Who Are You Talking To? The Art of Gender-Neutral Branding

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director

Sam Wilkes, Creative Director

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The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry was once obsessed with carving its audience into neat pockets and profiles — gender, income, race, and age being the top dividers. Demographics and consumer segmentation has evolved to casting target tribes that address common values, needs, and wants. But gender codes run deep and it’s time to shed antiquated conventions of pink and blue.

Gender fluidity is increasingly in the limelight with such celebrities as Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus, and Elliot Page. 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.

The world of CPG is scrambling to keep up but it doesn’t have to be difficult to be gender-neutral. Brands can be a part of the positive revolution and better engage a multi-dimensional audience.

The visual language of gender

When it comes to gender in branding and marketing, there are several tools that companies use to signal whether a product is gendered, gender-neutral, or even more inclusive.

Color

The obvious signal of gender has been color, from ‘feminine’ pinks and purples to ‘masculine’ greys, blues and blacks. Color is used to make sure men feel tough, women feel elegant. But colors are shifting. Gender-neutral colors include monochromatics, light browns, white, green and even yellow is used to represent those who identify as non-binary. 

The skincare company Asarai uses the color yellow as it resonates with all genders and ages and aims to make the consumers feel happy about their products. The use of holographic and gradient colors used in brands like the makeup brand Milk, is this a subconscious shift to celebrating every color for everyone. Color is loaded with meaning.

Form & Shape

Form and shape play a huge role too. Forms used to communicate masculinity are geometric and industrial — think Gillette Fusion Razor, which is all about the technology. Feminine products will often use smooth and curved forms, simulating the ideal woman figure like Gillette Venus — same product, but Gillette is still dividing their consumers into gender buckets through form. (Why do razors need to be gendered in the first place?)

Brands That Get It Right

One of the first brands that recognized the genderless future was Calvin Klein with their revolutionary fragrance CK1, which was designed to be unisex. Today they call it CK Everyone, going further that just the unisex but the idea of celebrating  those who are unconstrained by boundaries, gender norms and definitions.

Another great example is Nike, which wants to inspire every athlete in the world and elevate the human potential. Nike having a strong sense of value is more important than wondering whether you need to focus on a certain gender. You make everyone believe they can be the best as proven in the Nike campaign, “You Can’t Stop Us.”


Aesop have been setting the gender neutral flag for more than two decades – known for their simple graphics, minimalistic packaging that had universal appeal. These brands concentrate on the purpose or their values of the brand for the consumer instead of trying to guess what a man or woman individually thinks about a product, which in turn has an emotional connection to the brand’s past gender. 

But done in the right way and playing into your tone of voice like Old Spice’s “Men Have Skin Too”  it plays off the assumption that guys want to smell fresh but also enjoy the benefits to feel and look good, but also taps into the insight of women borrowing mens toiletries like razors. Why do we need a female one when it does the same as a male version? Old Spice’s authenticity and brand tone of voice allow it to cross those lines without being sexist or patronising.

Brands That Got It Wrong

Remember those “For Her” Bic pens? (Yes that’s right, a lady pen, everything we had been waiting for!) In fact it wasn’t the color palette but the language of “her” that made this product so gendered. Fortunately, the backlash was swift and the products were removed from the shelf. But not every brand learned their lesson. Have you seen the toothpaste for men, with the tagline “Men Smile Too”?

Some brands have embraced the gender difference. Nestle-owned Yorkie chocolate bars used an “It’s Not for Girls” slogan with their slab serif typeface and distinctive crossed-out girls sign. They introduced it in 2001 and dropped it in 2012 with a mixture of reviews. Some men and women criticised the backlash saying “it’s just a bit of fun!” But the impact of these ‘jokes’ has led to such necessary campaigns as Always’ “Like a Girl,” which shows the negative self-image girls have from such ever-present demeaning comments.

Then there’s Burger King’s well-intentioned commitment to help women break through a male-dominated culinary world. It fell flat, and potentially did damage with their prospective audience, by wrapping their positive message within a misogynist context. It had people outraged.

So how can brands enter the space in a way that doesn’t feel tokenistic?    

How your brand can embrace gender-neutral:

  1. Educate yourselves. Start with the brand team and invest in subconscious bias training. Challenge yourself to move away from outdated conventions and ideas. It’s everyone’s responsibility and crucial in creating progressive and effective brands for tomorrow.
  2. Diversify the creative team. Representation is key. Hire people of different backgrounds and identities. Talk to people that identify as non-binary and genderfluid. Nothing is more insulting than an assumption.
  3. Avoid stereotypes. Don’t fall back on archaic codes like metal textures for men, floral print for women. Who decides that black is masculine?
  4. Play with conventions. Valentine’s day is great, but it isn’t only about a man buying flowers for a woman. Not only can a woman by a man flowers, but love is universal. Explore conventions and how inclusive the brand can be.
  5. Check assumptions. A man’s facial razor and a woman’s leg razor are functionally identical. Why do they have to be gendered at all? So much is common between all genders. How can you address those commonalities in your products?
  6. Avoid tokenism. Acting in bad faith will do more harm to your brand than not acting at all. Don’t call out Pride on your pack if you aren’t going to support diversity internally and take a real stand externally.
  7. Dig deeper to find more representative ways to tell stories. Stock libraries and casting directors will always push certain types of models and imagery to illustrate certain moments. It isn’t only men who watch sports in bars. It isn’t only women who enjoy salad. Push your search engines to do better.

Look Beyond Gender

It’s clear that unisex sells. From the success of Yopait’s YQ to WhiteClaw, if you don’t embrace the new reality, your brand will become irrelevant. The moments and the movements that define this epoch are the ones that turn up the volume on voices long silenced. Gender. Race. LGBTQ. The age of the dinosaurs is over. It’s an exciting moment to be in — let’s see how far we can push our inclusivity. 

kiki
Sam Wilkes, Creative Director

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