Marketing Beyond the Gender Binary

Marketers must rethink gender to win the next generations of consumers.

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From Philip Morris’s 1954 introduction of the Marlboro Man to promote a “universally masculine appeal” to Dr Pepper Ten’s 2011 launch of a diet soda that was proudly “not for women,” marketers have long capitalized on traditional gender beliefs to sell their products. But now, a decade after Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign, brands can no longer rely solely on outdated tropes to connect with increasingly diverse, empowered consumers. Traditional Western views on gender — where people fit neatly into predefined concepts and behaviors of masculinity and femininity — are giving way to inclusivity that allows more individualized and authentic manifestations of gender beyond the binary model.

The winds of change are at our doorstep: According to an Ipsos study in 2019, 34% of all Americans disagreed with the statement that “there are only two genders — male and female — and not a range of gender identities.” Around the world, in 35 countries, 40% disagreed with that binary perspective. Younger consumers are at the vanguard of ushering in change: According to Pew Research, almost 60% of those aged 13 to 21 (“Gen Z”) believe forms that ask about gender should include options besides “male” or “female.”

Older consumers also are no longer locked into binary gender tropes: More than three-quarters of parents look favorably upon encouraging girls to play with toys or participate in activities typically associated with boys.

Marketers Must Ready Their Brands

Astute brands, especially the upstarts, have been quick to perceive and respond to the shift in gender zeitgeist. Women’s shaving brand Billie (recently acquired by Procter & Gamble) satirized how traditional women’s razor brands (many, ironically, also owned by P&G) shied away from showing female body hair. Milk Makeup showcases its products using transgender models as well as cisgender male and female models. Even more indicative of a broader societal and brand strategy shift is that legacy companies, too, have taken bold steps to transcend the binary model of gender, as noted in the examples below.

What is a marketer to do to ready her brand to operate under a different set of gender rules? Using a first-principles approach is the best way to craft a brand strategy along the four axes of marketing:

  • Product. Marketers must revisit their product portfolio to assess its relevance to consumers’ shifting expectations.

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