When Bic Corporation launched its Bic Cristal ‘For Her’ pens in 2012, the idea was that the range of pastel pens would appeal to women. Advertised as having “elegant design – just for her!", they came in an array of “feminine” colours, from pink to lavender and mint. Yet, instead of rushing to buy the product, women began to leave snarky reviews on sites like Amazon.com.

“Finally! For years I've had to rely on pencils, or at worst, a twig and some drops of my feminine blood to write down recipes (the only thing a lady should be writing ever),” wrote one reviewer. “I had despaired of ever being able to write down said recipes in a permanent manner, though my men-folk assured me that I ‘shouldn't worry yer pretty little head’. But, AT LAST! Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear of unladylike callouses and bruises. Thank you, Bic!”

Why do these gendered marketing appeals alienate the very consumers they aim to attract? This was the question asked by researchers behind a working paper entitled Calculators for Women: When Identity Appeals Provoke Backlash.

“One of the things we noticed not just as researchers but as female customers is just the sheer prevalence of gendered products—for ourselves, for children—even when gendering seemed completely unnecessary in many situations,” explains Tami Kim, one of the authors. Kim is an assistant professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. “We started to ask ourselves, ‘Do customers actually find this helpful, or are marketers just completely misguided?’”

She and her co-researchers, Leslie K. John, associate professor at Harvard Business School (HBS), Kate Barasz, HBS assistant professor, and Michael I. Norton, professor of business administration at HBS, undertook five studies exploring how identity appeals may lead to consumer avoidance when they evoke a stereotype about a marginalised identity.

This goes beyond gender and relates to any marginalised identity, whether based on race, ethnicity, age, etc.

“In many of our studies, we show that when identity appeals are used, the targeted customers often go out of their way to avoid the products that they would have preferred otherwise,” says Kim. “For instance, if you ask female customers to choose between a green pen and a purple pen, most would prefer the latter. This percentage drops dramatically the moment you affix the purple pen with an identity appeal, for example, labelled ‘for women’. Similarly, we found that customers are willing to forego higher quality products if that means avoiding products with identity appeals.”

For example, in one experiment, the researchers asked a group of participants to choose between a green or purple calculator to complete maths problems. Another group was asked to make the same choice, but the purple calculators were labelled ‘for women’ and the green calculators ‘for men’. Among female participants, 51% chose the purple calculator when it had no gender labels, whereas only 24% chose the purple one when it was labelled ‘for women’.

Categorisation threat

Through the studies, the researchers identified ‘categorisation threat’, which they define as “the feeling of being unwillingly categorised as (and reduced to) a single identity”, as a critical driver underlying consumer reactions to identity appeals.

However, they found that categorisation threat was less likely to be activated in two types of identity appeals: when multiple identities are evoked, preventing consumers from feeling reduced to a single identity, and when targeting by identity is seen as necessary for differentiating product offerings.

For example, a woman might be repelled by a pink drill labelled ‘for women’ because it suggests that all women like pink and that slapping pink on a product is all it takes to appeal to female consumers (as was the case with the purple calculators). However, consumers might be more interested in a product that appeals to multiple identities, such as in the study that found respondents preferred food products labelled ‘for Asians and food-lovers’ over those merely labelled ‘for Asians’.

In the case of women’s and men’s underwear, where products are (hopefully) designed and differentiated to better meet the needs of the wearer, identity appeals are deemed more legitimate and acceptable.

“What we see is that marketers frequently trust their instincts instead of taking the necessary steps to check their biases,” says Kim. “This is why it is critical for marketers to do their due diligence – market research, focus groups – before implementing their ideas and to listen to customers belonging to diverse groups. You, as a marketer, may think you have the best idea in the world, but that does not matter. It matters what your target customer thinks.”

This, says Professor Nicola Kleyn, dean of executive education at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and extraordinary professor at GIBS, comes back to the heart of marketing, which is about providing value.

From pink-washing to product design and beyond

Kleyn suggests that plonking pink on a product is “marketing to women 1.0” (e.g., a pink power tool range) and that “marketing to women 2.0” needs to move beyond this to cater to a broader spectrum of needs and consumers (e.g., a range of power tools designed for those with smaller hands).

For example, she cites crash-test dummies used in automotive safety tests, which are largely based on the average 1970s man. This means that women are 73% more likely to suffer serious injury in a car accident than men because cars are simply not designed with women’s physiology in mind. Another fun fact: voice recognition software, including in cars, still has significant racial and gender bias baked in, meaning it’s less accurate for users who aren’t white men.

Kleyn says that telling women a car is made “for women” does little to change these things. Instead, the industry needs to cater to women’s needs. “If you want women to buy your cars, communicate this is something women share as a demographic with men. For example, it’s for fun-loving, freewheeling, playful adults, and then represent both women and men in your advertising,” suggests Kleyn.

Gender appeal needs to go beyond advertising, too. For example, women might be interested in a specific car, only to have a negative customer experience in a dealership with sales staff. Many women can tell tales of having to take a man with them before being considered serious buyers or to avoid being patronised when they need their cars serviced.

Cater for a spectrum

Kleyn says Dove’s Real Beauty campaign appeals specifically to women, but a broad range of women – different body types, skin tones and ages – which is possibly why it is more successful than other gender-focused campaigns.

“I’m happy to buy Dove soap because although it’s targeting me as a woman, there is diversity within that category,” she says. “I don’t feel I’m in the minority. That’s a bit different to buying a car, where women have been kept on the periphery of every aspect of motor vehicles, from purchasing to servicing them to understanding the technical aspects. There are assumptions that, generally, the epitome of a driver is male.”

Aiming for success

Kleyn has several pointers for marketers looking to target women:

  • Great marketing starts with a profound understanding of the customer. Understand differences within your customer base and their intersectionality. It’s not only about dividing your market into older and younger or men and women – it’s about looking at groups representing multiple demographic and psychographic variables because that may drive what they want. When you start segmenting your market, it may well be that sex or gender is not actually the relevant defining dimension. It may be that the main thing is the benefits they want from the product.
  • You are more likely to cater for a broader spectrum of consumers if you have more diversity within your marketing team. This does not mean that a 50/50 split of women and men in your marketing team will automatically make you better appeal to women (particularly if there is homogeneity within your group). However, having a more diverse team means you are more likely to hold one another accountable in defining and communicating something of value. And, of course, many industries, such as the automotive industry and financial services, have traditionally been very male-dominated, so a female perspective has been absent.
  • Stop gender stereotyping in marketing communications. Many tired old tropes – the nagging wife or the incompetent man child – are more likely to alienate consumers than attract them.
  • Embed inclusivity in your organisation. This does not mean tokenism but ensuring the messages you want to convey go beyond representation and inclusion of a broader spectrum of people in your advertising to incorporate what’s happening in your market activation strategies and who your brand ambassadors are. It requires conscious deliberation, which might feel contrived initially, but it’s important. Don’t try to “pink-wash” marketing if it’s not authentic. The Gender Pay Gap Bot on Twitter does a fine job of outing companies who share promotional content lauding their women for International Women’s Day, despite gender pay disparities.
  • Own it when you make a mistake. On the home front, Castle Lite issued a video apology to women in 2018 for using them as props in their advertising targeted at men (and worse, often sexualising them) rather than acknowledging that women can drink and be anything they’d like. They committed “to be better, to stop the exclusion and objectification and unlock more inclusion”. Of course, acknowledging a mistake only works if you follow through by taking action. If you say you stand for inclusion, but that’s not reflected within your organisation, your brand risk actually begins with your own employees.
  • Understand that we live in an era of fluidity. As marketers, it’s important to remember you’re marketing to human beings. But within that, there is a spectrum of what we deem to be masculinity and femininity and not all those who identify as women will want stereotypically feminine design. We are complex multi-dimensional, multifaceted people. We are dealing with issues like gender self-identification, and I think that’s something marketers are going to have to come to grips with, and how they engage in contemporary society where there are grey areas.
  • Ditch the 'pink premium'. You might be buying an identical product (for example, men’s and women’s razors), but if it’s pink, it often costs more. If brands want to appeal to women, they must be fair – there is no additional cost for pink dye.

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