6 Designers Talk Sexist Branding and Moving Towards Gender Neutral

by The Dieline on 03/06/2020 | 5 Minute Read

It’s no secret that the branding world has been awash with issues of sexism and gender-specific marketing, but things are starting to change. In today’s society, consumers are far more open-minded and conforming less to gender roles; they’re looking to brands to champion equality and gender neutrality. 

We’re seeing redesigns of once gendered brands such as Mrs. Dash, which recently dropped the "Mrs" as well as new brands like makeup range Milk, which markets itself as being for him, her, everybody.  

We spoke to a selection of designers on their views on the importance of creating non-gendered brands, the issues that come with it, and their gripes with sexist branding. 

Editorial photograph

Leigh Chandler, Creative Director and Partner, Vault49

Blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Yes, it’s a design cliché, but it’s one that continues to get passed on to each new generation.

In our increasingly gender-fluid world, is it still relevant to adhere to design codes that attempt to appeal to a specific sex by playing into these stereotypes? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no, but there are things that we desperately need to fix. 

Men and women have shared needs but certain physiological differences. Skincare is one category where this is true – men have facial hair, and women have more delicate skin. In these cases, clear gender communication is useful. But please, can we see an end to dialing into clichés which further stereotype sexes and exaggerate our differences more than is necessary?

What needs to stop is brands claiming products are unnecessarily gendered specific. Perusing the pharmacy, you'll see pink earplugs—presumably for our delicate lady ears—and pink pain relief tablets for ‘that time of the month." But look at the back of the pack, and you’ll find that the product inside is exactly the same. 

Editorial photograph

Jos Harrison, Global Design Strategy Director, Reckitt Benckiser 

The effect of consciously designed brand experiences can be hugely impactful and a positive force for societal change where it is needed.

Our current global cultural shift towards a more appropriate expression of self gives brand owners (and designers and advertisers as well) a huge opportunity to provide support for individuals and groups, both in the way brands make them feel and in the way they help consumers to express themselves.

Creating solutions that have an inherent gender-neutrality is fraught with difficulty, especially when brands try to move their entire positioning to a more visually or even behaviourally neutral stance; often all subtlety is lost, or in trying to avoid alienating existing users, the brand doesn’t go far enough, seeming to express a token gesture.

This manifests particularly in Homecare products, a bastion of traditional marketing messaging, which until recently was content to play back the role of women as homemakers in most (patriarchal) societies.

It must change, however, fundamentally and immediately; whether in ATL media, packaging, or experience design, brands must break from convention and shatter the trope of the female homemaker.

Editorial photograph

Kelli Miller, Partner and Creative Director, And/Or

The world of film, music, and television design has been refreshingly free of gendered tropes in their design work. This is because the creatives run the entertainment world, versus the more traditional marketing and brand manager approach common in agencies and branding studios. Film, TV and the arts are inherently more forward-thinking, more aware of the tolerance of their audiences for clichés and stereotypical visual language, and more attuned to cultural and social trends. 

Of course, there’s always work we have to do in creating an equal space in all industries, but one thing that has been so attractive and rewarding about working with entertainment clients is their appetite and willingness to push boundaries. If brands want to consider taking a more gender-neutral approach, examining the arts is a great place to start. 

Editorial photograph

Jessica Katona, Associate Creative Director, Landscape

Every day, we see more brands approaching their offering as gender-inclusive—from fashion, food, and skincare to biology and construction. 

At Landscape, we try to think about design and brand from a cultural perspective, one that goes beyond gender-based trends and focuses on our needs, shared values, and attitudes as people. 

Perhaps as design literacy rises, we’re in less need of overt, heavy-handed, gender-based cues. And as our collective design-savvy continues to rise, so do our expectations for the value these brands deliver—including more honest, open communications. 

Editorial photograph

Shaun Bowen, Creative Partner, B&B studio

Brands need to get built on values—but it’s not a brand’s place to judge who those values should appeal to or why.

Challenging outdated conventions and ideals—particularly when it comes to gender—is one of a designer’s key responsibilities and is crucial in creating progressive and effective brands for the future.

The redesign of better-for-you snack brand Well & Truly—one of a strong portfolio of value-driven designs—is a good example of this. The brand previously had a restrained, apologetic design typical of the pared-back and patronizing diet codes used to target women. The redesign demonstrates that better-for-you doesn’t mean bland, leading on taste and satisfaction. The design ignores gender-bias to focus on the universal appeal of great taste. 

Editorial photograph

Gemma Wilson, Copywriter, Reed Words

Gender in verbal identity is entering an interesting phase. Gender is rarely one of the main attributes of a brand voice, and why would it be? It’s more meaningful to speak about traits like playfulness and positivity, or a dry style of humor. Pinning any of these features to one gender is reductive at best.

Instead, branding and design agencies should be writing in a way that is authentic to a brand and its values, and that relates to the needs of the audience. This includes not making assumptions about the gender of the people engaging with your brand. 

There are some great role models for this. The menstrual cycle tracking app, Clue, uses gender-inclusive language to refer to users as people, not "women," "girls," or "ladies." They don’t assume everyone who has a period identifies as female. 

You may also like