Is It Time to Move Away from Gendered Marketing?

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Written for TCNJ’s Business newspaper, The Bull, Bear & Lion. View the full October 2017 edition here.

When it comes to marketing products or services, there is one basic rule every student will come to know: you can’t please everyone. This is why we spend millions of dollars analyzing trends to break customers up into target market segments. These segments can come from geography, age, interests, or another more obvious division: gender.

There has been a lot of buzz around the topic of gendered marketing, especially in the last few years. In a quick search of the term “gendered products,” millions of results come up featuring lists of the most ridiculously gendered merchandise (my personal favorite: men’s bread) and outcries for the trend to stop. One criticism that blew up was Ellen DeGeneres’ comedic critique of pens made specially for women: “You can use it to write down a grocery list, or even recipes for when you need to feed your man.”

Despite the growing number of people opposing extreme product gendering, those in branding point out if you don’t understand this method, the product probably isn’t targeted at you. They say, with such a wide range of products being available, that customers need help narrowing down their options. A simple way to do that is by emphasizing gender. Although some of these gendered products may come across as weird, branding professionals argue that there is surely a segment of people weird enough to buy them.

Although this message may be true of quirky products, like sausages for girls and “mansize” facial tissues, gendering may not be favorable for all mainstream products. A prime example of a popular industry that may need to change is children’s toys. In a recent TED Talk about the subject, Elizabeth Sweet analyzes the issue from the perspective of a mother. She explains that strict gendering of toys does not allow children to fully explore all of their interests. Instead, they are shamed and teased for wanting to do things outside their gender “bubble,” and will ultimately give up these interests. In many cases, this means that little girls will not want to buy a boys’ science kit and little boys will shy away from girls’ dolls or cooking sets.

If these psychological effects weren’t enough to make marketers think twice about promoting strict gender guidelines for kids, the feelings of customers might. In a recent consumer report by Havas that studied over 12,000 consumers from 32 countries, it was found that 61% of women and 46% of men felt that, as much as possible, parents should raise their children in a gender-neutral way. The demographic most likely to express this opinion was Millennials, the generation that will be buying kids’ toys next. This survey shows that parents are changing the way they look at the toy aisle; and marketers should, too.

Some companies have been anticipating this change. In 2015, Target announced that it would no longer label its aisles by gender, including its toy aisles. Additionally, the superstore introduced its first line of gender neutral kids’ clothing this summer. The White House made moves to support this movement under the Obama Administration. In 2016, it hosted a conference titled, “Helping our Children Explore, Learn and Dream without Limits: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys,” which worked to rethink the products and media designed for future generations of kids.

For those working on branding products specifically for children, it’s obvious that a change in strategy is needed. As for those in wider sectors, profits can still be found by falling back on a gender-divided market. But for how long? According to the 2017 Havas report, 52% of women and 44% of men agreed strongly or somewhat that they did not believe in set genders and that gender is fluid. Gender-neutral trends appear to be here to stay. It will be up to marketers to respond to these trends or get left behind.