Gender-less or Gender-more? Addressing gender in product branding

13 September 2017

Georgie Thompson from Design Bridge Amsterdam looks at how branding design is adapting to an increasingly gender neutral marketplace, with mixed results.
There has been a huge rise in the prominence of non-binary gender identification in Western society in recent years. More and more people are choosing to identify as genderless or gender fluid and people no longer want to be “put in a box” or have to define themselves as something specific. In turn, brands are choosing to adapt and develop their messaging and products in response to these shifts.

However, it still feels like there is a huge question mark over the role of gender in design and about how brands should be reacting to these developments. With an androgynous aesthetic becoming rapidly mainstream, it poses the serious question of whether we even need to design for gender any more. Is this just a trend that will fizzle out in five years, or do we actually need to start considering a fundamental change that will cater to a long-term future in genderless brand design?

What got me thinking seriously about this was a recent campaign by Nike for the Dutch women’s football team, where the traditional male lion that features on the royal crest has been swapped out for a lioness on their team kit. I sent this around our Amsterdam studio to see what everyone thought, men and women alike, and it’s safe to say I had some very mixed responses! I don’t doubt for a minute that the brief and intention behind this was to empower women and tackle the ever-pressing issue of gender equality, and that sentiment should always be supported. However, I can’t help but feel that creating a different emblem for the women’s team is actually making that divide even more prominent. If we want to affirm that women and men are equal then surely wearing the same kit would be an even better expression of that?

Nike says the transformation aims to inspire a new generation of players to “wear what you are”, which is a wonderful intention. But in this case, the lion is not generally perceived to be male at all. It’s representative of The Netherlands as a nation, something that embodies the people and the spirit of the country. It feels like the focus here has been misplaced on gender as opposed to the craft and skill of the Dutch football team, which is surely what it should be about.

While the Nike example has gotten mixed reactions, it’s a step forward in that there has been a genuine thought about how to challenge and question the role of gender in design. That’s more than can be said for Aurosa, a beer that’s been designed specifically for women. That’s right, a beer specifically for women because apparently we are incapable of drinking the regular kind. Aurosa is brewed in Prague and has been exclusively created for women in a slim pink marble-effect bottle, which of course is much easier for our tiny, elegant hands to wrap around.

It’s a bit unfair to condemn this example in isolation because we all know a vast number of brands have been influential in manifesting gender stereotypes over the years. I feel that with the rise of gender fluidity in society, surely now is the perfect opportunity to finally relinquish gender clichés and start appealing more to shared motivations, values and attitudes of people instead.

London designer Aries Moross, who identifies as non-binary, explained in a recent interview that “there’s so many different types of expression that those things aren’t necessarily grouped into subcultures or countercultures anymore”. People’s views are shifting, interests are changing and a passion for politics among young people is the highest its been in a long time. Designers and brands alike are in a prime position to influence and make change, by promoting acceptance, tolerance and tackling some of these issues head on, rather than undermining them.

When researching for this piece, I spoke to my brother to find out his experiences of brands and gender stereotyping as a transgender, bisexual male: “As a trans man, when I first started my transition I found product buying really difficult. Not only did I still need to buy female products like tampons but I also now felt like I had to conform to male gender stereotypes so people would not question my already difficult decision.”

By sustaining and conforming to gender stereotypes, many brands are inadvertently alienating whole communities of people for whom gender isn’t necessarily black and white. This is something that desperately needs to change as gender fluidity continues to be a growing choice for consumers, and as consumers who do identify as male or female become increasingly less tolerant and responsive to gender stereotyping.

Interestingly, a very recent report has been published indicating that the Advertising Standards Authority is reviewing its approach to advertisements that feature stereotypical gender roles with the aim to eliminate ads that mock people for not conforming to these stereotypes. This is a great start and hopefully we will begin to see more developments in this area over the coming months and years.

When it comes to brand and packaging design, we’ve noticed an increasing trend in gender neutral designs, with the beauty and cosmetics sector leading the way. Pioneers like Aesop have already proven that founding a skincare range on shared attitudes and values, instead of gender ideals, can lead to a brand with enduring and universal relevance. The Ordinary is a great example of a much more recent skincare brand designed in a gender-neutral manner, reflecting its focus on integrity and advanced functional beauty that appeals to everybody, not individual genders.

Perfume brand Byredo is an equally good case in point; the clean and understated packaging allows the consumer to focus on the quality and function of the product as opposed to whether it’s designed for men or women. Founder of Byredo, Ben Gorham explained to Vogue earlier this year that he never considers gender when creating the products. “To me, all gender related conversations in fragrance are outdated and I feel people are starting to understand that our notions of what is gender-specific comes from marketing and commercial programming.”

Meanwhile, Finnish designer Saana Hellsten has founded a career on her award-winning project, Basik, that shows the power of completely gender neutral packaging and how this approach can be used for whole ranges of products.

At the other end of the spectrum, the creatives behind party game Cards Against Humanity have chosen to use humour in their packaging design to address this issue. They’ve just released a hilarious parody on female-targeted products with their Just For Her edition: “It’s the exact same game as the original, but comes in a pink box and costs $5 more.” The profits from the limited-edition pack will be donated to Emily’s List and aims to highlight the discriminatory pricing practices against women. Well played guys, well played.

Some of the biggest names in the advertising industry have also begun to address the topical issue, with the likes of Unilever forming an Unstereotype Alliance in partnership with UN women. Leaders in the ad and tech world such as WPP, Google, Mars and Facebook aim to help eliminate the prevalence of stereotypes through changes in the way they communicate to consumers, but also how they operate internally ensuring it becomes part of their working culture. This is helping to tackle all kinds of stereotypes, not just gender specific ones. Meanwhile in 2015 The Cannes Lion Awards created a new award, the Glass Lion, to recognise work that implicitly or explicitly addresses issues of gender inequality or prejudice.

We may never be able to eradicate gender differentiation completely. As designers we should all be questioning and thinking if and why a certain product needs to be directed more towards a particular gender, or not. We should also be designing with an understanding of the needs of people who don’t identify themselves as male or female, so we don’t alienate large groups of consumers.

At the same time, we should also be aware of going too far the other way. “Non-binary”, “transgender” and “agender” have fast become buzzwords. Brands run the risk of appearing insincere if they change their messaging to stay on trend without having a real understanding of this community and the issues they face as consumers.

A few years from now when the buzzwords have just become words and there’s a new lifestyle trend on the horizon to distract us, let’s hope brands will address people as people, as individuals and human beings with less stress on whether they are male, female or whatever they choose to be.

To finish off on a lighter note, we all remember that infamous “Pens for her” shocker that the well-known stationery giant Bic somehow managed to get into the market. Well, thankfully BuzzFeed have kindly collated the best reviews of the said product here, for all those interested in some further, lighter reading.

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Georgie Thompson

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