Consumers are pushing back against gendered products

Products specifically marketed to either men or women remain on store shelves, but customers are fighting back and companies are responding.

From lady friendly chips to man-sized tissues, the backlash grows against gendered products

Throughout 2018, companies have faced criticism on social media for marketing products made specifically for men or women that consumers call sexist. (Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock)

Walk through any store and gendered products are everywhere. But increasingly, customers aren't happy about it and are trying to affect change.

Sophie Smith-Doré, a mother of two from Arnprior, Ont., went shopping for pull-up diapers this summer for her two-year-old daughter and was surprised by how it made her feel.

"I didn't expect to be so upset about these seemingly innocuous Pull-Ups, but I truly was. Why does the box of blue Pull-Ups say 'boy' and the pink say 'girl?'"

Sophie Smith-Doré and her daughter Evee. Smith-Doré was so upset about diapers branded for boy or girls that she took to Twitter to voice her opinion and she wasn't alone. (Submitted by Sophie Smith-Doré)

Smith-Doré didn't understand why something as practical as a diaper needed to be gendered when they all serve the same purpose.

"I immediately took to Twitter and I was relieved that quickly many other parents responded with the same passion."

Some companies are responding to these discussions because customer backlash against gendered products happens regularly now.

Man-sized tissues

After more than 60 years on store shelves, Kimberly-Clark has decided to pull their Kleenex Mansize tissues amid growing customer backlash. The tagline for the product was "confidently strong, comfortingly soft."

The company announced it would rebrand the product in the coming months as Kleenex Extra Large.

"Kimberly-Clark in no way suggests that being both soft and strong is an exclusively masculine trait, nor do we believe that the Mansize branding suggests or endorses gender inequality," the company said in a statement.

Brynn Winegard is a marketing and retail expert who says the company likely saw the writing on the wall as criticism of sexist marketing mounted on social media.

"Kimberly-Clark's brand managers and strategists were probably waiting for it, which is why they were probably so quick to hear the backlash or to hear about a tweet and then actually agree to change the name," said Winegard.

Lady friendly chips

A similar story played out in the U.K. about a sandwich sold at the Waitrose & Partners grocery chain.

The "Gentleman's smoked chicken caesar roll" was called sexist and ridiculous on social media. Waitrose immediately said it would change the name.

Earlier this year, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi came under fire for her comments about chips for women.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was criticized when she said the company was working on a less crunchy, less messy chip for women. (Shutterstock)

"[Women] don't like to crunch too loudly in public," said Nooyi.

She said the company was working on a new type of Doritos made for women saying it would be "low crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavour stick on the fingers and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse."

PepsiCo was forced to issue a statement saying lady friendly chips weren't in the works.

'Consumer sensibilities … have changed'

Marketing expert Winegard expects to see more customer-driven changes to gendered products.

"I think we're seeing a lot more of these backlashes because consumer sensibilities and sensitivities have changed," said Winegard. "So as a marketer, I think it's wonderful to hear from our consumers and to understand what it is that they want and what it is that they are thinking about."

Marketing expert Brynn Winegard speaks to groups, organizations and companies about her research, which combines business and brain sciences. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

Winegard says companies that ignore criticism to gendered items risk huge losses because discussions about gender aren't going away.

"As cultural sensibilities continue to evolve, I think this story does not end here. I think we will continue to have an evolving socio-cultural construct around gender roles."

It's an evolution Smith-Doré is delighted to see.

"I realize removing gender from Pull-Ups isn't going to be the thing that fixes the issue of gender inequality and transphobia. But it can be a start, can't it?"


Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.


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