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Message isn’t a Binary Choice

By Hannah Landers

Ladies of the world, rejoice: PepsiCo recently announced that it is creating a line of snacks just for you. No longer will women have to abstain from licking their Cheetos-dust-covered fingers or worry about crunching too loudly in public to avoid the shame and embarrassment of a social faux pas.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi introduced the idea of a crunch-less lady chip in an interview with WNYC’s Freakanomics: “It’s not a male and female as much as ‘are there snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently?’ And yes, we are looking at it, and we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon. For women, low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

These comments left snack lovers with a bad taste in their mouths — and for once it wasn’t from too many Funyuns. From the depths of Twitter to The Washington Post, reactions ranged from bemused jokes to cries of sexism and outrage.

Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction that these female-centric snacks don’t mention anything about a lower fat or calorie content. Yet, it seems baffling to propose that women should be seen, but not heard, at a time when the #MeToo movement is sweeping across the country. Surely Pepsi’s intentions were good — an attempt to meet the unique needs of roughly 50 percent of its population. While it’s certainly true that brands must tailor their products and marketing to distinct audiences, it’s hard to understand why any brand would invest in antiquated ideas about gender in executing that marketing.

When it comes down to it, women are just people. People who might love the color pink, sure, but who also play video games, watch action movies, and behave in other stereotypically masculine ways (like, say, eat snack food like a monster). In order to truly connect with consumers, brands need to look past gender hang-ups and instead focus on the distinct needs, wants, and personalities of their audience, no matter their gender.

Many might consider overtly sexist advertising a relic of the Mad Men era, when men and women shared fewer rights. While it’s true that most of the overtly inappropriate messages about women’s subservience and men’s dominance have largely disappeared from modern advertising, the subtler messaging of strictly “for her” products is rooted in a fundamental disrespect for equality between the sexes.

The Bic Cristal “For Her” pen, for example, is an idea that isn’t completely ludicrous. Women might have different anatomical needs for writing utensils, and therefore could appreciate Bic considering them instead of creating a product for the male-skewed status quo. Instead, Bic missed the mark. The pen’s product description states it “feature[s] a diamond-engraved barrel for an elegant, unique feminine style,” and the product is offered in an assortment of princess pastel colors. It didn’t take long for the Internet to eviscerate the brand; Amazon flooded with reviews from sarcastic female shoppers.

The Bic incident occurred in 2012, but as recently as last summer, a brewery in the Czech Republic faced similar backlash when it introduced Aurosa, billed as the “First Beer for Her.” Just as with Bic, Aurosa’s messaging appeared to spring from a good place; the brew is described on its website as “a celebration of all women” and “a beer made by a woman for women.” Yet the same antiquated gender implications abound: One of Aurosa’s selling points is its “elegant designer bottle,” colored in a delicate shade of — you guessed it — pink. Amidst the girl power notions on the company’s website are mentions of “a girl’s tenderness” and a female’s “natural beauty.” A social media uproar soon followed, with women commenting on the beer’s high price, marbled bottle, and general absurdity.

Dated gender bias has bled into nearly every industry, some so ludicrous that they have spawned lists or even Tumblr accounts to document the misguided attempts. Some products are clearly unnecessarily gendered (ear plugs for women?), but others, like Aurosa, are attempting to broaden opportunity in a historically masculine market, such as that of breweries and beer culture. Yet, these attempts are undermined over and over by a reliance on tired assumptions about what a woman should look like or how she should behave.

Relying on these clichés is especially surprising at a time when more and more individuals see gender as a fluid concept. According to a 2016 study by J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, 56 percent of Generation Z, comprised of those between 13 to 20 years old, knew someone who went by gender-neutral pronouns, compared to 43 percent of people aged 28 to 34 years. Similarly, only 44 percent of Gen Z shoppers said they always bought clothes designed for their gender, compared to 54 percent of millennials.

As the traditional notions of gender mean less to the identity of consumers, brands must find new ways to segment and speak to them based on the ways they do identify themselves. It’s only in this shared understanding that genuine connections can be established.

Some companies have embraced this gender-neutral reality. In 2016, CoverGirl announced its first “cover boy:” James Charles, a beauty blogger who rose to fame on YouTube. Stores like Zara and Guess now tout gender-neutral clothing lines. Even Target has done away with gender-based signage in certain departments, like toys and housewares, and introduced a line of gender-neutral children’s merchandise called Pillowfort that uses gender-neutral patterns and colors in its products. Thinx, a company that designs underwear to be worn during menstruation, launched an ad featuring a trans man and changed its messaging to feature “People with Periods” after its female-centered marketing was criticized. Mattel released a commercial for Moschino Barbie featuring a little boy, taking a strong stance in the very gendered world of children’s toys. These companies weren’t thinking in terms of males and females. Rather, they’re considering the personalities, wants, and needs of their distinct audiences.

There’s science to support this shift. In 2015, a group of researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel examined MRI brain images of more that 1,400 people, noting structural differences between male and female brains, then creating a continuum of the typical features of the male brain at one end and those of the female brain at the other. The majority of the brains contained a mix of both characteristically male and characteristically female features, with a range of only 0 to 8 percent of the brains containing all the features typically ascribed one gender or the other without any mix of the gender characteristics.

The researchers also analyzed data evaluating gender stereotypical behaviors, like playing video games or taking a bath. Ultimately, a mere 0.1 percent of individuals displayed all-female or all-male stereotypical behaviors.

And this makes sense, especially when we consider another way we know our brains are the same regardless of gender: They’re all receptive to story. Stories have been an integral part of society from the very beginning, and that tradition has prevailed because our minds are best able to understand and connect to authentic and compelling stories that speak directly to us — not just our gender attributes.

So as a market for gender neutral products continues to grow and scientific evidence continues to posit gender as a social structure rather than a biological one, why do companies like PepsiCo continue to push universal products like chips into one gender category or another?

Some posit that all companies are just looking to improve their bottom line by convincing men and women to each buy their own body wash, for example. There’s also the argument that products marketed to a specific gender “validate overlooked niche audiences,” and “help people navigate today’s confusing, overcrowded marketplace.”

But evidence has shown that marketing products to people, not to their genders, has reaped sizable benefits. In a study on the idea of “gender contamination” in product marketing, Harvard Business School lecturer Jill J. Avery underlined this point with an intense study of the Porsche Cayenne, the luxury automobile manufacturer’s first foray into producing sport-utility vehicles. Porsche has always been considered a masculine sports car brand, Avery argued, citing that 91 percent of television and film characters seen driving the sports car were male. SUVs, on the other hand, are typically associated with female drivers, given that they have the space to cart around some kids while still leaving room for plenty of grocery bags.

In studying the effects of this new model among the established Porsche community by monitoring online conversations, Avery found that the Cayenne, targeted toward woman drivers, was “highly problematic for many in the brand community.” Some denounced the legitimacy of the car as a true representation of a Porsche vehicle, others undermined the drivers of the Cayenne as legitimate Porsche owners, and the rest exhibited a sense of betrayal by the brand overall.

Ultimately the Cayenne was a huge success for Porsche, because it spoke to its customers needs. Rather than simply trying to develop a sports car for the Cayenne’s audience, Porsche recognized its heroes for who they were and what they desired, and developed a product that would meet those needs. In fact, the sheer number of articles pointing men to women’s products and women to men’s products would seem to curb any brand’s desire to market to one gender over the other, as would the success of a company like Dollar Shave Club, which forgoes the shaving gender war with a silver razor, neutral color palette, and products marketed to “shavers” in general.

As these stereotypically gendered marketing campaigns continue to garner backlash and as more brands move into the gender-neutral space, companies need to rethink the way that they’re addressing their audiences. Every brand wants to connect to its audience segments in a way that’s going to make those groups feel heard, but relying on tired ideas about gender are no longer an effective way to make an audience feel recognized and validated.

Rather than thinking about audiences in terms of men and women, companies should start seeing people, segmented instead by their distinct wants, needs, and personalities. Because as much as some women like a really crunchy chip, some men might prefer to keep their snacking silent.

Hannah Landers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.