Shortly after Jenny Niemann launched her office furniture dealership last year, a branding consultant asked her a question that put her back on her heels.Is the brand male or female?
"That one really caught me by surprise," said Niemann, CEO of Chicago-based Forward Space, a dealer for office furniture maker Steelcase.
Do cubicle walls and swivel chairs have a gender? What does that even mean?
It does not mean what people might first assume: that if it is a woman-owned company, which Forward Space is, or it caters to women clients, which it does not, then it must be a female brand.
Rather, branding consultant Bradley Peacock from Chicago-based Peacock Nine was helping Niemann craft the brand's personality based on the feelings she wanted the brand to evoke in her customers. And in the process, her company underwent something of a sex change.
As gender roles -- and gender itself -- become increasingly fluid, declaring brands male or female can seem like a throwback to a "Mad Men" era. But gender can be a powerful part of shaping a brand's story, and some in the field say shifting social norms are enabling traditionally masculine brands to embrace more feminine characteristics, or mix the two, as they fight for shoppers' attention.
"It's interesting for brands to consider a gender reassignment," said John Manley, senior vice president and group strategy director at ad agency DDB.
Not everyone sees it that way. Leo Burnett chief strategy officer Mick McCabe said gender rarely comes up in conversations about brands, especially those with mass audiences, like Coca-Cola, Samsung or McDonald's. Shifting brand personalities reflect the breadth of human emotions and characteristics generally, independent of gender, he said.
"Just as they stretch and flex in humans for certain moments, brands can do that as well," McCabe said.
But for Niemann, the male/female question inspired a moment of reflection.
Niemann formed her company after acquiring and merging two existing Chicago-area Steelcase dealers, Office Concepts and OEC Business Interiors, that were male-run and felt "a little more masculine," she said, in part because of their no-nonsense names and the hard-edged associations people have when they hear "steel."
But Niemann said she wanted her company to go beyond logistics and be known for helping employers think strategically about their workspaces to address business issues, be it attracting talent with cafe settings or fostering teamwork with more collaborative areas -- more of a creative, counseling role.
"Jenny understood that people ... are buying furniture to help change culture," Peacock said. "One of the keys to building culture is having empathy, listening first rather than solutions first, and that is generally more female."
And so Forward Space embraced its feminine side, which informed a series of decisions, including its logo design (softer edges) and thematic color (purple). Purple runs throughout its new showroom in Oak Brook, designed to send the message that "we can help our customers to create innovative work environments that inspire people to excel wherever and however they work," said Niemann, whose company is headquartered on Goose Island.
Conflating empathy with femininity -- and purple -- may ring of stereotype. But brand genders are not about being pink or blue or skirt or pants, Peacock said. Rather they are archetypes -- in the case of Forward Space, the caregiver/creator -- that evoke an emotional response and help companies and their consumers understand where they fit in the broader story of their lives.
"If you don't understand what your unique meaning is, then you can spend millions of dollars on advertising and it just won't resonate," Peacock said.
The importance of a brand's gender depends on the category. Krissy Vanderwarker, art director and strategist at Chicago branding consultancy Seedhouse, which specializes in consumer packaged goods, said clients increasingly want their brands to be gender neutral. One client, Westminster Bakers Co. crackers, makes it a point to not bring gender into the equation and focuses instead on its all-natural ingredients and nearly 200-year-old New England history.
"Now a lot of people are doing the shopping because traditional gender roles are breaking down, so there is less of a target to moms," she said, pointing to Quaker and Lays as gender-neutral snack brands.
But shoppers seem to find comfort in easily recognizable gender cues. In a study of 140 brands, European researchers found that higher levels of perceived masculinity (think aggressive, adventurous, sturdy) or femininity (think tender, graceful, sweet) in a brand are associated with higher levels of brand equity, which translates to greater consumer satisfaction, brand loyalty and ability to command a price premium, according a report last year in the journal Psychology and Marketing.
For example, highly feminine brands like Dove, Nivea and Chanel and highly masculine brands like Adidas, Audi and Mercedes scored better in brand equity among the 3,000-plus German consumers polled than brands that shift between genders (like Peugeot and H&M) or gender-neutral ones, the study found.
While gender is not always in the mix of questions branding consultants use to help clients drill down to their purpose, Peacock said it is one of his favorites.
"It always gets them off their game, because they don't think of themselves that way," he said. "Our clients are so focused on selling stuff that they don't have the luxury to step back and think about what they need to mean to folks in the future."
When a brand's gender identity is not obvious, Peacock's company surveys current and potential customers and asks what they want from the brand. If they seek empathy and patient counsel, it might send them into a more female space, whereas if they are driven more by price and efficiency, it might send them in a masculine direction.
"All of the great service companies are more female than male," Peacock said. He listed Zappos, Southwest Airlines and Johnson & Johnson among them.
The strategy does not come without risk. Several gendered branding attempts have "failed miserably," said Linda Tuncay Zayer, associate professor of marketing at Loyola University's Quinlan School of Business.
The 2012 launch of Bic for Her, a line of "sleek" pens in pastel colors, was met with ridicule. And Under Armour has disavowed the "shrink it and pink it" strategy of a decade ago that assumed athletic brands could attract women by making product smaller and pinker.
"In today's society, gender roles are increasingly fluid, so businesses and brands should not fall into old stereotypes," Tuncay Zayer said.
A brand can be patient and caring without necessarily being female, she said, and labeling it as such is not a useful distinction. Better for marketers to define the brand personality as a whole -- is it intelligent? sincere? sophisticated? adventurous? -- rather than risk shilling to men or women and putting people off, she said.
While brand genders are not a new concept, Manley said they can be important as storytelling becomes a critical focus in marketing. With consumers encountering brands in all avenues of their lives and the power of traditional TV campaigns "a thing of the past," marketers strive to create strong brand stories that stick.
"So many brand managers have lost control of the brand in the most traditional sense," Manley said. He pointed to the recent McWhopper incident, in which McDonald's was blindsided by Burger King's public proposal to combine their iconic burgers. And Target had a brush with brand hijacking, albeit a friendly one, when an Internet troll posing as a Target customer service rep on Facebook delivered sharp-tongued rebuttals to critics of the company's decision to scrap gender-based signs in its kids' toy aisles.
Strong storytelling "lets brands maintain their integrity in terms of what their unifying message is," Manley said. Patagonia has done a good job of that, he said. Its recent introduction of Worn Wear, in which it offers to fix people's clothes rather than sell them new ones, underscores its environmental cause and "goes beyond words and moves into an unexpected action," he said.
An interesting gender play can help brands make a statement, Manley said. Take Panera, whose ads have a "mother Earth vibe" and a female announcer whose voice stands out in the crowded fast-casual category, he said.
Despite social strides toward gender equality, the prevailing theory in marketing has been that it's easier to sell a masculine brand to men and women than a feminine brand to either sex, Manley said. With men making up the vast majority of the nation's chief marketing officers, that approach still dominates, he said.
But there are signs of a shift. Manley points to McDonald's Archenemies ad campaign that launched earlier this year, in which historic antagonists -- Batman and the Joker, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Gargamel and the Smurfs -- expressed affection for each other, sometimes by sharing a burger or offering a fry.
"That's an interesting one that feels like it has more of a feminine sensibility," Manley said. "Working out differences instead of just fighting over them."
Anyone who teared up watching Dove's Men + Care commercials during the Super Bowl, in which fathers were seen lovingly comforting their children, witnessed a strong female brand using a feminine characteristic -- sensitivity -- to appeal to a male audience, he said.
Younger generations are driving some of the rethinking. Manley described a focus group his firm did with young men last year as it was developing creative concepts for Miller Lite. One of the ideas presented was about "being with your bros, homeboys." The young men said it felt like pandering.
"The interesting quote was, 'Some of my bros are women,'" Manley recalled, suggesting a desire for a more gender-inclusive message.
Miller Lite has misstepped before overdoing male tropes. Its Man Up campaign was blasted for being sexist, Manley said, because it ridiculed men doing anything -- wearing skinny jeans, carrying a purse, hanging out with mom -- that could be considered feminine.
Leo Burnett's McCabe, while he de-emphasizes the importance of a brand's gender, noted that as some traditionally masculine brands expand their audiences to include women, they seek to connect with what's important to them.
In a recent spot his agency did for Firestone tires, the growly voice of the male announcer narrates the "epic errand" of a woman tearing through town -- and through stores -- in a minivan as she picks up items for her son's birthday party, meant to suggest that the exhilaration of driving a truck is for everyone. In another, for Firestone Auto Service, a woman piles her chain saw, ax and other work tools into the back of a pickup before gently buckling her kids into the back seat.
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