Drawing outside the lines: Brands and the gender blur

Jaden Smith (center) blurs gender for Louis Vuitton.
Jaden Smith (center) blurs gender for Louis Vuitton.

Brands should be aware of increasing movement toward gender fluidity in society. But they also should take care when they choose to reflect this trend

When it comes to developing a strong brand story, gender has always been seen as one of the key ingredients. By using gendered semiotic cues — like blue for boys, or pink for girls— brands provoke familiar and deeply engrained associations to help create brand personalities. Think of the iconic Marlboro man: a perfect example, if there ever was one, of a brand leveraging gender to conjure up a powerful brand identity.

From the consumers’ point of view, a gendered approach not only helps understanding of the brand story but also functions as a cognitive shortcut to navigate the thousands of commercial messages they are confronted with daily — and knowing whether what’s on sale is actually meant for them.

The problem with this binary approach, however, is that historically it has meant that certain desires are off limits (think of men desiring men, or women desiring women, or men desiring to be women who desire men and vice versa). In an increasingly fluid world, this doesn’t rub well, and ultimately, we are witnessing such rigid demarcations fade.

Today many societies are progressing from an either/or to a both/and understanding of gender. Millennials particularly don’t want to be told what/who they should/shouldn’t desire or who they are/aren’t allowed to be. Not only that, a recent VoxBurner poll showed that 63% of young people feel negatively towards companies who target them based on their gender.

In keeping with this movement, many mainstream brands have begun to reflect an increasingly nuanced understanding of gender. Companies like Facebook and Google+ have introduced infinite gender options for their users, acknowledging gender fluidity. Louis Vuitton’s recent collaboration with Jaden Smith, in which he is photographed in a skirt and a mesh fringed tank top (above), has successfully made the brand appear millennial-sensitive and forward-thinking, as has Lynx’s Find your Magic campaign, which features a black male dancer wearing stilettos. Rather than focusing on the things that distinguish males and females, progressive brands are tapping into individuals’ unique passion points irrespective of where they fall on the gender spectrum.

Brands today know it’s more important than ever to be relevant, and riding this social movement is one way for them to do this. But it’s not necessarily easy to get it right. Consumers today are likely to question motives. For example, Zara recently found itself the object of much criticism, having launched its Ungendered collection — a range of unisex clothing, including hoodies and tracksuit bottoms. The problem seems to be that everyone knows these kinds of clothes are genderless anyway. And so the prevailing sentiment emerged that Zara was not really interested in furthering the intention of the movement at all, rather, simply riding its coattails in a cynical marketing ploy.

Pantone is another case in point. The international color authority has, for the past 26 years, given us "a color snapshot of what we see taking place in our culture." In 2016, for the first time, the company chose not one colour but two, as its Colour of the Year: both blue and pink. The rationale: to "coincide with societal movements towards gender equality and fluidity." This caused some controversy. For sure, the intention may have been simply to reflect cultural changes, but the impression left, for many, was derivative.

For brands, the danger is that just as "male" or "female" now appear anachronistic, "genderless" or "gender-fluid" may become tired co-options. Deployed in the service of "edge" and "cool," yet lacking heart.

Perhaps the lesson is that brands really look cool when they play with and push the boundaries of culture or blur and blend categories in imaginative, authentic ways — not when they recycle existing ideas, and not when they reflect the status quo.

Sarah Van Horn is research executive at Flamingo London.

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