• Transform magazine
  • February 28, 2021


Pink isn’t just for girls


Branding products for a female audience is a challenge that, when done well, can transform a business. But when done poorly, can create condescending, stereotypical or brand-damaging communications. Amy Sandys examines gender-focused branding

In February of this year, Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, appeared on a Freakonomics podcast. Talking about potential brand innovations that PepsiCo has in the pipeline, Nooyi floated the idea of Doritos, one of PepsiCo’s sub-brands, launching a crisp made specifically for women. “As you watch a lot of the young guys eat the chips, they love their Doritos, and they lick their fingers with great glee, and when they reach the bottom of the bag they pour the little broken pieces into their mouth,” said Nooyi. And then, crucially, “Women would love to do the same, but they don’t. They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavour into their mouth.”

The ensuing outrage that followed was justified. A brand, or at least a brand spokesperson, assuming the eating habits of an entire gender led to backlash, which spurred Doritos to send a message on its Twitter account, “We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.” Publicity stunt or otherwise, the idea that a brand with ostensibly universal appeal could begin to market itself according to gender opened a new line of questioning around brand trust. How brands can appeal to a broader spectrum of customers, without reverting to potentially offensive stereotypes, has been called into question – with sector, audience and positioning all affecting the outcome.
“As with any consumer it’s about understanding their motivations and why the product is relevant and what appeals – and asking, what problems are you solving for them?” says Collette Philip, found of strategy consultancy Brand By Me. “But if you’re targeting women, it needs to be meeting a genuine need not a cynical attempt to up sales by tweaking an existing product and calling it ‘for her.’” Doritos, and Nooyi specifically, fell into this trap.

Even if the idea of crisps ‘for women’ seems farcical, it follows a trend of consumer products that reverts to crude female-focused cliches in order push sales. One such example was ‘Jane Walker,’ launched by spirits brand Johnnie Walker earlier in 2018, justified as a ‘way to get women to drink whisky.’ While the branding push donated $1 per bottle sold to global female causes and was inspired, according to orchestrator Stephanie Jacoby, vice president of Johnnie Walker at Diageo, by International Women’s Day, simply adding a female figure and name did not quite align with the brand’s intended message – that tastebuds have no gender. Philip says, “It’s about working out if you are genuinely targeting women because you’ve got something they really need based on something that women will love and want, or if you’re just trying to broaden your appeal for sales. Neither is right or wrong but only the former will require you to create a product specifically for women.”

For Rachel Bogan, partner of product management at US-based digital agency Work & Co., working with North American retailer Target on a customer loyalty project was a prime example of creating a simple, accessible brand experience that didn’t discriminate against customers. “A winning approach to creating brands and products for women is something deeper – it’s human,” says Bogan. Based on scanning a card on a mobile phone at checkout, the original target audience was ‘Millennium Moms.’ Bogan is clear, however – through research and a diversity of voices, Target’s app was received with universal appeal.

“We focused on creating a user-interface that’s fast and efficient,” says Bogan. “With one tap you could open your loyalty card, scan it and get out of the store. While we were able to design and test for the best experience for busy moms, in the end it wasn’t about catering to that one group alone. What made the experience work was that all users would benefit from it, whether it was women, men, non-binary, people with children or child-free, young or old.” Brand experience, then, is core to releasing companies from the constraints of gendered products. If it works for the consumer and is communicated effectively, a brand has the potential to reach across the entire gender spectrum. For women, the support and empowerment offered by brand innovation goes some way to releasing them from historic gender norms.

Yet, beyond experience, brands traditionally designed and packaged for women are beginning to ensure their appeal across all identities. This includes ensuring men feel comfortable about indulging in ‘feminine’ products. For brands like multinational beauty company Coty, this can require a fundamental internal shift toward a brand promise that permeates throughout the company. Founded in 1904, Coty originally specialised in pharmaceutical and fragrance products. Now, although the parent company of traditionally feminine-inspired brands such as Max Factor and Rimmel, its recent rebrand repositions Coty as a parent company committed to values of diversity – including transcending gender norms, a value instilled into its sub-brands.

The merger between Coty and Proctor & Gamble’s beauty business turned Coty into the third-largest beauty company in the world, says Brigid McMullen, managing director of Workroom, the agency that worked with Coty on its rebrand project. McMullen says, “With this scale, rejuvenation and reinvention came an opportunity and a responsibility to challenge the status quo of the beauty industry and to institute a far-reaching and motivating purpose for the business.”

“This is one of the most compelling arguments for diversity in general in companies; if you don’t look like and think like your customers you’re never going to succeed”

By pairing a series of bespoke butterflies with human faces, Coty’s rebrand is applicable to a series of personalities and genders. But, for Coty, branding for a new generation defined by a more fluid gender experience extends beyond its customers and encompasses the people it employs. Seeking diversity in background, experience, knowledge and opinion, Coty’s new culture relies on actively differentiating itself from other beauty-oriented brands. “The new Coty culture is all about doing things differently, having a strong sense of ownership of your own destiny and contributing ideas and variety of approaches to the growth of Coty as a challenger in beauty,” says McMullen. Key to this development relies not only on pursuing a deeper understanding of market expectations, but recognising that diversifying the people with leverage on the final brand ultimately creates a meaningful product.

This, Bogan says, is the best way to ensure the products which brands create are fully representative of the end user. “This is one of the most compelling arguments for diversity in general in companies; if you don’t look like and think like your customers you’re never going to succeed.” Crucially, this extends not only to product designers, but the team behind the brand’s communication and marketing channels. Without listening to a consistently varied array of voices, which can then be reflected in a brand’s external communication, brand image becomes stale; heritage companies such as Coty would be constrained by insufficient image innovation.

“At a time when gender identity and representation is becoming ever more fluid and refined, this conversation [of how brands should design for women] seems somewhat outdated,” says Libby Sellers, former curator of the Design Museum and author of Women Design, a book celebrating the past 120 years of female contribution to design. “Digital technologies are hastening the speed of manufacture and enabling personalisation across all industries – think of high-street stores producing to the exact specifications of the individual consumer, or the disruptive and challenger companies that appeal directly to the needs of the consumer.” For companies like Johnnie Walker, with products originally targeted towards a predominantly male audience, too often the female experience is stifled by masculine imagery. Heritage-led, the same rings true for brands based on pastimes such as sport, where creating pan-gender brand design and campaigns relies as much on reading and researching market shifts as it does a clever design strategy.

But, says Paula Gardner, business psychologist and executive coach specialising in female leadership, changes in digital have given women a stronger voice about their preferences. Marketing traditional brands across untraditional platforms, such as Instagram, sees brands realise that simply ‘feminising’ what women have already bought into can negatively impact their brand image. Digital creates insight, which is invaluable for brands welcoming female buy-in to their products. “Listen to them, look at what’s happening in social media, not just the carefully curated lifestyle posts, but the real things women are talking about,” says Gardner. “There’s a lot of activism going on that brands can tie into. Use their power to make society a better place and give something back.”

Obstacles exist across the branding spectrum, but there remain some categories in which it is, according to brand experts, historically tricky to create brands for women without reverting to gender stereotypes. Smoking, betting and drinking alcohol have long been the preserve of men meaning positioning these products towards women is still fairly new. The pitfall for brands therefore comes from creating ‘pink’ and ‘fluffy’ designs in desperate attempts to win new customers.

Despite historically catering for men, female empowerment and activism means design standards are changing more rapidly than ever. “Branding has changed in the last even in the last six months, since the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) introduced new rules about gender stereotyping,” says Sellers. “At the heart of branding is the wish to inspire aspiration – this has not changed, but what we aspire to has. Ultimately, women’s understanding of their rights as individuals has changed and the brands are racing to keep up.”

And, with 6.5% of the UK’s male population and 4.6% of the female population opting to ‘vape’ instead of smoke traditional cigarettes, smoking trends are moving away from traditional tobacco products. Yet, say Ben Dickeson, brand manager and James Dunworth, chairman of E-CigaretteDirect, the culture that has developed around vaping tends towards young, hip, male vapers leading to the skewing of a brand image towards men. “This has been misinterpreted by many brands which has led to the masculine branding of many shops, hardware and e-liquids,” say Dickeson and Dunworth.

They say the result goes beyond merely compromising e-cigarette brand equity, there could be a detrimental effect on the future health of female smokers.

With fewer woman than men switching from traditional alternatives, and a clear challenge faces e-cigarette manufacturers in terms of branding vape equipment, especially online. Struggling to bring brands that are attractive to women to the shelves, future industry development relies on in-depth research and an understanding that what manufacturers may think females want is changing. For E-Cigarette Direct more success has been found in gender neutral packaging; the challenge lies in communicating this message to overseas suppliers and companies for which reaching out to women is less of a priority. “We attempt to avoid [stereotypes] in our own branding,” say Dickeson and Dunworth. “We’re also bearing [gender neutral branding] heavily in mind with the development of our website and shops, aiming for an environment that is attractive to both woman and men.”

By challenging gender conventions and making an effort to understand changing female expectations, companies can continuously review brand strategies to meet market demand. Positive results in more progressive societies will see companies from places where female-focused branding is less of a priority begin to understand the benefits. Less relevant now are traditional concepts of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ with social media and digital platforms democratising the brand experience across gender boundaries. Instead, the individual experience is beginning to take precedent over pandering to product audience stereotypes.

“What needs to change faster is brands looking inwards, and ensuring that they look and think more like the end user,” says Bogan. “If your product is truly meant to serve women, provide a real value proposition. We don’t need lady-friendly chips.” Perhaps instead of specifically pandering to women or men, brands can determine their future by fundamentally reconsidering approaches to gender. Or if the brand is socially aimed at women, it’s about ensuring those with the greatest strategic input reflect who the final product is for.