Gendered Marketing


If Starbucks were a person, who would they be? Male or female? Young, old or somewhere in between? What kind of car would they drive? What about their MO?

You can tell a lot about people’s brand perceptions when you ask that they imagine them as a person. Brand personification exercises are great tools for illuminating who consumers feel a brand is for as well what kind of permission they give to shift, alter or expand that audience. It can speak to identification, aspiration and alienation, and is particularly helpful when contrasting brands within a competitive set. For example, would the Gap like the same bands as Old Navy?

Advertisers are no stranger to this technique too. A perfect example is Apple’s ‘I’m a Mac/I’m a PC’ campaign. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review looks at how brands capitalize on our propensity to anthropomorphize just about everything from pets to cars, and discusses how brands use gendered messaging to build equity and affinity.

One of the studies cited in the article states that we’re drawn to brands that employ old-school gender stereotypes because they’re frankly easier to understand and categorize. “Stereotypes, because they require little cognitive processing, are the brain’s comfort food.” But these days gender identity and identification is increasingly fluid and the qualities ‘typically’ associated with males and females are being hotly contested.

Brands and their advertisers message to our emotions, knowing full well that this is how they win heart share – by getting us to believe that they care about us, and understand what we’re going through. The article raises the interesting question of whether brands, wielding the power that they do, have a responsibility to challenge gender stereotypes and alter attitudes rather than perpetuate them.

I think it’s fair to say that we see a lot more advertising today that targets female empowerment, positions male sensitivity as positive, promotes inclusion with regard to sexuality and challenges gendered conventions in children’s marketing but whether it is sufficient is another matter. I take comfort in the belief that culture is a co-created space – brand marketing is both mirror and catalyst, so I would argue it will inevitably and eventually catch up with broader cultural shifts. The consumer will no doubt demand it.

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