Has gender marketing had its day?

Are women passive and girly? Are men all about their muscles? Of course not. But that’s not what most product marketing tells us.

For a long time it was ‘acceptable’ to gender products in order to sell them. But this has just served to perpetuate the myths we are still trying to break free of – ultimately, that men and women act in wholly different ways and therefore must want, need and be sold different things.

A little story
I recently bought a bottle of Radox Muscle Therapy, my usual bubble bath of choice. I picked it up, paid for it, took it home without a thought. It’s only when I ran the bath later that evening that I realised Radox Muscle Therapy bubble bath is now labelled for ‘MEN’.

Just a matter of months ago, this same bubble bath was safe for use by all sexes. But I – as the dumb consumer that marketers think I am – can only assume they’ve just discovered it contains ‘man ingredients’. You know, the kind that only work on men. It would be wasted on women – you have to be a man to enjoy it!

But what is the assumption behind this seemingly innocuous labelling? That only men use their muscles? Only men get back pain or aching legs? I wonder if they’ve ever heard that women lift stuff too? Or of period pain and restless legs syndrome?

I don’t need to make my point – you already know what it is. But many marketers don’t.

Gender marketing: a double-edge blade
When they market products, many marketers still employ assumptions about gender and sex to sell them. Whether it’s pink, flowery bicycles and globes for girls, or superman costumes and camouflage play tents for boys. And if that fails, they just tell you who it’s for, as in the case of many toiletries products. Just so there’s no ambiguities and everyone stays in their rightful place.

These marketers think that by labelling products appropriately – even though it is totally inappropriate to exclude one sex from a unisex product – they’re attracting a newer audience or targeting their marketing. But here’s the thing. Often, they’re not. Instead, they’re turning off a whole lot of other consumers and risk making them feel belittled, alienated, angry and not listened to. And if those consumers you’re putting off are female, you might just end up losing out.

Women buy
Women account for 85% of all purchases made. They might be buying for themselves or they might just as frequently be buying for the men in their life – so marketers need to have the woman in mind when they sell.

That doesn’t just mean with flowers and fancy décor. Target marketing is about more than just fluff – and sex and gender for that matter; it’s about appealing to your customer’s ideals and values. If you take the time to find out what matters to your consumer, rather than making assumptions, and distilling those values into your marketing, then your message will be picked up.

The paradox
These days we know gender stereotypes are bunkum; we live our lives to the full doing all kinds of different jobs and activities that blur the boundaries of gender and sex. But advertising largely fails to acknowledge that. In a world much more open, we actually seem to be seeing more gendered marketing. It doesn’t make sense.

Women are more likely to buy products aimed at men, more so than men will buy those aimed at women. Therefore, gendering products can work against marketers, who are actually narrowing the field of what men, and some women, will go for. If unisex products were marketed at all sexes, then the audience base becomes wider. We also have to ask ourselves whether women sometimes buy products aimed at men because this is the only way of getting what they want.

How to get what you want
When I went back to the supermarket and looked at all those Radox bubble baths lined up, I noticed something. Only one was labelled for men (Muscle Therapy), while the others had titles such as ‘feel pampered’, ‘feel heavenly’, ‘feel blissful’, ‘feel enchanted’. There was also a Muscle Soak option – I suppose the passive woman’s version of the more intensive, active and energised Muscle Therapy, which is for ‘MEN’, as we now know. Despite the fact that all baths entail the passive act of simply ‘soaking’.

None of the other bottles were labelled for women. But I could tell, what with all the pastel pinks, peaches and innocent, creamy white palettes – and of course the flowers adorning the labels. The men’s Muscle Therapy bottle, however, was angsty black and red, with a label signifying something more akin to the bubbling inferno of hell than a relaxing bath. Of course, men don’t want their bath time to be relaxing, but rather a dip into hell and back. They want the hard stuff.

Just as the statistics state, in order to get what I want I will still buy Muscle Therapy bubble bath, even though it’s now for ‘MEN’. Mostly, I just like the product, but I also refuse to be told I must defer to a more feminine alternative.

Marketers – break the mould!
Gendered marketing seems wholly backward in a time when we are more than ever aware of marketing tactics, more connected, and the already-blurred divide between the sexes is being shattered day by day.

Advertisers and marketers with the most acclaim are those who recognise what their consumers want, but also show the reality of modern culture – whether that’s the recent Match.com advert with two kissing lesbians (albeit in a sexualised way) or the Guinness ‘Never Alone’ advert with gay rugby player Gareth Thomas.

When I see a pink this or that for females and a camouflage alternative for males, I despair. Because it is this lazy, old-fashioned stereotyping that makes it harder for the people out there who don’t conform. And that, in one way or another, is all of us.

At worst, gendered marketing of unisex products is offensive, at best it’s just redundant.

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