Are brands ready for a gender-fluid future?

As gender continues to evolve, strategy looks at who is evolving with it, from targeting to advertising to retail experiences.

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This story appears in the January/February 2020 issue of strategy.

Make-up and beauty is marketed to women. Sports and beer are marketed to men. To some, those sentences may seem wildly out of touch, slightly discriminatory even, given the evolution of gender in the past decade. But, as companies reap data and rely on their findings to reach diverse audiences, some are moving in the direction of progress, setting a new standard for brands clinging to traditional visions of gender that could potentially alienate consumers.

A report from Toronto-based Wattpad, titled The Gen Z Census, found that as this new consumer cohort comes of age, the industry is lagging on reaching them in an authentic way and much of the disconnect lies in gender identity.

In the report – which surveyed roughly 500 Canadian youth born between 1995 and 2009 – little more than half (56%) identified as straight or heterosexual, while the remaining 44% used terms like bisexual, questioning, pansexual, asexual, lesbian and gay. Many said they know someone who identifies as transgender (51%), non-binary (44%), gender-fluid (33%) or gender non-conforming (33%). Nearly half said they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, like “they/them.”

Perhaps most notable was the 52% who reported they did not feel adequately represented in marketing and branding. “It’s unsurprising that they don’t feel well-represented in the media,” the report notes, because “respectfully showcasing trans people and gender non-conforming individuals has become a rather recent concept.”

The key to understanding the gravity of Gen Z’s shift to a more gender-fluid future is to understand the fundamental notion of authenticity “that has really taken over culture,” says Johanna Faigelman, cultural anthropologist, CEO and founder of Human Branding. Her market research consultancy uses applied anthropology to advise global client brands across industries.

“There is this whole focus on lifestyle in terms of who you are,” Faigelman says. “It’s much more about your values now and how you live your life.”

There is more of an emphasis on individuality, as seen in pop-culture, branding and marketing, thanks to the rise of social media and, in particular, the influencer, says Faigelman. As cultural and social trends translate into new consumer behaviour, she believes the challenge for advertisers lies in avoiding alienation. “Rather than saying ‘for her’ or ‘for him,’ we have to cater to how people identify themselves,” she explains.

Everything – not just gender – needs to be viewed through a non-binary lens, Faigelman adds, because the younger someone is, the less likely they are to see things in black and white terms. “That’s something marketers really need to be aware of, especially in this time where, politically, we’re going back to very outdated notions and scary times,” she says. “There is a lot of risk today for marketers to alienate by being too binary.”

The trailblazers

In late 2018, Amil Reddy, community investment manager at MEC was approached by the retailer’s creative team to help market its holiday list of products, which is traditionally a gendered selection of “gifts for him/her.”

“[The team] wanted a genuine perspective,” says Reddy, who identifies as non-binary. The result was a digital guide, titled “Gift Ideas For Them” and featured MEC items like smart socks, a multipurpose Leatherman tool and a daypack modeled by folks who identify outside the gender binary.

At the time, Reddy thought it was simply an experimental marketing approach. But an email from the parent of a 12-year-old who identifies as transgender thanking MEC, opened Reddy’s eyes to the bigger impact of the ad, which pushed the boundaries of representation in marketing. “I didn’t think about how a young person would be affected by that,” they say. “[Younger people] really want brands to speak to them authentically and be purpose-driven.”

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To that end, MEC tends to target audiences by different activities, says Reddy; not variables like gender or ethnicity, because no matter who you are, “if you love climbing, you love climbing.”

Still, Reddy is cognizant of the ways in which the retail industry, in particular, still clings to the binary; even at MEC, gendered clothing sections are very much a part of its stores. In recent years, however, gender-neutral clothing lines have begun to crop up from the likes of Zara and Target, moving beyond traditional colour palettes and iconography that have beset adults and children who identify outside and inside the gender binary. Think t-shirts of all colours depicting animals of all kinds, instead of blue shirts with dinosaurs for boys and purple shirts with ballerinas for girls. U.K. online-only retailer Asos partnered with influencers to “look through the eyes of customers,” CEO Nick Beighton said when launching its own unisex line, Collusion.

As gender identity continues to evolve, some brands have begun to adjust. MEC, which has built much of its stores around experiential retail, now has universal washrooms and receptacles in the men’s room for sanitary napkins, because people of all genders menstruate – something Procter and Gamble also recently highlighted when it removed the Venus symbol (signifying femaleness) from its line of Always sanitary napkins last October.

In a statement, the CPG brand said it is “committed to diversity and inclusion and are on a continual journey to understand the needs of all of our consumers,” however its website still only depicts images of traditionally female bodies and some products continue to be described using words like “feminine hygiene.”

P&G also featured Toronto-based trans man and activist Samson Bonkeabantu in a recent campaign for its Gillette razors, putting a spin on a milestone – one’s first shave – traditionally reserved for cisgender men, as it explores a healthier and more diverse view of masculinity.

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At Starbucks, baristas now wear name tags with their pronouns. In June, Mastercard announced it would permit its customers to use their chosen or “true names” on credit, debit and prepaid cards. (For transgender and non-binary people, using their birth or “dead names” can be an issue of safety or have a negative effect on their mental health.)

That same month, Lyft enabled users to choose their correct pronoun through the app. And through a partnership with the National Center for Transgender Equality, the company is offering legal support for drivers who are transitioning to have their correct gender marker on their driver’s license.

In October, multinational investment bank Goldman Sachs launched an initiative to encourage staff and clients to “bring your authentic self to work” after two employees came out as transgender. Pronouns will now be listed in an internal employee directory and flags will be made available to attach to the desks of members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies.

However, jumping on the proverbial bandwagon or treating the evolution of gender as a trend is a dangerous play for brands, Faigelman says. Using a trans person in a campaign is not a bold move that fixes everything, she warns. “Millennials and Gen Z are an absolute nightmare for marketers because they see through ‘B.S.’ immediately,” she says.

Dipanjan Chatterjee, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research says marketing institutions are also responding to gender stereotyping, pointing to a recent decision by Advertising Standard Authority, a U.K.-based watchdog, to ban ads from Volkswagen and Philadelphia Cream Cheese for perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes. In the VW spot, the brand characterized men as reckless and incapable of providing care for children, while Philadelphia pitted men against women, deciding men are more prone to being adventurous. “In a world where the best practice for a brand is to be uniquely intelligent at the level of the individual, having to resort to gender as a proxy is just plain awful marketing,” says Chatterjee.

Hiring and tapping into the perspective of people from across the gender spectrum can help brands avoid that kind of tokenism, Faigelman points out. Reddy, whose position with MEC also includes a role on the diversity and inclusion committee, says “you lose authenticity by speaking at, not with these communities… There has to be reciprocity. Now a brand talks to young folks and young folks want to talk back.”

Faigelman agrees and stresses that input from those with lived experience is imperative to make progress. “It’s the same question that was asked about women 50 years ago in the workplace or ethnicity in the workplace,” she says. “It’s the equivalent of deeply trying to understand a group without even talking to them.”

Lyft1NEWBeyond gender In a world of binary data points – female versus male – where does this leave the industry when it comes to reaching Gen Z, a demo more open and confident in its gender fluidity?

Marketers need to better understand what drives this influential generation, says Amanda Dorenberg, partner and chief information officer at FrontRunner Technologies who heads up data and programmatic media strategies. At the moment, she believes the marketing and media industries aren’t yet equipped for a gender-fluid future. From the language that is written in an RFP to that used in meetings, conversations tend to revolve around male versus female, she says. “It’s not a conversation in the agency world to speak in a fluid way.”

And because there are multiple gender identities within the concept of gender fluidity, Dorenberg says brands should mine data that looks at different lifestyles, rather than identities. In the last five to seven years, she says, an interest in more expansive behavioural and psychographic data sets has grown. “That’s where the data science gets more interesting,” says Dorenberg, because certain characteristics are attributable to a particular generation. For example, “it’s widely known that Gen Z is non-traditional, they have a stance for social impact, social good,” she says.

At Spotify – a popular platform among the younger gen – data collected from its listeners has expanded beyond gender, enabling greater insight of its users to target content and advertising, says Brian Berner, head of North American advertising sales for the audio streamer. For example, in August, Spotify Ad Studio launched interest targeting or real-time context targeting, new features that connect advertisers with people based on psychographic and behavioural audience insights that go beyond traditional demographics. Examining how or when people stream music focuses on an action or a mood gleaned from a person’s use of the platform rather than a static data point like gender, which Berner says better aligns with a brand’s value proposition.

Sarah Thompson, CSO at Mindshare adds that shifting to behavioural insights rather than ones based on gender is valuable not only for Gen Z, but all generations. “[Brands] want to reach those who are most receptive to the message and that has less to do with gender and more to do with interests,” she says. “That means challenging the brief and really considering who we are trying to reach.”

A Word of Warning

“It’s very important to be authentic and not [see gender] as some sort of marketing gimmickry. There have been instances reported of some of the leading brands running Pride campaigns while funding anti-LGBTQ politicians. Other than being caught red-handed (the fall out from which is difficult to evade in our socially networked digital world), it calls into question the effectiveness of their insincere strategies.

It’s also important to understand that there is much more than marketing that needs to change. It’s reframing the entire brand experience, including all the underlying operational, process, and technology elements. For United Airlines, for example, to offer “undisclosed” or “unspecified” as gender options, in addition to male and female, for ticket holders requires a much deeper effort than just changing words on a form. Companies need to assess all the effects that will ripple through the operation when they prepare for a different gender model and prepare for them accordingly.”

- Dipanjan Chatterjee is the VP, principal analyst at Forrester and has analysed 33 million online conversations around gender to extract where brands are out of sync and how they should rethink marketing.