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Decline of Sex In Marketing

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We live in a world of stereotypes: Boys wear blue, girls wear pink. Men buy booze, women buy shoes. The French are chefs, the English, butlers. Filipinos are nurses, the Chinese, restaurant owners.

Whether you like it, agree with it, both or neither, prejudice influences our thinking, our decision-making, and our marketing. And, among the many stereotypes that pervade our world and our world views, none is older or more powerful than those that have to do with woman and man. But this is changing.

Rise of Women
“If you walk down the streets of Manhattan, London, or Frankfurt today,” reads a quote from Boston Consulting Group senior partner Michael J. Silverstein in Newsweek, “and you ask 100 single men and women between the ages of 25 and 30 what they make, the women will make more.” This isn’t just another statistic. This means that the socio-economic foundations that make women a stereotypical woman are shifting dramatically.

As more women become better educated, enter professions previously dominated by men, and increase their personal wealth, they also increase their participa- tion in and ability to influence decision-making in the home and in their communities.

A woman’s power to decide will no longer be limited to types and colors of shoes, dresses, bed linen, and wallpaper—as they stereotypically have been in the past—but will now include how a family’s money is invested and the make and color of the family car, to name a few examples.

While marketers of mutual funds and cars have traditionally focused on understanding, catering to the needs of and influencing the decisions of men, they will now have to train sights on women, the new decision-makers.

This is not a minor change that will require only a cursory look at the needs of women in the context of those of men. According to a recent BCG study, the value inherent in closing the total income gap between men and women is double the growth projected for China and India combined, making it the largest emerging market opportunity available today.

In other words, this change will require a paradigm shift in how businesses conceptualize, develop, produce, and deliver goods and services.


Rise of Men
While women take greater control over decisionmaking in traditionally male-dominated markets, men are making themselves heard in traditionally female-oriented product categories.

As women assume functions in the family and in the community formerly occupied by men, men are increasingly forced to assume greater (or sometimes even complete) responsibility in fulfilling newly vacant, formerly female-dominated roles. And it makes sense that, as mutual fund companies turn more toward women personal money managers in their marketing, diaper-makers speak more to the needs of babysitting fathers too.

Furthermore, not only will men take on these roles, they will also come to develop physical, emotional, and social needs linked to fulfilling these duties.

A househusband will, in many ways, have more in common with a housewife than with a male banker. A commonality in occupation, in this case, trumps a commonality in sex. This produces many opportunities for businesses that stop thinking in terms of sex-defined needs and start thinking in terms of role-defined needs.

Fall of Sex, Rise of sexuality
Without a doubt, what we are seeing is a declining importance of sex identity in marketing. But sexual identity, or sexuality, remains as important as ever.

Sex identity is a purely physical matter. Sexual identity, on the other hand, goes beyond what the person is to who he or she is.

For marketers, this means we must look beyond a one-dimensional framework based on sex-based utility (Figure 1; i.e., what a person needs based on his/her being male/female) to a two-dimensional framework, which includes both sex-based utility and sexual identity-based expression (Figure 2; i.e., what a person needs to express his/her masculinity/femininity).

Old Paradigm
In the past, being male/female defined what products we used and how we used them (men choose the cars; women, curtains). Today, apart from tampons and shavers, hardly any product is defined by its utility to a particular sex group. Most are only moderately more useful to one sex over another and thus exist within a narrow band when defined by sex-based utility (x-axis).

New Paradigm
Thus, apart from thinking in terms of role-based needs, another way of redefining the role of sex in marketing is to think in terms of sexual identity-based expression (y-axis). Does this brand or product help a consumer express his/her masculinity/femininity? Do we have car makes and models that feel more feminine, or curtains, well, more masculine?

Stereotypes are not social evils. They are simply widely accepted ways of seeing the world we live in.

It does pay dividends, however, to update our stereotypes once in awhile lest we find ourselves thinking something evidently outrageous. Like ‘Women buy shoes.’ Ridiculous! They, obviously, buy bags too!

Print ed: 02/10


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