commerce platform in China, signalled that fashion shoppers are ignoring stereotypical gender boundaries with suits being the top choice for female customers and men’s searches for lace and see-through clothing growing by 119% and 107% respectively. With China set to overtake the US as the world’s largest fashion market this year it gives a good indication of what shoppers are looking for.

A gender neutral future

Although Calvin Klein hit the headlines after launching the world's first "gender-free" fragrance with efforts to celebrate fluidity in 1994, other brands were slow to follow. In the last couple of years more brands have started to adopt a gender-neutral approach, as is increasingly seen in their advertising, product packaging and messages. As we often remind our clients, tomorrow’s brands are those which have a clear position today and represent a value for their target. In many market segments, brands are taking a stance on cultural, social and political themes, and are working to create brand identities without gender connotations.

One brand that has taken this route is Aesop. The success of the Australian brand showed how it is possible to ignore traditional gender codes even in a sector as gender polarised as cosmetics. The rest of the industry is now following suit with brands such as Non-Gender Specific (NGS) springing up. By choosing simple graphics and a basic colour palette, rejecting the brighter shades more traditionally used for fragrances, Aesop was able to shift the focus from 'gender' to 'function'. This brand territory covers more stimulating and universal concepts such as efficiency, sensory pleasure and the value of personalised advice. Aesop’s freedom from gender divisions can be seen throughout the brand experience and across its touchpoints and communications.

A gender neutral future

A gender-neutral approach is not limited to labels and packaging: it also extends to physical spaces. Instead of creating separate corners for men and women, retail brands such as Selfridges are implementing brand storytelling, attracting customers to places where they can shop regardless of their gender.

Selfridges’ Agender concept store was first out of the gates. It is the result of a project involving the observation of men and women interacting with an androgynous shopping experience, to browse by collection rather than gender. Instead of using male and female mannequins in its Concept Space, Selfridges showcases products that explore the concept of gender fluidity across clothing, accessories and cosmetics.

Even brands without an overtly gender-neutral agenda are changing their communication strategies, encouraging consumers to express themselves as they see fit. Coca-Cola’s 'woke' SuperBowl campaign celebrated uniqueness with the slogan: “There's no one quite like you. Or her. Or him. Or them. The world is filled with over 7 billion unique yous who are all special in their own way”.

Haircare company Schwarzkopf’s “Create Your Style” campaign promotes individuality and creativity, underlining the importance of diversity, authenticity and self-assuredness. To date it has clocked up over 60,000 Instagram posts and gives men and women the opportunity to reveal their true selves, without restrictions, judgement, or fear of judgement.

 

A gender neutral future

Over the next few years, the mantra for brands (and others too) should be inclusivity across the board. The sharpest brands already know that to win over tomorrow’s consumers - kids who are not afraid to express and delve into their innermost feelings - they will have to change the way they act and communicate. Holding on to their positions and seizing new market shares will take concrete action with no room at all for discrimination, leading eventually to its eradication. This means giving brands a voice which indiscriminately appeals to everyone. John Lewis, Zara and H&M have already done this by removing gender labelling from their children’s clothing, and Toca Boca, the Swedish developer of children’s apps, tasked a gender diversity study group to remove all explicit and veiled references to gender, race and sexuality, while developing new products and establishing new partnerships.

It has never been more important for brands and retailers to take on the concept of inclusivity and contend with a mindset that in all respects is here to stay. They, and we, must all learn from younger consumers, and see the world as they do without obstructive preconceptions. Learning from inclusivity certainly means being fairer, but it is also about exploring new forms, sizes, tastes, colours and styles to free up new space for brands and new pathways for creative talents, while improving consumers’ lives. Fewer barriers within each brand means greater freedom for all.