Honestly, it’s puzzling that an inanimate, imaginary thing such as a brand should seem to have gender.
But obviously brands do send out gender signals, and sometimes they’re quite strong. In fact, recent research shows that the more intense the gender signals, the greater the brand value — so not only do we readily perceive gender in brands, we like to perceive gender in brands.
Yet lately it seems that brands have been pretty numb to the deep changes we can all see around us in how gender is being perceived and defined. Even though gender is increasingly understood to be fluid and multidimensional, brands continue to draw power from gender stereotypes. Think of brand imagery for cars — food — clothing. Are brands trying to lead us back toward comforting, old-school notions of masculinity and femininity in a time of gender uncertainty? Should they be leading us in that direction? Does the word “should” even apply to branding?
I was thinking about these questions after I found myself crying during the Super Bowl this year. I wasn’t crying over Malcolm Butler’s end-zone interception or the damage that was being inflicted on vulnerable linebacker brains, but over a little boy who was calling “Daddy!” for help as he struggled to put on a T-shirt. It was an ad for Dove Men+Care (“Real Strength”), and it really touched me. I untangled many a T-shirt when my kids were little, and I guess those moments had been buried in deep memory until the ad came on.
Dove Men+Care, in associating masculinity with caring (and skin-care products), is one of the few brands that seem to be trying to play with gender stereotypes a bit. It’s an exception that highlights the rarity of such attempts. Mostly, brands that play in the gender space, so to speak, go for traditional male or female associations, and for good financial reasons.
A team led by Theo Lieven, a researcher at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, recently showed that brands with stronger impressions of masculine or feminine personality have higher brand equity (defined as the difference in perceived utility between a branded and a similar nonbranded product). Last year the team published a fascinating list of 140 brands, ranked by consumers’ gender impressions and brand equity. Here’s a plotting of a few of them:
The findings came from 130,000 German consumers who were asked to report their impressions of brands’ personalities. Brands that were rated as highly adventurous, aggressive, brave, daring, dominant, and sturdy were classified by the researchers as having masculine personalities; those rated as expressing “tender feelings” and being fragile, graceful, sensitive, and sweet were classified as feminine. Brand equity was measured with responses to statements such as “It makes sense to buy this brand instead of any other brand, even if they are the same.”
It’s worth pointing out that the participants apparently had no trouble understanding what the researchers meant by brand “personalities.” Even though brands are nothing but collections of images and sounds and words and typefaces, most of us — I’m assuming — readily see personalities not only in brands but in all sorts of inanimate things. I certainly do. I remember, as a little guy, helping my father organize his workbench and getting into a long private fantasy about the 3-inch nail that was leading the army of 2-inch nails. Humans seem to have a susceptibility to seeing humanlike qualities in just about everything.
And brands are part of that everything. Some of the pioneering work on applying this idea to brands and actually measuring their personalities was done in the 1990s by Jennifer Aaker, then at UCLA and now at Stanford. In subsequent decades the thinking about brands as humanlike entities has gone in a lot of different directions. Not everyone agrees on the validity of some of the ideas: A team led by Mark Avis of Massey University in New Zealand recently showed that people would ascribe personalities even to rocks, rating one, for example, as high in competence, suggesting that the personality-assessment tool they were using was in a sense creating brand personalities in participants’ minds, rather than measuring them.
Still, the findings on brand personality continue to pile up, and of course they tell us more about the workings of our own minds than about brands per se. The study by Lieven and his colleagues, for example, seems to say that we’re drawn to, and most deeply touched by, age-old gender stereotypes.
I guess that’s not surprising. Lieven says one reason for this predilection appears to be that it’s easier for us to quickly categorize brands that are clearly masculine or feminine. Stereotypes, because they require little cognitive processing, are the brain’s comfort food.
Brands as Tools for Change
Assuming that Lieven’s work stands up over time, is the implication of it that on a deep level today’s more fluid gender definitions make many of us a bit uncomfortable? And that we seek stereotypes to increase our comfort? The changes in gender perceptions and attitudes have been pretty dramatic, not just in developed countries but worldwide. Marketing expert Jill Avery of Harvard Business School points out that gender today is a “continuum rather than a dichotomy,” and that there are lots of interpretations — more all the time — of what masculinity and femininity mean.
These changes can certainly be disorienting. Susan Fournier of Boston University, an early developer of the idea of relationships between consumers and brands, pointed out in a conversation that things have moved so rapidly that there are probably significant differences now among age cohorts in responses to gender, with older people feeling a lot more comfortable with stereotypical gender roles and younger people more comfortable pushing the boundaries.
Then why aren’t more brands tracking these changes in gender definitions, perceptions, and roles?
A few are, of course. There’s Dove Men+Care, and, as Avery points out, certain mainstream brands are aiming at gay and lesbian consumers, and others are trying to capitalize on the idea of empowering girls and women.
But by and large there isn’t much movement away from stereotypes. As James Gentry of the University of Nebraska and Robert Harrison of Western Michigan University write, although gender attitudes are in a state of flux, “portrayals of gender roles in commercials have not become more gender neutral.”
Which, for me, raises the question of whether brands should or shouldn’t be used as instruments for social change.
Certainly it’s indisputable that they have enormous power to affect our attitudes. Brands are primarily instruments for making money, but they do that by touching our emotions. As brand messages power their way through the media landscape, catching our eyes and ears, they light us up emotionally. In a matter of seconds I went from cheering over a football game to getting choked up at the word “Daddy!” Life in the media-saturated world can be like that — sometimes I feel as though I’m in a state of commercially induced hyperemotionality.
Emotions affect our attitudes and behaviors. So these brand messages have an impact on what we say and do. I keep thinking of a study that showed the impact on children’s attitudes of the Harry Potter brand: Because the books and movies show Harry fighting intolerance toward non-wizards, elementary-school students who identified with the main character showed improved attitudes toward immigrants. That’s an example of a brand’s measurable impact on attitudes, achieved through touching the emotions.
Given brands’ power to effect this kind of change, shouldn’t they be deployed to alter our social attitudes? Brands are enormously, almost inconceivably effective at changing minds — yet for the most part, companies do nothing with them but trot them out to amuse us, reinforce stereotypes, and rake in the money. How are we ever going to evolve that way?
Gentry and Harrison are fine with using the “should” word when it comes to brands’ gender representations. For example, media portrayals of fathers, they write in the journal Marketing Theory, should encourage men to become more active in parenting, rather than “sustain the more distant perspective from the past.”
But if you say “should,” you’ve got to be careful about what comes before and after it. Who should do what? Which decision makers at which levels of companies or society should deploy brands in service of which values? If you try to answer those questions you start re-creating the discussions that happen around censorship tables in repressive countries throughout the world. Maybe better to keep brands safely focused on making money and leave the attitude adjusting for other spheres of society. If gender attitudes are going to continue to undergo change, it’s going to happen regardless of anything brands have to say about it.
Dove Men+Care’s brand managers see themselves not as altering consumers’ attitudes but as just trying to keep up with changes that are already well underway. The brand’s research revealed that “only 7% of men today can relate to depictions of masculinity they see in media,” Unilever marketing director Jennifer Bremner told me in an email. So there was an evident opportunity to provide images of a caring form of masculinity ”that men today feel are absent from the media landscape.”
The Power of Androgyny
I don’t know whether this is a signal of changing attitudes, or whether it just shows how deep the mysteries of the subject really are, but a more recent study that Lieven participated in both reinforces the notion that strong gender impressions increase brand equity and questions the either-or nature of consumers’ conceptions of gender.
This time the researchers measured attitudes toward specific products — shoes, eyeglasses, and perfume bottles — whose aesthetic elements were modified to suggest masculinity and/or femininity. Participants responded to such features as dark color as being masculine and curvy shape as feminine. I say “and/or” because some of the products had both kinds of features — for example, some of the glasses were dark and curvy — and the researchers labeled these as “androgynous” products. The participants were also asked to say how they felt about the items (recording their “affective attitudes”) and were questioned about the products’ aesthetic value and perceived functionality. They were also asked about purchase intent.
On all four measures, the androgynous products — those that were above the median in both femininity and masculinity — beat out those that were highly feminine, highly masculine, and undifferentiated (that is, with low gender impressions).
Again, we’re in disputed territory here. Fournier says sure, people in a lab setting will cheerfully rate brands as having more or less gender, but “gender as a social category must have meaning and significance to the brand” to really matter for marketers.
Nevertheless, Lieven says an even newer study looking at attitudes in 10 different countries produced “remarkable results” that validated the androgyny findings (the newest research is currently under review at an academic journal), so evidently there’s something measurable going on in the gender-sensitive part of consumers’ minds when it comes to responses to a broad spectrum of brands — not just those that position themselves to be about gender.
Lieven and I had an email chat about his research. Worldwide, one of the strongest brands out there is Apple, which Lieven classifies as androgynous — it’s both strongly masculine (think of its computing power) and feminine (think of its sleek designs). Evolutionary psychology seems to say that consumers’ feelings about brand gender have something to do with sexual attraction — that the mating urge underlies our positive feelings about strongly gendered brands. But as Lieven points out, his latest results about the power of androgynous brands suggest that other factors may be in play too — maybe “it is not a mere question of mating,” he says.
Gender, after all, applies as much to mothers and fathers as to potential mates. Maybe our responses to femininity and masculinity are equally rooted in our feelings toward parental figures. It’s possible, for example, that in rating Disney high on androgyny, consumers are implicitly saying that the brand is both mother-like and father-like, perhaps in creating safe, comforting theme parks that also provide adventure.
The androgyny research is clearly a work in progress. Maybe what Lieven and his colleagues are tapping into is our very complex feelings about how and to what extent brands — those inanimate, imaginary things — seem to “feel” about us. Do they care about us? If so, do they care in such a way as to make us feel attractive? In some cases, brands’ form of caring makes us feel empowered. In others it makes us feel comforted and protected, like the parent who reaches out a strong hand and helps us get that T-shirt over our heads.