Kill the binary

Mindshare North America's Rachel Lowenstein discusses what targeting for brands mean in the death of masculinity vs. femininity.

Media operates in binaries. Publishers’ media kits are divided up in men/women. Brands usually brief us on wanting to reach one of two genders. And occasionally marketers will ideate on how to reach the LGBTQIA community as a single collective audience.

This has worked just fine in the past, because media was reacting to a culture of hetero and cis-normativity where you’re male or female, straight or gay, and those were the only options served to us. But operating media in binaries is problematic; both on a philosophical level and a business one. Your audience of non-binary, intersex, genderqueer, and genderfluid individuals exist, they matter, and they also increasingly have buying power across the spectrum.

It’s not just some "trend" born out of the Tumblr generation: gender variant people have been ingrained in human history, dating back thousands of years in many cultures. And today, a third of Gen-Z says that gender doesn’t define them as much as it used to. Less than half (44%) say that they always buy clothes specific to their gender (54% for Millennials).

But for how visible genderfluid and queer people are becoming in culture, I’m struck at our industry’s lack of movement to recognize the seismic shift happening in how we communicate with a society that cares less and less about gender in how they act, look, dress, or talk. Yes, it’s true that you’re seeing some representation in creative. Jaden Smith was the model for Louis Vuitton’s women’s RTW campaign in 2016. Violet Chichi, in full, glorious, drag, is featured in the latest Prada campaign for women. James Charles was the first male CoverGirl spokesperson. The list goes on (some good examples of brand allyship, others, that need no mention, are disastrous).

But has the brand, media or data, non-consumer facing side of the industry reconciled with the idea of "how do we reach audiences who don’t identify as masculine or feminine"? What does media mean in the slow, inevitable death of masculinity vs. femininity? What happens if you kill the binary?

Like most provocations these days, I find the answer lies in the drag community, whose entire existence celebrates being whatever it is you want to be – gender or not.

As both a fan of local drag and of the cultural sensation RuPaul’s Drag Race, I was one of 40,000+ people attending DragCon in New York recently. More than just a commercial success (with $8 million in revenue from the showroom floor, it’s a massively lucrative event), the three-day event is both a celebration of the once subculture of queer artistry and a physical space that demands attendees live the truth that both gender and sexuality do exist on a scale. Gender identity there is at once irrelevant and totally dominating.  

On one hand, there are men dressed as women and women dressed as men. But mostly it’s people dressing however damn well they please. Men wearing exceptionally tailored suits with 6-inch stilettos. Teenage girls dressed as their favorite Drag Race contestant. Young women sporting glitter beards. The visual splendor of DragCon isn’t just the Drag Race contestants in their glorious garments, but the everyday people who, finally, have a space to just be without the made-up constructs about gender.

RuPaul frequently says on Drag Race that the show is a microcosm of the real world. DragCon (and drag outside of the world of Drag Race) is an extraordinary example of the fiscal benefits from brands that stop creating, marketing, and targeting products to the gender norms we’ve always been told to use.

Consider this:  BeautyCon, which attracts big name brands like Revlon and L’Oreal, had 20,000 attendees in New York City in 2017. By comparison, DragCon New York City had 40,000. DragCon’s biggest brand partner is Anastasia Beverly Hills, which also sponsors RuPaul’s Drag Race on VH1. The majority of the sponsors and brand partners on-site were direct-to-consumer brands like Sugarpill, Violet Voss, and Mally (all make-up brands) or queer-owned startups marketing specifically to the queer community.

It became quite clear at the event that a presence at DragCon isn’t just a way to reach the LGBTQIA audience, but a means to market your products to people your competitors are ignoring. Which leads us to the question: what should brands do to prepare for a future where people care less about buying "gendered" products and more about what makes them feel like themselves?

First, consider your owned channels and look hard at the words could (are you able) and should (are you creating/upholding constructs). Are your products broken up by male/female in e-commerce? Do they need to be? If you’re a retail, CPG, or beauty brand, your products can be used by anyone (and probably are to a degree!).

Second, do qualitative research on your audiences and employ researchers who have diverse backgrounds. Research and insights departments have long been a cis/hetero male dominated fields and despite good intentions, may not be asking the questions that lead to insights about oft-ignored audiences like non-binary or genderfluid people.

Finally, consider paid placements beyond audience targeting that may be driving business results. Focus less on things like gender segments and more on emotion and moments in targeting. Work with your programmatic partners to build marketplaces based on these triggers rather than customary audience segments. And invest some of your media dollars in queer publications or places like DragCon. Mainstream media has long ignored the queer community and it’s a huge whitespace for brands - as long as your brand’s DNA is committed to supporting the LGBTQIA community beyond media.

There’s bigger fish to fry of course. In a time when the LGBTQIA community is still fighting for the right to exist equally, peacefully, and without fear of violence, it may seem silly to talk about how to strategize paid and owned media channels to market to people who aren’t affixed to gender norms. But it’s a small step that brands and agencies who both care about growing their business and supporting a diverse, intersectional future can make.

Rachel Lowenstein is the associate director, strategic innovation, invention+ at Mindshare North America.

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