How can brands be more gender inclusive?

We explore how brands can create more inclusive products and campaigns – and ask whether gendered branding and ads are still relevant in 2020

The past decade has seen a huge shift in attitudes towards gender. Consumers have become more resistant to gender clichés and stereotypes and younger generations are increasingly rejecting binary labels and definitions. As Mariel Brown, Director of Futures at Seymourpowell, points out, all this is set to have a massive impact on the way that brands behave – and the way that products and services are designed.

“We can’t ignore the social shift that’s taken place. It’s arguably one of the most profound forces we’re seeing in our time and I think its impact will be felt for generations,” explains Brown.

In the past few years, we’ve seen the launch of gender-neutral fashion and beauty brands as well as children’s toys, from Mattel’s Creatable World products to John Lewis’s Boys & Girls range – but many companies are still struggling to tackle gender bias and shake off the stereotypes that have influenced ads and product design for generations. Here, we explore how companies can adopt a more inclusive approach to design and communications – and ask whether we still need gendered products at all.

Mattel recently launched its first range of gender-neutral dolls, which are free of discernibly male or female features and can be dressed in a range of different outfits

BUILDING DIVERSE TEAMS 

It’s fairly obvious that the more diverse a team is, the more diverse its output will be. And whatever the product or project, there’s a clear need for companies to invest in recruiting diverse design and leadership teams to ensure that consumers aren’t excluded or put at risk as a result of gender bias. 

“It all comes down to the shape of the teams you’re building internally,” explains Brown. “A lot of it is about building a culture of inclusivity within your company – so looking at hiring and HR policies, making sure you’re encouraging gender inclusivity in terms of how you’re bringing new talent into the business, and making sure that the teams you’re putting on projects reflect that inclusivity. All of these things work together to create the right conditions for really good, gender-inclusive design to take place.”

Jo Barnard – co-founder and creative director of design agency Morrama – also believes that teams should include a mix of genders. Industrial design has long been a male-dominated industry but at Morrama, Barnard has recruited an even mix of men and women and tries to maintain a 50/50 split on project teams.

This extends to all projects – even those which are aimed specifically at a certain gender – and Barnard believes it results in better and more creative products.

It can be a challenge to make sure you’re finding the best and most mixed team you can – but trying to do that is really important

“It can be a challenge to make sure you’re finding the best and most mixed team you can – but trying to do that is really important,” she says. “If you have a mixed gendered team … the products and products you develop will naturally be more inclusive.”

As Barnard points out, having people who might not be the target market for a product working on a design team can help ensure that designers aren’t making assumptions – or overlooking the needs of a particular audience. “It helps break down those barriers and those assumptions that people have about certain products – especially those ones that are very male-focused or very female-focused.” There’s also a practical advantage to having people of different genders on a team – helping ensure that designers don’t end up creating products which are inaccessible because of their size and shape. 

“On the metrics side of things, it’s easy to forget how big the biggest man is and how small the smallest woman is,” she adds. “I’m quite small so I’ve made models of handheld products and given them to Andy [Trewin Hutt, the studio director] who’s over six foot and he’s gone ‘this is tiny!’ – and suddenly you think, ‘this is actually a really big problem’. You can see where mistakes have happened because of that.”

WORKING WITH DIVERSE AUDIENCES

Morrama also tries to ensure that teams share their work with a wide range of people throughout the creative process – even people who might not be the target market for a particular product. “I think all creative teams are guilty of this at times, where they just don’t share their work enough with people outside of the team. Sometimes it’s because they’re working to such strict deadlines, sometimes it’s because they’re worried they’re going to open a can of worms because design is so subjective – you could go to one group of users [with a product] and they might love it, and then go to another and they might hate it, and it’s hard to work out what feedback is useful – but every bit of feedback really does help, not just with regards to making something more gender inclusive, but also trying to make it more user-friendly,” explains Barnard.

There is a huge value in getting insights from customers who don’t live like us, don’t look like us, don’t identify like us

Max Masure – a product designer, inclusion consultant and co-founder of Argo Collective, which provides inclusion training and workshops for brands – recommends that companies work with inclusion consultants to help open up their design processes to a wider audience.

Masure also recommends that brands consult with a wide range of consumers – including underrepresented people in audience research and user testing as well as collaborative workshops. “There is a huge value in getting insights from customers who don’t live like us, don’t look like us, don’t identify like us,” they add.

“I am a big advocate for user research and community collaboration: it’s very humbling to get the chance to have a closer look at how other people are living and receiving the products or services we design.”

LOOKING BEYOND THE SURFACE

As Masure points out, if brands want to be truly inclusive, then they need to ensure that inclusion is promoted across all aspects of their business – from internal and external communications to training and recruitment.

“Inclusion comes from a mindset that has to be widely supported in all aspects of a company – from mission statement to organisation to literally allowing employees to use gender-neutral bathrooms. What is happening internally will have an impact on what customers see on the outside,” they explain. 

Argo Collective recently worked with software platform Quip to run workshops exploring how the company could be more inclusive – a project that led to the creation of some small but significant changes to the platform, as well as changes to design and customer service processes. 

“We conducted a leadership workshop where we got them up to speed on the pressing need to have a clear inclusion and diversity vision, then we trained their designers, engineers, and marketing people on how to design products and services with the lens of inclusion. They left with clear practical actions on how to incorporate inclusion in their design process – [such as] adding more black, POC, and queer people in their brand visuals, [asking] for pronouns and name/legal name on customer accounts, and devising ways to de-escalate when customer service made a mistake on the pronoun or name of a client in an email,” Masure adds. Quip has also avoided using gendered pronouns in its product since 2018 – a small change, but a significant one for many users.

THE VALUE OF LISTENING

Beyond creating more diverse teams – and testing products or campaigns with diverse audiences – Brown recommends that brands spend time understanding their target audience’s views on gender in order to create more informed and sensitive campaigns. It might sound obvious, but it’s something that brands can often overlook in their rush to broadcast a particular message – or respond to conversations happening in popular culture.

“I think it comes down to not making assumptions about what consumers really want – it’s about spending time with consumers, checking things before you launch them, and using those deep listening skills to make sure you’re not being seen to just be gabbling,” she adds. In the beauty industry, for example, brands have quick to respond to criticism around ageism with ‘ageless’ marketing – removing references to ageing (or ageing prevention) in campaigns and hiring older women to be brand ambassadors. But when researching perceptions of agelessness, Seymourpowell discovered the term could also have negative connotations: “We interviewed a 70-year-old woman who had her own makeup company, and she told us that for her, it was more about ‘age love’ – she was proud of her age, and she didn’t like the term ageless because it felt almost like a denial,” says Brown.

Brands also have to consider how attitudes towards gender might differ in different markets – and tailor campaigns accordingly. “It’s worth noting as well that there are regional nuances – these shifting attitudes to gender are happening at a different pace around the globe, and it’s really important for brands to know their local markets as well, so they can make sure that they’re not creating something that would upset people,” Brown explains.

THINKING BEYOND GENDER

Brown also recommends that brands focus on creating campaigns that allow customers to tell their own story – providing a platform for people to share a wide range of experiences. GoPro’s focus on user generated content, for example, has helped the brand appeal to a broad range of people interested in travel, adventure and extreme sports – regardless of their gender.

“As a society, we’re rethinking gender and we don’t want to be defined by it – we want to be defined by our passions and values – so I think there’s a great opportunity there for brands to connect with their audiences by thinking, ‘what are the things that our audience are passionate about, and how do we build a kind of community around our brand that helps people connect with one another around those passions?'” says Brown.

“GoPro is a great example of this – they have so many brand ambassadors and brand fans who just love the product and that notion of being able to share their experiences from their own point of view, and they’re then creating a lot of content on GoPro’s behalf, but it’s not about gender, it’s about adventure and its about shared experience, and I think that [approach] will become more and more important in future.”

Barnard believes that companies could adopt a more inclusive approach by focusing on how a product is designed – rather than who it’s going to be aimed at – when developing branding and marketing. Razors, for example, have traditionally been marketed and sold to men and women in very different ways, despite the end product being much the same. But companies could create a more inclusive experience by allowing consumers to shop for razors based on the body part they want to shave – not on whether they want to buy a pink or a blue product.

“There’s no need to be male or female-specific in the messaging of a product – if it’s something that could be for either sex then we don’t need to use [stereotypically] male or female words or say ‘OK – before you go any further on this website are you female or male?’ There are plenty of men that shave their whole body – whether its for cycling or for drag or for comfort – and they might actually want a razor that’s more ergonomically designed for shaving your legs than for shaving your face. So I think there’s a better way of going around asking these questions that’s a lot more inclusive.”

BOLD, NOT BLAND 

Being inclusive doesn’t have to mean toning down your approach. Savage x Fenty’s fashion shows have made headlines as much for their bold staging as their diverse casting, and Glossier has promoted diversity while also carving out a distinctive identity and an innovative approach to marketing, retail design and product development. As Brown points out, it’s not enough just to be inclusive – brands also have to combine this with a bold approach to branding and communications.

“It’s about having strong viewpoint and I think that’s what the brands that have been successful in moving towards gender inclusivity have done,” she says. “There’s a real danger, if you become too scared of turning anyone off, that you become a bit bland. But with the marketplace being flooded with new startups, the future is really going to favour the bold. It’s never been more important to have a distinctive viewpoint and I think that’s where the best gender inclusive brands really stand out – they’re enticing consumers with those distinctive perspectives and product ranges and that, for me, is a very positive thing. I think it’s just about making sure you’re listening to the consumer and going about things in the right way – not just going down this magnolia route.”

ADVOCATING FOR INCLUSION

Masure also advises that brands and agencies make a point of advocating for underrepresented communities – “making a case” for underrepresented groups when pitching ideas for products and campaigns.

While we are seeing some progress from mainstream brands – Starbucks recently won Channel 4’s diversity in advertising award with a campaign which showed a young trans person trying out their new name (an ad inspired by the fact that trans people star in just 0.3% of ads) and MasterCard has launched a feature which allows customers to use their chosen name on bank cards – there’s a lot of work to be done to recognise and reflect the needs of trans and non-binary customers. And as Masure explains, agencies have a key role to play in this. “Agencies have a huge opportunity for advocacy here as they can bring facts [to meetings and pitches] and encourage brands to serve their audience better by being more inclusive.”

IS GENDER STILL RELEVANT?

As our attitudes towards gender continue to evolve, there’s a new question facing brands: is gender still relevant in 2020? And will we ever see a time when brands and products are no longer marketed separately towards men and women at all? 

Brown and Barnard don’t think gendered branding will completely disappear – at least, not in sectors such as femcare, where there’s still a clear demand for products that celebrate gender – but they do think we’ll see an increase in the number of brands moving away from creating traditionally masculine or feminine messaging, and acknowledging the many consumers who don’t identify with binary notions of gender.  

“I don’t think we’ll ever fully lose the notion of gender specific products – because there are brands out there that speak to physiological needs – but I definitely think we’ll see the number of brands creating gender inclusive products increasing,” says Brown.

“Whatever we see happening socially, brands are going to mirror, and I think just as we’re seeing now the conversation about gender being less about these binary definitions and far more expansive, I think we’ll see the same thing in branding,” she adds.

“It’s about the spectrum opening up and becoming much more nuanced and just offering people more choice – being more expansive and less restrictive. People don’t want to buy into clichés anymore, and I think a lot of people see their purchases as them making a vote – when they’re purchasing something, they’re really buying into a brand’s values, and people simply don’t want to buy into brands that misrepresent or suggest this old-fashioned, clichéd and restrictive notion of gender. So I think that brands will have to respond to that, and the ones that don’t will die out.”

seymourpowell.com; argocollective.com; morrama.com

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes