Be a man this holiday season

The definition of masculinity has changed -- here's what it means to us.

The holiday season is suddenly upon us, and with it, a host of traditions from grandma’s pie to watching football in a wonderfully ugly sweater.

Traditions can be fun, but they can also be laden with gendered expectations that govern who does what. Who cooks, who sets the table, and who watches football (or feels a little inadequate if they don’t actually want to)?

The voices that typecast us get a little louder during the holidays. So, it’s a good time to interrogate those voices and those types. As two males -- a Millennial and a Gen Xer -- we wanted to take a look in particular at how men are grappling with their own identity, and how brands can make a positive difference.

"Be a man."                              

Between us, we’ve heard those three words plenty. They’ve been called destructive, undermining a boy’s capacity for empathy, and inspiring, helping boys fulfill their promise. To "be a man" has always felt like a contradiction, but never more so than now.

This tension has been years in the making, but when the #MeToo movement nailed the worst of masculinity to the front door for all to see, the male identity crisis was thrown where it belongs: into the spotlight.

This holiday season, we will all be more conscious of who cooks, when we watch football, and how everyone is really feeling about the roles we are playing. But, to "be a man" on the third Thursday of November must be more complicated than effortlessly browning marshmallows into your mom’s mashed sweet potatoes (thanks mom).

Maybe we’re overthinking it? But this seems as good a time as any to err on the side of too much thought versus too little. As marketers, it’s time to carefully consider what’s really happening with men. After all, masculinity is in the middle of what is clearly a profound transition.

Collectively, our industry can do for masculinity what Dove has been doing for beauty. Open it up, help us see the building blocks of what it means to be a man a little differently, and help give men more opportunity to be their best selves.

In our holiday spirit of giving some thought to the behaviors that typecast us, we examined the findings of a recent study by Hill Holliday and what it might mean for marketers. Polling roughly 1,800 men, the study offers some surprising insights into the tensions men are feeling -- especially Millennial men -- as they are caught between competing definitions of masculinity.

Something doesn’t add up: in the study, 75 percent of millennial dads said they were the primary caregivers in their families. 75 percent of millennial moms said the same.

The data clearly doesn’t reveal a sudden about-face in the division of domestic labor. We all know who actually does most of the caregiving. However, what this does tell us is that the claim of being the primary caregiver, however far-fetched, means millennial fathers have a strong drive to identify as a primary player in child rearing. This feels different.

Brands should embrace the aspirations of men as primary caregivers, even if most men are not yet the primary caregiver.

We are each from different generations but both of our fathers did not consider themselves to be the primary caregiver. Today, fatherhood feels more primary. Fathers are becoming more involved than ever with their children, understanding things like the correct Tylenol dosage for their child and whether or not the baby has a good latch breastfeeding.

Fatherhood today feels primary, even when it isn’t. And that feeling is something brands should connect with, and foster. Being the primary caregiver is aspirational for Millennial dads. That’s actually something completely new that needs nurturing.

Millennial men are caught between the new and the old definitions of manhood: 60 percent of men would be happy if men and women share household shopping responsibilities equally in the next 10 years. At the same time, 75 percent of men believe the most important job of a man is to provide for their families.

This conflict can be a real struggle for modern men who want to "be it all". For the millennials among us, our formative years came at a huge cultural turn. Advances in technology play a role, but this shift was also fueled by the Grunge era and the rise of a much more sensitive, softer definition of masculinity. We had a childhood bookended by Kurt Cobain and Dave Matthews. The script changed so much, so quickly that there was less of a road map and more room for interpretation.

Men need help navigating multiple definitions of masculinity.

Brands should not shy away from the contradictions, but embrace them. Masculinity is a spectrum and brands that can help men balance the co-existence of competing expressions of masculinity will connect at a deeper level than brands that ignore them or try to wallpaper the tension.

Modern fatherhood is a canvas for self-expression: 73 percent of men reported that they feel more like a man when combing a child’s hair. 74 percent of men feel more like a man when changing a diaper. Evidently, not only are roles changing for modern fathers, but attitudes about those roles are changing along with them. The data shows a fundamental motivation on the part of fathers to make tenderness their own. Things once seen as feminine are now masculine.

Brands should help fathers with more tools to be themselves and make the nurturing side of fatherhood their own.

So what can brands do to fall in line with (or perhaps, not fall behind) this shift? It may not be as simple as depicting domestic activities as masculine. Men already feel masculine doing them, and are using the new gentleness of fatherhood as a form of self-expression. Perhaps brands can offer up a palette of new colors to support that expression-whether it’s unique games or a subversive take on father knows best.

Why it matters

To connect with Millennial Men, brands should recognize the emotional strain of these conflicting expectations — to be both strong protectors and emotionally open. Aggression and vulnerability are hard things to toggle between. That doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. But men need to be told it’s okay when they can’t effortlessly slide into every role at a moment’s notice. Brands can help deliver that message — even just by recognizing some of the contradictions.

As marketers, understanding the origins of this conflict can help shed light on how brands and advertisers should effectively portray millennial men, their needs, and what drives them in a way that is consistent with their life experience. And that may make this holiday marketing season a little easier to swallow.

Caleb Jacobson-Sive and David Kerner are brand strategists at Hill Holliday.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free