Jaden Smith: stars in Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign
Jaden Smith: stars in Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign
A view from Hannah Gillett

Gender neutral campaigns are refusing to label brands and their customers

The way modern society views gender is no longer as simple as it once was and the definitions of male and female are starting to lose relevancy, writes Hannah Gillet.

The younger generation are particularly quick to challenge conventional gender stereotypes. Research suggests 50% of young people believe gender exists on a spectrum, not just in two buckets. The majority of brands and agencies in the communications industry are still stuck firmly in binary gender definitions when it comes to audiences and creative messaging.

There is an untapped opportunity to forge better connections with young people today, by redefining how we approach gender from a communications perspective.

2015 saw an explosion of transgender visibility in the mainstream media, with Caitlyn Jenner as the first high profile transgender person to vocalise their story. Following Jenner’s interview on The 20/20 show, there was an unprecedented positive reaction to the issue of redefining gender.

Since 2015, the term genderfluid has also become a popular term, used to describe those who maintain the sex assigned at birth, but sit somewhere along the gender spectrum. Gender fluidity is gaining significant traction with young people, who want to break free from the restrictive definitions of male and female.

Research suggests 50% of young people believe gender exists on a spectrum, not just in two buckets.

Key figures in the music industry such as Miley Cyrus, Angel Haze, St Vincent and Ezra Furman often speak of their gender fluidity and their refusal to stick to a designated sexuality. These artists can now connect directly with their fans through social media, and their influential statements can reach the ears of millions of people instantly.

It is this freedom of self-expression that has given other young people the confidence to start demanding acceptance for their own gender identities.

Broadcast media has also played a significant role in embracing gender fluidity; Orange Is the New Black being the most prominent example with its transgender characters, Ruby Rose and Laverne Cox. In the UK, EastEnders cast its first transgender actor last year, and BBC drama Boy Meets Girl is another example of a mainstream TV show tackling the issue head on.

Consumer products that sit on the gender spectrum have always had a place in the fashion and beauty industries. However, this year has seen more niche trends truly break into the mainstream.

High street retailer Boots has changed the packaging on its hairspray products to make them more gender neutral and Zara has recently announced the launch of a gender neutral range ‘Ungendered’, with a campaign fronted by Ruby Rose.

Similarly, over the past few years we have started to see transgender models featured in high profile advertising campaigns for brands such as H&M, MAC and Barney’s in New York. Louis Vuitton has even gone one step further in casting Jaden Smith as the face of its womenswear range (main image, above).

High street retailer Boots has changed the packaging on its hairspray products to make them more gender neutral.

The past 18 months have seen a dramatic shift in the way popular culture is celebrating gender diversity, and this has permeated to public perceptions at lightning speed. Most importantly this shift in values is no longer limited to people on the fringes of youth culture, but has found a prominent place in mainstream culture and media.

In the face of such change, you would expect brands to start adapting their strategy to be in line with the changing attitudes of their audiences. So far very few brands have fully addressed these new perceptions around gender yet.

Although the reaction to gender fluidity and transgender acceptance has been overwhelmingly positive, there are still people who believe it’s all about PR and attention seeking individuals. Critics of Miley Cyrus would definitely agree – they see her gender revelation as the latest in a line of publicity stunts.

The same goes for the BBC after the transgender contestant on The Voice, Jordan, was dismissed at the blind auditions having not been chosen for her voice but later brought back to the show after a contestant dropped out. Sunday People claimed "viewers would be right to be outraged by the latest example of the BBC’s blatant box ticking".

The idea that the BBC was "box ticking" is the reason why brands are hesitant to address new perceptions around gender with their target consumers.

When it comes to embracing these new perceptions on gender, another challenge for brands is relevance. Only 0.5% of people in the US openly identify as transgender, which means it’s easy to think of those outside of the traditional gender segments as a niche audience.

However, the fact remains that for half of 18 to 34s, their personal perception of gender is shifting away from male and female stereotypes. They may not identify as transgender, but the majority will see themselves on a spectrum of gender fluidity, and these type of brand messages will resonate with them in a similar way.

A prime example of a brand that really understands the value of taking a more gender fluid approach is Clean & Clear in the US. The skin care brand partnered with Jazz Jennings for its #SeeTheRealMe campaign.

Jennings, who was assigned as male at birth but identifies as female in gender, went on to launch a popular YouTube channel celebrating and supporting transgender adolescents. The partnership works so well because it’s based on a true human need – the confidence and courage to be the real you – and this creates a real emotional connection with audiences. Advertisers who try to activate the same brand strategy but just paste a gender message over the top will ultimately fail.

For a long time, the industry has stated that demographics are no longer the best way to define an audience, but more often than not people limit that to age, race and social class. Very rarely has the concept of gender within an audience been challenged.

Our gender is no longer a single category that we belong to, but a spectrum of need states and emotions that we can shift between. Brands must move away from thinking of gender as a filter that is applied before considering human needs, and start understanding that all human needs are relevant to both men and women in different moments.

Kate Bornstein, an author and gender theorist, said in a recent speech, "If there’s a leading edge that is the future of gender, it’s going to be one that understands that gender is relevant to context."

For brands that are embracing the idea of gender fluidity, context needs to be the most important factor, and they must be agile enough to react to this. Data signals will be a huge part of understanding audience behaviour, but advertisers need to do more research into why people choose their products rather than using the blunt tool of gender to segment their audiences.

As more young people take inspiration from public figures, the speed at which gender definitions are broken down will rapidly increase.

Brands must start to future proof themselves for this changing youth mentality, because at some point in the future, thinking just about male and female alone will make them irrelevant and outdated.

By Hannah Gillett, strategy director, Starcom