Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Brand Battle of the Sexes

So Lynx launches a female product – does this mean that feminism has finally run its course. Well maybe not, but it has certainly generated a lot of interest in the marketing community. One could argue that in our “lady to ladette” culture, it is surprising that it has taken so long for a brand which is all about youthful sexual attraction to extend its reach to women. But the more interesting questions are: whether this necessarily represents a game changer for the sector? Does it swing both ways – can female brands crossover to men, especially as the male grooming category has grown by adopting traditionally feminine products and behaviours? And are there any implications for other gendered categories and brands?

The rise of the unisex fragrance sector in recent years has shown, particularly in the bathroom, that the boundaries between the genders are beginning to blur. The impact of programmes like The Only Way Is Essex on crossing over grooming and tanning products from the women's to the men's markets had underpinned the success of the sector. However, this has largely been on the back of discernibly male brands developing new products, rather than established female-friendly brands breaking into the men's market.

Developing cross gender brands, though, is nothing new. It is something that Levi's has successfully done in the jeans market and Gillette has achieved with razors, though both are examples, like Lynx, of a male brand being adapted to target a female audience. There are fewer examples of it working as successfully the other way around. Unilever’s other global personal care brand phenomenon, Dove, has arguably made the move from female to male, especially given its assertively female positioning, with the male equivalent Men+Care successfully launched a couple of years ago. However before the Campaign for Real Beauty came along, Dove was a more gender neutral soap and its challenging of gender stereotyping has also made it something of a post-gendered brand.

It is interesting that this is a lack of female to male brand extension, whilst products freely travel, suggesting that there is something insecure in men’s psyche which makes “appearing female” far less acceptable than women adopting some male traits. This despite years of the apparent “feminising” of traditional masculinity (male grooming, male parenting, male emoting...). So it seems that it would take a brave brand to make that particular play. So where do we see more gender ambiguity in branding?

Chanel, widely perceived as a predominantly female brand, has had success winning men over to its range of watches, but less so to its core fragrance products. Success seems to come most readily at the luxury end of the market, where there is less of an obvious demarcation between male and female product use than elsewhere. Brands like Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Cartier seem to say more about the user's status and success than they do about their gender and this seems to override any gender sensitivities.

Some companies have succeeded in developing genuinely unisex brands, most obviously in the fragrance market, whilst others, like the watchmaker Swatch, have developed as distinctly gender-neutral brands. Perhaps the future lies in this continued development of androgynous brands, like Calvin Klein, which will challenge established brand demarcations head on, both in product design and brand positioning, and may well win.

So what might this tell us about other gendered categories : cars, media, clothing, technology...Lynx’s move must question the assumption that brands targeted largely at men OR women are basing their gender bias on functional needs, historical precedence, even the idea of psychological pre-disposition (which seems to have become fashionable again as the nature nurture debate lurches back towards “nature” in matters of gender). So will we see hitherto staunchly “male” brands such as Yorkie following Lynx and targeting a female audience and, hopefully, classically “female” brands like Comfort successfully targeting men. Then surely the post gendered brand world will have arrived.

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