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More Than a March

The 2018 Women's March caps a year of striking momentum for women in America. But marketers have a lot more work to do to support the cause.

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Yesterday, millions of women gathered in cities across America to march together for social change. The second annual Women’s March occurred after a year that shocked us and reminded us of the gender-based imbalance of power in our culture. If there is a silver lining, it may be that 2017 will go down in history as a cornerstone year for women—a year when the issues could no longer be ignored.

The media has focused most of its attention on cases of men who used their celebrity or their position of power to satisfy their sexual desires. While these cases are the most disturbing and disheartening, they reflect only one aspect of the problem. We must also address the way in which gender roles are conditioned within our culture.

Gender stereotypes are accomplices to the misdeeds reflected in the headlines, and marketers bear a lot of responsibility for sustaining these stereotypes. We have an obligation to act and make positive change.

Some aspects of this change are relatively easy to implement. We can stop “shrinking and pinking,” a marketing strategy to target women by making products smaller and supposedly more feminine. In the latest episode of our new podcast, Molly Schreiber and I feature a segment in which we asked some of our actress friends to illustrate how silly this pink & shrink strategy really is by re-enacting women’s reactions to the Bic for Her line of pens.

Fortunately, many marketers are turning away from these tactics. In fact, there is a growing trend toward gender neutrality, which I wrote about last October. This sometimes androgynous and sometimes rebellious reversal of gender norms seems particularly appealing to the youngest generation of consumers. But it won’t work for every brand and it glosses over some non-trivial challenges.

Humans are natural categorizers. We sort things to understand them. We develop this tendency early in our cognitive lives. Then it becomes cemented in our daily of life. It takes effort to counter-program against this tendency.

My walk down Montana Ave in Santa Monica yesterday illustrates. It was a sunny day and people were out everywhere with their dogs. My walk included frequent stops to say hello to my furry neighbors along with many other dog-lovers. During those stops I observed the categorization tendency in action. If a dog was large, people often asked, “can I pet him?” even when the dog was a female. If the dog was of the toy variety, people usually asked, “can I pet her?”

Sociologists and psychologists refer to this as genderizing. We tend to associate big things as masculine and small things as feminine. Thus, “shrink and pink.” Even the most progressive among us have probably made this mistake at one time or another. And therein lies the challenge. The characterization and the categorization is ingrained in our minds. It is subconscious. We’re often not aware that we are doing it at all.

Marketers can deliberately play against these associations. We can choose stereotypically masculine colors for products that are functionally made for women, and vice versa. There’s no reason a men’s brand can’t own the color pink, nor a women’s brand rock a power blue.

While color is an obvious device in which we can squash gender stereotypes, product and brand names are more subtle. Nevertheless, a 2005 study in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that linguistic cues triggered in product names have a very powerful gender-marking influence, and that this influence affects consumer behavior.

Grammatically speaking, many words are gender marked. It’s more true in Latin languages where words have different endings to indicate a target gender than it is in English, but there are still many English words that are perceived to have masculine or feminine qualities. The JCR study found that people rated a product more favorably when the perceived gender of a product name matched the target gender of the product. More than that, people recalled fictitious brand names after first exposure much more when the perceived gender of the name and the perceived target market was aligned.

I am not going to lie. This research troubled me because it elevates temptation. If you’re launching a product for women, these findings make it very tempting for you to choose a product name that is perceived to be feminine because that name will be more likely to be recalled and liked. But choosing that “feminine” name also contributes to the bigger problem of perpetuating stereotypes that create imbalance.

There are no easy answers in this scenario. You could choose a “masculine” or gender-neutral name, and your product could still succeed, but the data suggests your task will be more challenging. Though I have no data to validate this assertion, I believe that the long-term benefit will surpass the risks of the short-term challenge. It takes many of us, acting together to consciously disrupt the pattern of conditioning to make real change.


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