Under the Influence

Summer Series - Guys and Dolls: Gender Marketing, Part II

This week, it’s part two of our Gender Marketing show. In this episode, we’ll look at how companies that have historically marketed to one gender switch gears to target another. We’ll analyze how Harley Davidson got women on two wheels, why a 13-year-old girl convinced Hasbro to make an Easy Bake Oven for boys and how Barbie targeted…dads. By and large, most products are gender-neutral. It's just the marketing that's not.
(Image Source: brandchannel)

*Our Summer Series airs Thursdays and Saturdays at 11:30 on CBC Radio One.*

This week, it's part two of our Gender Marketing show. In this episode, we'll look at how companies that have historically marketed to one gender switch gears to target another. We'll analyze how Harley Davidson got women on two wheels, why a 13-year-old girl convinced Hasbro to make an Easy Bake Oven for boys and how Barbie targeted…dads. By and large, most products are gender-neutral. It's just the marketing that's not.

Back in 1965, Otis Redding released his third album, titled Otis Blue. It would yield Redding's second top 40 hit:

The song was titled Respect, and the lyric was aimed at an ungrateful woman. It was about a man wanting a little respect at home after a long day's work.

Two years later, the song was covered by another artist. Her name… was Aretha Franklin:

Aretha not only covered that song, she claimed that song.

She added the spelling of R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the lyric. Her sisters added the call-and-response background vocals, singing "Sock it to me."

The song rocketed to the top of the charts. It was the Queen of Soul's first number one hit. She would win a Grammy for it. Rolling Stone magazine would proclaim Aretha's version as one of the five greatest songs of all time.

But it was more than just Aretha Franklin's musical arrangement of the song that made it a smash hit.

It was something much larger.

It was the fact her version reversed the entire point of the original song.

Aretha had taken Otis Redding's male-oriented song and turned it into a woman's anthem. She wasn't just asking a man for respect - she was demanding it.

While the song also captured the core ideals of civil rights era, it has really gone down in music history as a clarion call of the woman's movement.

Women everywhere were demanding respect. (Image Source: PBS)

Aretha's cover was almost an answer song to Otis's version, saying respect was a two-way street. And Aretha insisted on equal rights with power and force.

Redding's biographer Mark Ribowsky said Otis didn't like Aretha's version. He felt the song no longer belonged to him.

Otis was right.

When gender was impressed against his song, it went from being a man's lament to a forceful anthem for women.

When gender is impressed against marketing, it sings a different tune, too.

Many companies only market to one gender. But it's always interesting when they decide to change gears.

How does a company that has only marketed to women for decades suddenly try to attract men? And how does a man's brand go feminine?

It's not impossible. It just takes creativity, some strategic thinking and a little respect…

One of the most famous brands marketed to girls is Barbie.

Come on Barbie, let's go party. (Image Source: theodysseyonline)

Mattel has marketed Barbie dolls to little girls since 1959.

Over those nearly six decades, Barbie has advertised not only to girls - but to Moms – because Moms hold the purse strings.

But recently, Barbie did something it has never done before:

It advertised to Dads:


Dads who play Barbie.

Each commercial showed a real Dad playing Barbie with his real daughter. The theme was:

While Barbies were still only aimed at girls, talking to Dads was a big strategy change for Mattel.

The idea was born of research. In partnership with a university, Mattel studied the relationship between parents and children when it comes to playtime. The study showed that the more involved a Dad is in his daughter's imaginative play, the more he contributes to her real-life development.

That convinced Mattel that Dads had to become a part of the brand's narrative.

The first key was to develop creative advertising that captured the emotion of playing, storytelling and imagination.

#DadsWhoPlayWithBarbie (Image Source: YouTube)

The second key was to not only be creative with the messages, but to also be creative with where the commercials were placed.

So the first ad aired during the NFL's AFC Championship game last January. Seeing Dads playing with Barbies during an NFL football game surprised a lot of viewers, but that surprise gave the commercial impact.

As a brand that has only spoken to little girls and Moms for 58 years, this Barbie Dads campaign was landmark change.

Who wouldn't love paper towel yoga mats? (Image Source: brandchannel)

As I often say, changing a perception is a process, not an event.

Bringing Dads into the Barbie world will take time.

But at least that conversation is working its way to the front burner.

Hey, remember this commercial:

In the 60s and 70s, the Easy Bake Oven was one of the most high-profile toys marketed to girls age 8 to 12.

It was launched by Kenner in 1963 and was an instant sensation. One of the biggest reasons for that success was that most activity-based toys at that time were aimed at boys.

The prevailing wisdom being that boys were more hands-on and productive than girls.

But the Easy Bake Oven debunked that gender assumption.

The idea for the Easy Bake Oven occurred to a Kenner executive one day when he marvelled at the small ovens street vendors used to cook and heat pretzels. He wondered if a toy oven could be created for little girls.

The solution was an Easy Bake Oven that used two 100-watt light bulbs instead of a heating element. That design feature alone convinced parents that it was safe for kids to use.

The other smart marketing idea was to send recipes and baking ingredients for the things kids loved most: cakes and cookies.

Cookies and cakes appealed to boys too. But the oven was only marketed to girls. (Image Source: unsophisticook)

Since 1963, over 23 million Easy Bake Ovens have been sold.

I remember seeing those commercials when I was about eight, and secretly wanting one. Not that I was a budding baker, I just wanted a non-stop supply of cookies in my bedroom.

But I would never have dared asked for an Easy Bake Oven, because it wasn't a boys toy. It was the quintessential girls toy. As a matter of fact, when you looked at the advertising, it showed a girl in the kitchen with her aproned Mom. It was targeting future female homemakers.

Many years later in 2002, Hasbro, who had purchased Kenner by then, finally saw an opportunity to launch an Easy Bake Oven – and called it the Queasy Bake Cookerator:

It came with tasty but gross recipes that were designed to be more appealing to boys, like Mud 'N Crud Cake and Drip 'N Drool Dog Bones.

But it failed in the marketplace.

Then in 2012, a girl named McKenna Pope had a younger brother who loved to bake cookies. He wanted an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas but was afraid to ask for one – for the same reason I was afraid to ask for one 45 years earlier.

It was just marketed to girls – in girl's colours – with only girls in their commercials.

So 13-year old McKenna Pope made a YouTube video asking Hasbro to create a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven. And she asked people to sign her Change.org petition:

In less than three weeks, McKenna Pope had amassed 46,000 signatures. She also got a lot of hate mail from people, accusing her of wanting to "turn boys gay." Her family had to field a wave of negative comments.

Then the most amazing thing happened:

Hasbro invited McKenna to their offices to show her something.

It was a brand new Easy Bake Oven.

But it was gender neutral, in silver, black and blue.

A 13 year-old voice had changed the marketing strategy of a major toy company.

Never underestimate the power of one.

It always interesting to see how major companies who have marketed heavily to one gender for decades then decide to reach out to the opposite gender.

Silver, black and a little blue. (Image Source: broadsheet.ie)

Take Weight Watchers.

With annual revenues north of $1.2 billion dollars, Weight Watchers is the leading weight loss program in North America.

A renowned brand. (Image Source: weightlosstips)

Its claim to fame is its community mentality. Members attend weekly "Weight Watchers Meetings" for peer support and weigh-ins to help them stay the course and meet their weight loss goals.

But Weight Watchers had a problem.

They couldn't get men interested in the program.

Of Weight Watchers' nearly 2 million members, 90% were female.

Research showed that men were just as interested in losing weight, but that they generally dieted and exercised on their own.

Women, on the other hand, benefit from the Weight Watchers program for two main reasons – scheduled meetings force them to stay on track with their goals and women find peer support encouraging.

A clear gender divide.

…but a divide with a history.

It dates back to Dr. Kenneth Cooper's invention of the term aerobics in 1968. Initially, aerobics meant any physical activity – from swimming, to jogging, to cycling.

But over the next 20 years, aerobics became synonymous with dancing.

Hip-hop, jazzercize and zumba-type classes became all the rage.

But dancing was considered feminine - a collaborative form of exercise with no competitive aspect whatsoever. Which was unappealing to men.

Thus, group fitness classes became female-dominated, and men spent their gym time independently. This mentality then translated…to dieting.

So, Weight Watchers came up with a plan to tip the scales.

In 2007, the company launched a men-only website and app, where men could participate in the program on their own terms. No counselling. No weigh-ins. No support meetings.

It ran a commercial starring Charles Barkley… in drag:

Like Mattel did with Barbie, Weight Watchers aired commercials during sports programs like the NBA and NHL playoffs.

At the end of the day, it was a lesson in psychology.

Weight Watchers knew that if they wanted to attract a new audience, they had to do a little gender aerobics.

It's a lesson Harley Davidson would take to the bank…

When you think "Harley Davidson" - what comes to mind?

Chrome? Noise?


While there were women riders, the gender gap was wide. (Image Source: AP)

For decades, those words have been Harley Davidson's bread and butter.

But not unlike Weight Watchers, Harley was limiting itself.

Despite holding 55% of the American heavyweight bike market, they weren't tapping into the female market.

None of those key words spoke to women.

Which is interesting, because the industry had seen a 30% rise in female riders since the millennium.

So Harley saw an opportunity. It was time to take women from the back of the bike… to the front.

In 2014, Harley came out with its first two motorcycles for women, the brand's only new designs in the last 15 years.

First, they ditched the chrome - and instead opted for all black everything. The "Little Black Dress" of the motorcycle world. Sleek and cool. They made a couple of small design changes to accommodate a women's body – but retained the Harley aesthetic.

Then, Harley Davidson looked beyond the bike.

They dubbed May "Women Riders Month" – holding events to celebrate female riders and encourage new riders to get behind the handlebars.

Harley also threw what they call "garage parties" at their dealerships - free ladies-only sessions to learn bike basics and safety "from headlights to tailpipes."

And along with Harley's efforts to motivate the ladies, International Female Ride Day took off (which by the way, originated in Canada, then expanded to the US and the UK) to further celebrate women on two wheels.

It was a disruptive strategy for the male-dominated Harley Davidson brand. But today, 1 in 10 Harleys is sold to women. And that number is growing.

Harley believes their new focus on females will help protect their market share from Japanese competitors like Kawasaki and Suzuki.

It seems the girls rumbled the boy's club.

In 2014, IPSO Research revealed that women consumed more than 17 billion servings of beer in North America annually – or 25% of the entire category.

Beer isn't just for boys. (Image Source: Getty Images)

That was equal to the amount of beer that Millennial males drank that year.

The number astounded the new Marketing Chief at Miller Coors.

He couldn't believe his company wasn't talking to women. He also knew that Millennials expect brands to be fully inclusive to women.

So Coors launched a campaign that it hoped would appeal to women. The theme was "climb on" – meant to invoke a sense of empowerment:

The commercial showed men and women challenging themselves in various activities. It spoke to women in a way that Coors' past advertising had not.

At the Cannes Advertising Festival last June, I attended a talk by the Chief Marketing Officer of Heineken.

That beer brand has begun to employ a very unusual gender strategy.

It wants appeal to women who are attracted to men who drink less.

The theme is "Moderate Drinkers Wanted" – and it features a series of television commercials showing women walking away from their drunk boyfriends while singing a Bonnie Tyler anthem:

How many other beer commercials have you ever seen where the advertised beer is refused?

Again – this wasn't a campaign to attract men. It was a campaign to attract women who are attracted to men who drink less.

A bold strategy that the Heineken marketing chief said was generating big results in the marketplace.

But not every beer had success switching sides.

In 2011, Molson Coors introduced a "bloat resistant" beer in the UK called Animée. It came in three varieties – standard, rosé and citrus - and was pulled from shelves after only 15 months.

Carlsberg created a gender-neutral beer called Copenhagen. The clear bottles looked like mini wine bottles and contained a white-wine coloured beer.

It too failed.

Many women marketers maintain that the world doesn't need a "pink" beer – but rather – beer companies need to figure out how to make women more inclusive in their marketing.

Again – the product doesn't have to change – just the marketing does.

Unilever did an extensive study not long ago that showed a big gap between what the advertising industry is saying and how consumers are living.

Specifically, it said 40% of consumers aren't relating to the advertising they see.

That is a staggering number.

Furthermore, only 3% of ads and commercials around the world show women in leadership roles.

That gender disconnect should be a big wake-up call to advertisers and retailers.

The biggest problem is defaulting to stereotypes.

Studies show that Millennials are twice as likely as Boomers to resist advertising that imposes gender stereotypes. They see marketers as obstacles to their efforts to raise their children bias-free.

If you take that through to its logical conclusion, it suggests that marketers are taking a huge strategic risk by employing gender to sell gender-neutral products. But marketers who are already making those changes will stand to benefit the most when Millennials become the dominant shopping force.

Recently, NPR asked an interesting question:

When did women stop coding?

Prior to 1984, plenty of women were coding pioneers in the digital industry. So what happened?

Well, a gender wall was built. When computers finally became available for home use – with Apple and smaller PCs in the mid 80s – they were marketed almost exclusively to men and boys.

And a Carnegie Mellon study in the early 90s found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls.

It was a lesson in the ramifications of gender stereotyping.

Women and girls weren't shown images of females excelling in computer applications. It skewed their aspirations. So the number of women coders fell off.

Yet, computers are a gender-neutral product.

At the same Cannes Advertising Festival I mentioned earlier, I attended a talk with Sir Tim Berners-Lee – inventor of the World Wide Web. He was asked an interesting question.

What message would he give to parents about the Internet?

His answer: Get your girls to code

The Girls Who Code organization empowers girls to enter the lucrative and creative business. (Image Source: time)

When a female brand decides to attract men, or when a heavily-advertised male brand decides to woo women, it's always a tricky marketing challenge.

When Barbie wanted to include Dads in its marketing for the first time in 58 years, it chose to make that statement during NFL football games. Barbies didn't change, just the marketing did.

When Weight Watchers want to attract men, it just needed to understand how men think. So the program was advertised as a solo effort.

And when Coors wanted to attract women, the beer recipe didn't change, just the advertising recipe did.

That was probably the common ingredient in all the stories today. By and large, most products are gender-neutral. It's just the marketing that's not.

There's a big opportunity out there for advertisers who are willing to be more inclusive. Why only market to 50% of the customer base?? Why restrict a child's aspirations with out-dated stereotypes? Why not appeal to everyone, no matter how they identify themselves?

As we mentioned in Part One of this episode, it's not just the product, it's how the product is marketed that matters.

Too bad Easy Bake Ovens didn't realize that 50 years ago.

Just imagine all the cookies I could have made in my bedroom and then all the money I could have spent years later with Weight Watchers…

…when you're under the influence.