The Rise of Gender-Neutral Branding
Fashion, cosmetic and fragrance companies are connecting to a new generation of consumers by doing away with gender-specific branding.
Even before birth, gender norms are thrust on all of us, from gender reveal parties to pink and blue blankets. Gender has traditionally been treated as a foundational building block of our identities. From early childhood through adolescence, gender creates separation and definition that provides a cultural yardstick for measuring our adherence to this same-said societal norm: feminine qualities (cultural norms of soft, gentle, nurturing) and masculine qualities (cultural norms of dominant, strong, aggressive), creating an echo chamber of confirmation bias.
Consequently, people who demonstrate gender traits that fly in the face of their biological sex have historically been marginalized and scorned for their lack of adherence to these gender “rules.” Abandoning social norms and opting to adopt an individualized meaning of gender has created a cultural movement that, without digging into the rich and important sociological and political implications, has been coined by marketers as gender fluidity. Often defined as the fluid shifting of gender expression between masculine and feminine, gender fluidity has surfaced as a reflection of our era of self-critique: a postmodern state of being.
As transparency, technology and connectivity become ubiquitous in our lives, gender binaries and their tropes are less conventionally accepted as a core building block of identity. Generation Z and the millennials are key drivers in the acceptance of the concept of gender fluidity. According to a 2017 Harris Poll, 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming and 35% of Generation Z (18 to 21 year olds) respondents in a 2018 Pew Research Center survey claimed that they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns (they, them) to identify themselves.
With the broader acceptance of gender fluidity comes the opportunity for not only new brands but for marketers to create narratives that can form closer relationships with these younger consumers — but the brand and what it stands for must be authentic. And to do that, marketers must deeply immerse in, and understand, this important cultural shift.
The beauty and fashion categories have been early adopters of these sociocultural drivers — from haute couture to prestige cosmetics and fragrance. Jean-Paul Gaultier has playfully poked at gender stereotypes for nearly 30 years. Brands like Issey Miyake and Commes des Garcons have historically prioritized the architectural and structural elements of design over gender. In the 1990s, Calvin Klein’s CK One pioneered the first unisex fragrance, with a supporting campaign featuring beautifully androgynous models. MAC Cosmetics was a pioneer in bringing cosmetics to everyone, hiring trans and gender-queer makeup artists and sales reps, and using RuPaul as its celebrity spokesperson in campaigns as early as 1994.
Traditionally, consumer packaged goods have leaned hard into gender cues via color, type, imagery, texture and shape to definitively signal feminine or masculine. Functionally led packaging may dial up or even create gender-driven need states, supported by kitchen-logic reasons to believe that support the delineation. In the face of highly educated and savvy consumers as well as the political landscape, in part represented by consumer advocacy groups criticizing price differences in gendered offerings (the Pink Tax), CPGs are starting to re-examine these strategies.
Consequently, a more gender-neutral approach is bubbling to the surface yet again, particularly in the personal care category. Successful brands are shifting focus to product experience, universal ingredients and benefit stories manifested in good, smart design over the gender of their target consumer.
In the current fragrance category, decoupling gender to provide consumer choice speaks broadly rather than limiting their appeal to the confines of accepted gender. Brands are increasingly launching genderless fragrances — Chanel’s Les Eaux des Chanel, LVMH and its line of fragrances that prioritize experiential fantasy over gender-specific fragrance notes; celebrities like Grande are breaking gender boundaries with the launch of Cloud eau de Parfum. In fact, in 2018, 51% of global fragrance launches were considered unisex or gender neutral.
Mass, prestige, celebrity and start-up beauty brands are all making an effort to appear to a gender-fluid announce. At mass, CoverGirl launched “So Lashy!” mascara with James Charles as the spokesperson, the first drugstore cosmetics brand to signal that cosmetics are for everyone. Fenty Beauty (FENTY BEAUTY) is the cosmetics brand launched in 2017 by singer Rihanna. The brand is popular for its broad inclusivity across skin tones and gender.
New beauty lines have also made an impact with a minimalist brand presentation, signaling high quality and modernity that appeals to anyone. Fluide offers makeup for all gender expressions, gender identities and skin tones and understands that makeup is a tool of transformation and a powerful means of self-actualization. Andrew Glass self-funded Non Gender Specific in 2018 and in the company’s first quarter sold over 20,000 bottles of its debut product, The Everything Serum. Luxury brands are also continuing the trajectory into gender-fluid offerings globally, with Chanel unveiling its first foray into cosmetics for men in China; Boy de Chanel was launched online with significant interest and has now been rolled out globally.
In fashion retail, we see the confines of gender-binary lifting: Victoria Secret recently hired hired Brazilian model Valentina Sampaio — the company’s first openly transgender model. Fast-fashion leader H&M unveiled a gender-neutral collection of clothing, shoes, and accessories earlier this year for kids and adults, and earlier this year Abercrombie introduced a gender-neutral line of kids clothing. Apparel and shoes in the line took on boxier cuts with a color palette of neutrals and brights. For children, not only are some retailers offering gender-neutral clothing, they are moving to a combined merchandising strategy versus separate “girl” and “boy” areas of the store. Furthermore, major retailers like Target have eliminated “boy and girl” distinctions in store signage and end-cap displays in their toy departments.
The shift toward genderless identification signals real change largely driven by consumers, and marketers must take great care as they respond. Brands must truly understand the importance of this sociocultural movement — they must go beyond shallow “mirroring” and demonstrate empathy, reflect meaning and speak with authenticity. It’s paramount that brands examine every aspect of behavior in the stakeholder chain, both internally and externally, and enroll them in the new paradigm to deeply understand where gender assumptions live inside the organization and how to redefine them. Think of gender fluidity as a creative opportunity that sets new guardrails and removes others — instigating new internal behaviors and opportunities, and unlocking exciting new external semiotic design landscapes.
Assumptions of “unified” and “fragmented” are changing; brand marketers can speak in a single voice while communicating sensitively, responsively, and personally. Much like how gender is no longer a binary proposition, our old notions of “niche” versus “mass” markets must be in the rearview mirror.