Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2016 is a perfect visual metaphor for cultural change through 2015.
Fluidity was key, and for the first time the combination of two colors was chosen to reflect this blurring of lines across categories, including the dissolution of traditional binary gender divisions.
The way brands respond to this type of seismic cultural shift can have a tremendous impact on how consumers view them; 2015 was ripe with instances of brands that stayed in tune with consumer culture and those that took precisely the wrong tack.
Take Gap as an example.
Their collaboration with Ellen Degeneres for the gender-neutral GapKids x ED line drew on numerous cultural trends to create a successful, impactful campaign.
Numerous brands had been communicating female empowerment and rejection of traditional gender roles (e.g., Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ campaign) but GapKids was one of the earlier adopters of a stance that rejected gendered appearance, too, mirroring trends towards the agendered or gender-neutral in high and alternative fashion, beauty and grooming products, and in strong warrior figures that transcend gender in focused pursuit of their goal (Games of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark, Star Wars’ Rey, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen…).
The line also built on the brand’s ‘Dress Normal’ campaign of last year to tap into burgeoning desires for plainer, less ostentatious clothing, and in picking Degeneres as spokesperson they identified one of the few public figures that has publicly worn the ‘normcore’ style for years, making her a totally believable advocate and the campaign a natural evolution for the brand.
Conversely, Brewdog stand as a stark reminder of the danger of misreading the cultural climate.
Their ‘#Don’tMakeUsDoThis’ campaign was lambasted for mocking the homeless, sex workers, and trans people, and a petition to pull the campaign garnered over 25,000 signatures. The trans rights movements gained huge ground in 2015, with iconic moments such as Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover feature expressing a broader culture of acceptance of gender fluidity and the possibility of writing one’s own life narrative that has been brewing for a number of years (see Cole Haan’s drag-celebrating #Don’tGoHome campaign, for just one example).
The rights of trans people were very much front-of-mind for consumers, especially those of Brewdog’s target demographic (largely younger, left-leaning, social media-saturated ‘punks’). Swimming against the cultural tide alienated this consumer base, and their kneejerk response – the creation of a ‘non-binary beer’ brewed with hermaphroditic hops – left a bitter taste in the mouth of many interest groups who united over claims that the campaign’s language undermined the serious nature of the topic, as did the gimmicky, novelty nature of the beer. It felt reactionary; a last-ditch effort to make up for their past transgression without offering a sincere apology.
Gender as a natural distinguisher has been falling to the wayside in recent years, with leading brands in diverse categories leaning toward identifying gender, crucially, as something personally determined and authored.
A topic as complex as the discourse surrounding gender cannot, of course, be condensed into globally applicable generalisations. There is still a huge amount of rigidly-gendered branding present across categories, trans figures are still frequently fetishized and treated as ‘other’, and levels of acceptance and openness vary and display different faces society to society. However, if attuned to the signals amongst the noise, the broad trajectory toward a more fluid conception of gender identity seems clear.
The breaking down of traditional gender categories has obvious ramifications for understanding consumers, not least that overtly-gendered marketing may well miss its mark. With our widely cast net of analysts and cultural know-how, Space Doctors are committed to helping business and brands navigate these changing gender norms, so they can connect more effectively with consumers.