Three Ways Brands Can Use Empathy To Become Part Of The Evolving Gender Story

By Helen Rose, head of insight and analytics at the7stars

For years, brands have found easy resonance in a binary translation of “feminine” (nurturing, maternal, soft) or “masculine” (independent, bold, strong) values. From the domestic housewife of the 1950s to overt sexualisation in the 70s and 80s, gender stereotyping has been a comfort-tool of choice for advertisers looking to make waves. Yet, just as marketers are liable to entrench our lived experiences, so they have a role to play in testing their boundaries in new and unexpected ways.

This is exactly the case with our understanding of gender, which is providing the oil for a dramatic sea-change in advertising right now. With a Muslim millennial elected as America’s first out non-binary lawmaker earlier this month and Belgium introducing “X” as a third gender, binary as a concept is being broken apart – as our political, personal and commercial worlds increasingly collide. Nintendo, for example, has introduced Pokemon Go’s Blanche, its first non-binary character, while Netflix is casting a non-binary actor in the role of Gren in its Cowboy Bebop remake.

As our understanding of gender becomes more fluid – the majority of gen Z believe binary gender labels are too limiting – marketers need to keep pace with the shifting continuum. But how exactly? A new whitepaper on gender in advertising that we released in collaboration with neuromarketing agency Neuro-Insight and cultural insight agency Sign Salad saw empathy emerge as a key mechanism. If brands can tell stories in a way that feels personal, fresh and “real”, they’ll be able to use their voice to be part of the evolving gender debate in a more integral fashion. Here’s how:

Understand both dominant and emerging cultural narratives

In order to reflect gender in a way that feels empathetic, campaigns need a dual-sided awareness both of how gender exists now and where it’s going next. This, in turn, creates a powerful lever for brands to dismantle tired old gender stereotypes, and instead reflect a new reality that consumers want to be part of.

You only have to look at the response to Protein World’s Are you Beach Body Ready? campaign in 2015 to grasp how tone-deaf traditional gendered advertising can feel in a modern age. The ads, which harnessed concepts of body idealism at a time when women were rallying against exactly that, sparked a 50,000-strong protest petition.

Compare this to Gillette’s The Best A Man Can Be campaign, which reworked the brand’s 30-year-old tagline to explore themes of toxic masculinity in a #MeToo era. Within three days of its release last year, the ad had drawn 11 million views on YouTube, placing Gillette at the centre of a vital conversation around what it means to be a man. By exploring issues such as bullying, aggression and sexual harassment, the razor brand confronted dominant issues around toxic masculinity in a way that felt immediately relatable and emotionally attuned. More importantly, however, by acknowledging the past, it created a vision of how men could be: reflecting a new, more hopeful path forwards.

Build an inclusive brand community within a wider context

While the root to empathy lies within a frank appraisal of gender definitions, and why they have become so problematic, brands also need to look at how they can become more inclusive in their campaign messaging. And for this, marketers need to dig deeper with a look at how gender intersects with a broader realm of marginalised groups, voices and causes.  Approaching gender discourse in this manner can elicit deep-rooted, meaningful emotions because brands are really getting to the crux of audiences’ personal experiences: whether that lies in mental health, beauty, ageism or racism – and the role that gender plays within each.

In 2017, CoverGirl made 69-year-old Maye Musk their brand ambassador, breaking unspoken age barriers for the first time in the label’s history.  In 2018, ghd launched their Long Live The Queens advert, in which transgender models showcased their premium hair styling products. Meanwhile, beauty brand Glossier recently pledged $500,000 in grants to black-owned beauty businesses and entrepreneurs, as part of a wider effort to fight oppression, racism and discrimination of all forms (the brand is also part of a growing movement to use male models in a traditionally “female” marketing arena).

These efforts reach within by examining gender within a sphere of intersectional issues. By doing so, they move closer to communities, creating ties within a consumer audience whose loyalty is increasingly governed by a shared sense of value and purpose. Exclusivity – once a stronghold of product positioning – seems a somewhat false concept in the face of a visceral sense of belonging and being understood.

Channel powerful and personal storytelling

As brands break down walls between themselves and their target audiences, the stories they tell will take on a more honest, unfiltered tone. At a pop-cultural level, this is already very evident: Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was an icon of the 1990s: her narrative was driven by conventional “feminine” goals of shoes, men and marriage, overlaid with a veneer of city-living gloss. Fleabag, on the other hand – the cult hit of 2019 – cuts a very different figure. Her life is messy and complicated; like Carrie Bradshaw, she has sexual autonomy but hers is portrayed in raw and unflinching detail.

Likewise, brands positioning themselves at the forefront of gender awareness are doing so in a way that feels less aspirational and more real. The powerful campaign for Girls. Girls. Girls. magazine earlier this year illustrated this point clearly. Narrated by Sex and the City alumni Cynthia Nixon, the ad was a highly-charged reminder that women today are refusing to conform to an imposed set of rules and aspirations; to “lift your face. Cover your scars. Bleach this, bleach that”.

Brands with a bold marketing strategy, therefore, are those that are willing to challenge the gender stereotypes that harm us the most: whether that is Nike’s take on “sweet little girls” or Vogue India’s approach to “boys don’t cry”. Still other brands encourage self-expression by normalising one-time taboos, from gay couples embracing one another in a commercial for SuitSupply to the ASOS Go Play campaign with gender fluidity at its heart.

Our approach to gender is undergoing a radical upheaval right now, and brands must embrace this period of limbo by leaping into the abyss with both feet. Gone are the days of binary concepts of male versus female, with their overload of stigmas and baggage. Instead, sexuality and identity is an evolving notion; one that is deeply personal and rooted in individual realities.

The more brands can tap into these stories, and capture them in meaningful, inclusive ways, the more they will evoke the kind of emotional response that is the signature of standout brand campaigning. Marketers may not have all the answers, but that’s OK – none of us do. In an era where limiting absolutes are being shown the door, questions alone are enough.

About the7stars

Founded in 2005, the7stars is the UK’s largest independent media agency.

The award-winning agency is recognised for its unique approach to media planning and manages over £400m of billings for clients including Suzuki, Ladbrokes Coral, Discovery, Nintendo, and Iceland.

Reflecting its innovative company culture, the7stars has been named as one of the top SMEs to work for by The Sunday Times for eight consecutive years and was recognised as a company to inspire Britain by the London Stock Exchange.

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