The gender divide

Free of the straitjacket of political correctness, and with the battle of the sexes seemingly over, men and women are more relaxed than ever about their gender identities. Pippa Considine argues that the smartest marketers aren't afraid to treat men like men and women like women.

Go on, admit it. Men everywhere like to down a pint with their mates, are proud if they sport a muscular six-pack, and don't relish the idea of gossiping through coffee mornings as a house husband. Whereas women the world over love to accentuate their curves, appreciate a Cath Kidston rose-design tea towel, and would love it if everyone in the office talked to each other more often.

The days of politically correct gender definitions are numbered. Men are fed up with feeling they either have to adopt so-called "feminine" attributes or risk wallowing in a glut of laddish maleness. Conversely, women aren't keen on creating a generation of confused males who lack that testosterone-driven oomph.

"Younger women see that they can be feminine without being weak, while men are seeing that they can be strong without being sexist," William Higham, a trend forecaster and the founder of The Next Big Thing, says.

Pretending that women and men are the same for the sake of political correctness is a potential minefield for marketers. In their new book, Inside Her Pretty Little Head, the marketing consultants Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts use scientific analysis to support their thesis that businesses are missing the point if they fail to explore what appeals to women and men with more honesty. "Men and women are hardwired differently," Cunningham says. "They process information differently and have different behavioural default settings."

The smarter brands have already started to recognise this, she believes. "There is huge creative potential in the differences between men and women. It provides fodder for creating realistic character and dialogue, as well as differentiated and properly relevant brand positioning. But you have to understand the fundamentals."

Cunningham and Roberts describe men as driven by "The Achievement Impulse" - they like to create and engage in male-to-male competition. Brands, whose ads they believe have successfully fed off this impulse, include: Nuts - I'm the biggest lad; Carlsberg - I'm the funniest bloke; The Economist - I'm the most successful bloke; and Apple - I make more intelligent choices.

Women, they suggest, are motivated by "The Utopian Impulse": the need and desire to create a perfect, harmonious world where everything has its rightful place and seems safe and happy, without risk. "Some enlightened people are getting this and acting on it," Cunningham says. "They are seeing a fantastic opportunity to create differentiation by using feminine values instead of masculine values." She cites brands that are becoming more decorative or transparent, with a more "cottage industry" feel, such as Innocent, Sony Bravia and Shell.

One unlikely category that seems to have latched on to the subtleties of gender difference is automotive. At The Future Laboratory, the trends and research editor, Gwyneth Holland, believes that we are at the dawn of a more sophisticated era in the targeting of the sexes: "Advertising and product design are becoming more sophisticated. The car market has obviously got a good handle on it - the advertising is really insightful and you see diverse advertising to the same demographic for similar products. So, BMW shows the sleek lines and shape of its car and Volkswagen has a "Generation X" dad dancing around with the children. Then there's the Skoda ad, where they make the car out of cake. It's engaging, delicious and non-techy - obviously appealing to women - but it also shows the construction and the work behind the product. It's a lot more sophisticated than it would have been five years ago, when they'd have put a tiara on the ad to make it appeal to women."

At Fallon, the agency behind the Skoda work, the planning partner Laurence Green, believes that the advertising is not just for women, but it goes the extra mile to include them. "Our Fabia campaign is aimed at men and women, and is apparently working equally well with both. It's only by comparison with the car ad genre - with all its macho cliches (hairpin bends, rock track, close-ups of wheels) -that it looks so starkly 'feminine' as an execution. Most car clients have male marketing directors and most car account teams skew male, so it's not surprising that their communication errs that way. It's perhaps no coincidence that our clients, and a good number of the agency team, including the planner, are female."

At Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, the planning director, Giles Hedger, feels that it is creative execution, rather than strategy, that is responding to changes in how men and women perceive themselves: "It is the portrayal of men and women that changes a lot more. It has to be a lot more tuned in to the mood of the day."

Smart marketers have, at the very least, changed their characterisation to match the moment. The girl and boy stars of Levi's recent "dangerous liaisons" ad are on an equal footing, which marks a significant change from the hunky idol and his female admirers in "launderette". Lynx, meanwhile, reinvented the star of its ads to make him more of an accidental hero, chiming with the mood of indecision prevalent among men in the 21st century.

Neil Goodlad, the managing partner at CHI & Partners, claims that this savvy approach to the sexes is indicative of a general rise in the levels of marketing sophistication: "Marketers are recognising that we're all multi-faceted: we can have a lad side and a dad side, and different brands set out to appeal to different characteristics and occasions."

There is a financial incentive for a more sophisticated approach to communication with the sexes - especially women. Earlier this year, a report in The Economist suggested that women in the West are responsible for almost 80 per cent of purchase decisions. Even in the traditionally masculine domains of automotive or consumer electronics, women are becoming the dominant purchase-makers.

As Roberts and Cunningham point out, there's a gap between this fact and the delivery of the marketing and communications industries. In a YouGov survey at the end of 2006, more than two-thirds of the women polled said they could not identify with women featured in advertising; one in two said that they felt ads try to sell them things by making them feel bad about themselves. Then there's the perennial issue of the under-representation of women in ad agency creative departments.

Debbie Klein, the chief executive of WCRS and the author of the IPA report Women in Advertising, says: "Creative ideas shouldn't have genitals, but with 80 per cent of purchasing decisions either made or influenced by women, I have no doubt that, if creative departments reflected that balance more accurately, we would get more advertising that connects more deeply with women."

But, in other departments, such as account handling, the number of women is roughly half, and the traditional male terminology in ad agencies has been toned down in recent years. Macho, warlike terms such as targeting, objectives, strategy and campaign have now been joined by a more emotional set of terms, with brands seeking to engage with consumers, rather than merely persuade. Indeed, new ad agencies are some of the organisations most likely to adopt so-called "feminine" structures, with a flatter hierarchy and an emphasis on internal communication.

Klein identifies the stirrings of a more honest approach to targeting the sexes: "You are seeing fewer ads saying that women, rather than men, are in charge - such as the Fiat Uno ad, where she does fancy driving, or the Carling ad, where he licks beer off the floor. You are seeing less overt stereotyping. But are you seeing lots of enlightened examples? I think not."

That said, Klein agrees that some campaigns are grasping the nettle, including WCRS's ad for Littlewoods Direct that uses the fashion gurus Trinny and Susannah, and a very feminine sense of humour, in a glamorous appeal to womankind. There's also no denying that Marks & Spencer and Dove have tapped into something with their appeal to "real women".

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty goes from strength to strength. This year it scooped both a Cyber and a Film Grands Prix at Cannes. When Ogilvy & Mather first launched the campaign in 2004, Lever Faberge claimed a 700 per cent rise in sales of Dove Firming products in the first half of the year. The Campaign for Real Beauty has now been used worldwide to target all ages of women, including the over-45s and teenagers.

In the US, where targeting women is an established marketing science, the Diamond Trading Company, through JWT, launched a campaign to promote the "right-hand ring": a diamond ring for a woman to wear as "a symbol of her own sense of self, style, and spirit". Guy Murphy, JWT's global planning director, describes the "right hand" campaign as "an assertion of women's independence".

Murphy argues that in the UK, men and women are increasingly interested in characteristics of independence and integrity, which some advertisers are brave enough to reflect. He cites Nike's "man boobs" ad, where a cynical jogger is running to get rid of his flab. "It's Dove for men," he says.

But are men ready for such a frank approach? "Men have been though a period of uncertainty about male identity," Murphy says. "They're not yet through the other side, but the key role models more closely resemble ourselves than they did before." Current role models, he claims, are a diverse bunch: Simon Cowell, Jamie Oliver, Jeremy Clarkson and David Beckham. But what they have in common is personal integrity and independence.

Murphy's colleague, Marian Salzman, the executive vice-president, chief marketing officer at JWT Worldwide, and the co-author of the book The Future of Men, has been credited with helping to generate media buzz around the alleged rise of the "metrosexual". Two years ago, she predicted the ascendancy of his successor, the "ubersexual" - confident, masculine, stylish and committed to uncompromising quality in all areas of life. "This year was the year of uber- man on steroids at the Cannes Ad Festival," she says. "I am man and I roar. He's alive and well and wildly aspirational, as real men try to reclaim the top positions in matters career, lust, love,life." Higham has coined the term "Bonded", to describe situations where men feel they can be both sensitive and macho. "James Bond represents that old-fashioned gentleman who knows how to use his fists, but also recognises what temperature to serve champagne at." Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, with his darker, more raw, edge, has helped to give the persona a 21st-century edge.

So, is there a female equivalent of the ubersexual? "She is unapologetically feminine - the true lover of matters and all things girlie, and strong," Salzman says. "She knows her heart, her mind and her sexy parts, and how to manage all of them. Think Angelina Jolie. Think Sharon Stone on a good evening."

The UK may still be waking up to the science of targeting women, but there is one area where women and men have been separately targeted for some time. Women's magazines are thriving, and the past few years have seen the rise of men's magazines.

Arguably, the rise of lads' mags such as Nuts, Zoo and Loaded signifies that men are increasingly confident about acting like blokes.

Magazines for women haven't seen such a major change in recent years, but the editor of Marie Claire, Marie O'Riordan, has observed a shift in the magazine's coverage: "We do much less editorial nowadays that looks at men, their habits, their whims, etc, in a desperate attempt to enlighten the relationships between the sexes. Now, we are wholly focused on women, and the differences between them. Women, I would say, are less concerned than they used to be with comparing themselves to men - they are ploughing their own furrow in a way that is different to men, and more suitable to a female sensibility."

One of the biggest phenomena in the women's magazine market in the past few years has been the successful launch of the news-to-fashion magazine Grazia. The managing director of the soon-to-be-launched women's website OSOYOU.com, Dawn Bebe, was previously involved in the launch of Grazia by Emap Consumer Media. Bebe believes it played to women's Utopian yearnings. "Grazia supports women's desire to improve their lives in all ways possible, by delivering both a world view and a personal view in a stylish, fast environment."

Marketers are starting to tune into the complex female mindset, and to have more faith in traditional male values. "The representation and marketing to men and women has become more separate and sophisticated, certainly," Holland says. "We're seeing women become stronger and more powerful, in terms of spend, and men are restating their position. It will be more interesting going forward - the distinctions need to be subtle and a lot sharper. We're at the very beginning."