Gender Marketing: Is It Time To Go Neutral?

Last month, Hasbro announced it is introducing a “gender-neutral” version of the popular Easy-Bake Oven. Why? The decision was prompted by a change.org petition started by a 13-year old girl who wanted to buy an Easy-Bake for her brother, but then was disappointed to discover she could only find the toy colored in purple and pink. Her online petition reportedly garnered more than 40,000 signatures and the support of celebrity chefs, including Bobby Flay.

Hasbro isn’t the first to be caught up in this kind of public relations tempest. Over the past few months, other companies have made headlines about gender-related marketing moves, as well. As tired gender stereotypes fade away and lines defining male and female roles continue to blur, more and more marketers are beginning to closely examine how gender impacts their strategies.

Gender Marketing: Is It Time To Go Neutral? image Harrods Egyptian roomGender Marketing: Is It Time To Go Neutral?Interior of department store Harrods, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Check out these recent examples where gender issues played a significant role:

  • This past summer, British department store Harrods opened Toy Kingdom, a 26,000-square-foot multi-sensory department with an enchanted forest, intergalactic science lab, curious sweet emporium and toy “grand canyon.” Perhaps most intriguing of all, the toys are organized by general theme rather than gender. As lead designer Matt Smith explains, the sections of the store –called “dreamscapes” –are deliberately non-gender-specific, because Harrods felt that was “an antiquated way of looking at toys.” Response to Toy Kingdom has been positive and may motivate other toy retailers to re-think their traditional gender-specific marketing strategies.
  • Some companies have decided to move in the exact opposite direction, opting for approaches that are more –not less –gender-specific. For instance, last year Bic designed a line of pens specifically for women. They feature pastel colors, a “thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand” and an “elegant design –just for her.” Response to Bic For Her has been mostly negative, with bitingly sarcastic comments filling the pen’s Amazon page. “As a nurse, I really appreciate the feminine ink colours– it makes my charting and notes to doctors so much more respectable since they now don’t think I’m trying to challenge their male authority with masculine dark blue and black ink,” one reviewer wrote. Apparently, the team behind Bic For Her made the assumption that women are more attracted to a pen’s color and design, rather than its functionality. It appears that gamble backfired.
  • Contrast Bic For Her with Lego Friends, Lego’s new toy line specifically for girls. Lego Friends features doll-like female characters and brick sets to construct buildings like beauty salons, veterinary clinics and cafes. Initially, the consumer response to Lego Friends was quite critical, even resulting in a change.org petition asking Lego to stop “selling out to girls.” But, Lego’s marketing team did its homework before developing this product. In a statement released soon after the launch, the vice president of marketing for Lego said, “We embarked on four years worth of comprehensive, global research with 3,500 girls and their moms to understand what would make LEGO play more interesting for more girls.” As a result of this research, Lego was able to move forward based on data-driven decisions about this product line . . . and despite the initial controversy, Lego Friends sold twice as much as expected in the first six months, and the toy manufacturer had trouble meeting customer demand.

As these examples illustrate, gender is an increasingly sensitive topic on the marketing agenda. Obviously, marketing to one gender effectively eliminates half of your potential customers, and it’s an approach that can make (in the case of Lego Friends) or break (Bic For Her) a product line. On the other hand, Hasbro and Harrods are betting that gender-neutral marketing can boost sales in 2013.

The important take-away is that marketers have to know their customers. Do your research, and test, test, test. As always, products sell best when they’re designed to fill a specific consumer need or want –whether that’s for females, for males or for both.

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