Should Men’s Products Fear a Woman’s Touch?

Recent research shows that loyal customers often get upset when a brand associated with men expands to include products perceived as feminine. Senior Lecturer Jill J. Avery discusses the problem of "gender contamination."
by Carmen Nobel

Most eight-year-olds are familiar with cooties: an imaginary infectious disease spread through proximity to children of the opposite sex. We eventually outgrow the silly idea.

But when it comes to the world of consumer products, fear of associating with the opposite sex, at least for some, never really goes away.

Since the dawn of advertising, retailers have made a point of marketing separate lines of branded products for men and women in many categories, even in cases where their functions are essentially the same. It's a concept called gendered branding: think Marlboro vs. Virginia Slims cigarettes.

“Even though there was a functional need for men to drink lower-calorie soda, men couldn't bridge the gender gap image-wise without a new brand and product just for them”

Research shows that loyal customers often get upset when a brand commonly associated with men expands to include products perceived as feminine—especially in cases where men use a particular brand to communicate their own identities. Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Jill J. Avery calls this phenomenon "gender contamination."

"Gender contamination occurs when one gender is using a brand as a symbol of their masculinity or femininity, and the incursion of the other gender into the brand threatens that," explains Avery, who spent a decade managing brands for Gillette, Braun, Samuel Adams, and AT&T before pursuing her doctoral studies at HBS.

She cites, as an example, anthropology studies of cultures where certain talismans or totems could only be touched by men, who believed that the touch of a woman would make the object lose its power. Throughout history, men seem to have feared gender contamination much more than women.

"It turns out that what might seem to be a remnant from ancient history is very much alive and well in contemporary culture," says Avery. "Because most cultures are androcentric, it's more socially acceptable for women to demonstrate masculine traits than it is for men to demonstrate feminine traits."

Men's studies scholars talk about the difference between a girl being a tomboy and a boy being a sissy—the former moniker is considered a compliment, the latter an insult. Thus, the concern about women contaminating the things of men is much bigger than that of men contaminating the things of women.

Says Avery: "Girls and women seem to have more freedom to consume products and brands commonly associated with the other gender than boys and men, who are more tightly constrained by the prevailing views of masculinity that associate being masculine with avoiding anything feminine."

It's Not For Women

Consider the world of diet beverages.

For years, Coca-Cola tried and failed to entice men to consume Diet Coke, its popular (among women) zero-calorie cola, packaged in a striking white can. But then the company introduced the zero-calorie cola Coke Zero, packaged in a black can, along with a male-centric marketing strategy, which has become increasingly blatant about gender since the soda hit the market in 2005. Last March, Coke Zero launched the "It's Not Your Fault" marketing campaign. "We're talking to men more overtly with 'It's Not Your Fault,' " said Pio Schunker, head of integrated marketing communications at the company's North America Group, at the time of the launch. "We're positioning Coke Zero as a defender and celebrator of guy enjoyment."

The strategy clicked with male soda drinkers. While men had steered clear of Diet Coke because of its association with women, they flocked to Coke Zero. PepsiCo took a similar successful tack with Pepsi Max, the manly alternative to Diet Pepsi. And the Dr Pepper Snapple Group went all out with Dr Pepper Ten; the 10-calorie soda's unapologetic slogan is "It's Not for Women."

"What they quickly realized was that even though there was a functional need for men to drink lower-calorie soda, men couldn't bridge the gender gap image-wise without a new brand and product just for them," says Avery. "It was a way to tell men, it's OK, here's your brand. Drinking this brand won't affiliate you with women."

Hence brands like Broga (yoga for bros) and Powerful Yogurt ("the first yogurt for men," according to its website).

Brand managers also must consider the effect of expanding a historically male-centric brand to include female consumers. Avery recalls her experience running the women's shaving brand at Gillette. The company made a point of building products from the ground up for the distinct hair removal needs of both men and women. But it also made a point of creating a different brand name for Gillette's products for women. Not to put too fine a point on it, Gillette called the brand Gillette for Women.

"Having a line that was distinctively marked for women protected male Gillette users from the feminization of their brand," Avery says. "It was moments like that in my career that encouraged me to think about how challenging it is for companies to change the identity meanings associated with their brands in general, especially for a brand that has a long history of narrative and storytelling and suddenly wants to shift that narrative in a way that may not be comfortable to current users."

Porsche's Historic Campaign

Does Cayenne contaminate the Porsche brand? Avery's curiosity led to an intensive study of a defining moment in the history of an iconic brand: when Porsche launched its first sport-utility vehicle, dubbed the Cayenne, after a long history of creating sports cars. Porsches are culturally associated with men, as evidenced by Avery's 2007 study showing that 91 percent of Porsche-driving television and movie characters have been male. SUVs, however, are commonly associated with women drivers.

To gauge the effect of the change among loyal Porsche owners, Avery analyzed online conversations among members of a Porsche brand community for the two years before and after the launch of the Cayenne. While she hadn't set out to focus on gender specifically, she found that gender dominated the discussions about the new vehicle. (The Cayenne launch became the basis of an HBS teaching case that Avery cowrote with Professor John Deighton and Jeffrey Fear.)

"The fact that this car seemed to be targeted toward women was highly problematic for many in the brand community," says Avery, "and a lot of their conversations were related to themes of masculinity and femininity and how the Cayenne launch would change the way the world perceived them as Porsche owners, even though they drove Porsche sports cars."

Here's a sample of comments from an online conversation in one of the Porsche brand communities, which Avery describes in the paper Defending the Markers of Masculinity: Consumer Resistance to Brand Gender-Bending, based on her doctoral dissertation at HBS. In short, she found that many group members associated SUVs with suburban mothers. And the idea of a suburban mother driving a Porsche to run errands was anathema to many Porsche men.

  • "Hopefully I will see a competent-looking driver, but I know I'll see a soccer mom like I see in every [Hummer] H2 around here."

  • "I heard a rumor that Porsche was devoting their entire racing budget to the "Cayenne Challenge," an event that pits homemakers from different nations against each other in a challenging obstacle course. …Events include: 1000 metre grocery dash."

  • "So much for the Porsche Mystique."

Rather than cloister the brand by gender `a la Coke Zero or Gillette for Women, Porsche's initial campaign for the Cayenne focused on the fact that the car was part of the Porsche family, linking it closely with its 911 and Boxster product lines. "Another twisted branch on the family tree," proclaimed a full-page magazine advertisement. A separate ad stated, "If you lose it in the parking lot, everyone can direct you to it," while a third told readers that "Making a fashion statement has never been more immediate."

“The fact that this car seemed to be targeted toward women was highly problematic for many in the brand community”

In the eyes of Porsche brand community members, those headlines were designed to attract a feminine audience, as a "real" Porsche man would (a) never buy a Porsche to make a fashion statement, and (b) never lose his car in the parking lot, both stereotypically female behaviors. By not only blurring that line but also boasting about it in print, the company created gender contamination in the eyes of many Porsche owners, Avery explains.

Saving Face

But the perceived contamination threat didn't cause most loyal fans to walk away from their Porsches, Avery discovered. Instead, by kvetching on discussion boards, the online community devised its own sociological methods to protect their masculine identities by creating new meanings for the Cayenne and for Porsche.

Avery details these methods in her working paper Saving Face by Making Meaning: Consumers' Self-Serving Response to Brand Extensions.

  • Method #1—The "Not Us" Strategy: Derogating the legitimacy of the brand extension's users. In this method, discussion group members made a point of distinguishing Cayenne drivers from drivers of the Porsche 911 sports car, establishing distance between the two groups and limiting the spread of contamination from Cayenne owners to sports car owners.

    "Their argument was, the Cayenne is OK from a performance standpoint, but the drivers who are going to drive the car are not OK," Avery explains. "They tried to paint Cayenne drivers as not just feminine, but unlike traditional Porsche owners in other ways. First of all, the drivers were women, and that was bad enough. But to make things worse, they were women who were using their Porsche to drive to the grocery store to pick up the kids and go on errands, rather than pushing it to its limits on the open road. They were not interested in the racing heritage of Porsche. The commentators would say things like, '[Cayenne drivers] park right next to other cars in the parking lot…a real Porsche person wouldn't do that because that shows a lack of respect to the car.' "

  • Method #2—The "Not Real" Strategy: Derogating the legitimacy of the brand extension product itself. Porsche claims on its website that "Porsche is a world-wide synonym for sports car." Therefore, offended Porsche owners rationalized, the Cayenne could not be a real Porsche since it was not a sports car. Deeming the car illegitimate distanced sports car owners from the contaminated product.

    "There was a lot of conversation about the physical characteristics of the car that let discussion group members declare that it wasn't a true Porsche," Avery says. "For instance, the Cayenne had cup holders. 'Real' Porsches don't have cup holders because they're unnecessary to the driving process. A cup holder adds unnecessary weight, and if a Porsche is first and foremost a racecar, then anything that adds extra weight is frivolous."

  • Method #3—The "Not Porsche" Strategy: Derogating the legitimacy of the Porsche brand. "The argument here was that, with the launch of the Cayenne, Porsche as a company had changed and had walked away from its heritage," Avery says. "There was a sense of betrayal—a lot of talk about ruining tradition and brand equity erosion. In these conversations, you had people saying things like, 'I don't call myself a Porsche owner anymore. I call myself a 911 owner.' They didn't want to claim the master brand anymore, but they could still claim their own pieces of the brand, the sports car lines, that remained uncontaminated."

Lessons For Brand Managers

More than a decade since Porsche launched its first SUV, the gamble so far seems to have paid off. Not only is the Cayenne the company's best-selling car in America, but during the first half of 2013, Porsche's sales increased by 31 percent, largely attributed to its growth with women drivers. The Cayenne and the Panamera four-door sedan have both been successful in attracting women to the brand; the percentage of Porsche sales attributed to women has increased from 8 percent to 15 percent since the launch of the two products, according to the company.

Can the Porsche brand survive gender contamination? Is Porsche a stronger or weaker brand going forward because of the incursion of women into the traditionally male brand? Will the value of the Porsche brand erode over time if it is not as strongly associated with masculinity as it has been in the past? Regardless of what the future holds, Avery believes that brand managers can learn important lessons from the emotional outbursts of concerned Porsche drivers.

"Brand meaning is cocreated," Avery says. "Everyone in the culture has a say about what a brand means, not just the company that owns it."

That means that brand managers need to be extremely careful about changing the identity-related meanings of their brand when current customers are using it for their own identity purposes, she says.

"Many brands don't have identity meanings associated with them. But if you manage a identity brand like Porsche, if you change the identity of a brand, then you should expect some backlash from your customers, and that backlash will help determine what your brand means and how it is valued in the future."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Mike Rivkin
    • President, Silverfish Press
    There is an interesting corollary to Avery's well-argued point; viz., the licensing industry as a whole is remarkably feminine. Attend any licensing conference or exhibition and you will be overwhelmed by the butterflies, ladybugs, and puppy dogs on display. With few exceptions, those displaying anything seen as "masculine" are eschewed.
    Hey ... men buy stuff too.
    • gordon
    • CEO
    I own the second largest online film photography community and your examples of discourse in the Porsche fan forums could easily have taken place in my own. Although perceived as dead by many, there are still interesting and innovative products released on a regular basis aimed at film photographers. Many of these new products promote a hybrid digital/film workflow and the response to them has been almost identical to the Porsche brand expansion discourse. The two products that come to mind immediately are the Enfojer and The Impossible Project's Instant Lab. Similar in concept both products allow you to print a digital image using analog methods. The Enfojer prints iphone images onto traditional photographic paper and the Instant Lab prints images onto instant film. The Enfojer is white with pastel hued accessories while the Instant Lab is jet black, not unlike diet coke vs coke zero. The Instant Lab raised an insane amount of mo
    ney through kickstarter and the Enfojer barely met 1/3 of their goal.
    • Bob Schauer
    • Business Owner, Powerflex Software
    It's interesting that in the intro to the article, it mentioned the Marlboro as a stereotypically "male" brand. I wonder how many people recall when Marlboro was first introduced, it was a blatantly "female" brand, even to the extent of having red-tipped ends, to avoid those unsightly lipstick stains on white cigarette paper..!!! Long before filtered cigarettes. The change to the masculine branding require a super-heavy dose of male-oriented TV ads...the ubiquitous "Marlboro Man". So I guess you could say that it was the first "transgender" brand..!!
    • L.Walker
    • Analyst, US Fed Govt
    I guess I have a problem with the moniker "gender contamination." There has to be a better word/phrase for it.
    • Patrice Backer
    • COO, AFIG Funds
    The observation about Diet Coke may be true in the US or perhaps North America, but I am not sure it applies to the rest of the world, where Coca Lite (how we refer to Diet Coke in Africa, for example) does not seem to suffer from this "gender contamination" issue.
    • Carmen Nobel
    • Senior Editor, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
    @Patrice: Actually, I recently flew from Amsterdam to Cape Town. When the flight attendant asked what we'd like to drink, the man sitting next to me (a resident of Cape Town) requested a Coke Zero. When the flight attendant told him that she only had Coke Light, the man said firmly that he couldn't drink Coke Light -- he'd just have water instead. :-)
    • Ron Kurtz
    • President, American Affluence Research Center
    I don't think the example of Diet Coke and Coke Zero is a good one to support this case. To me, Diet Coke has a bad after taste that Coke Zero does not. If Diet Coke tasted as good as Coke Zero I would be happy to drink it. Frankly, I don't understand why anyone prefers the taste of Diet Coke over Coke Zero.
    • Ray Wulff
    "The strategy clicked with male soda drinkers. While men had steered clear of Diet Coke because of its association with women, they flocked to Coke Zero."

    It is about taste.

    Note: Coke Light, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero all have different formulas.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    It is a fact that a number of consumer items are devised separately for males and females-undergarments for example. However, there is no dearth of items in India which are used by both sexes without any inhibition - cars and other automobiles for instance.
    In this part of the world, the scenario is not as wild as described in this article-obviously Americans have too much cocern for such matters which I consider as trifles.
    • Gary C. Powell, Ed.D.
    • Senior ISD and Design Thinking evangelist, Dept. of Justice
    The comment about the cup holder really resonates with me from a user-centered design perspective. So the "driving experience" for men (the core Porsche owners) is about being a pure racing enthusiast. This article re-emphasizes the need to develop empathy with your users so as to better understand their emotions and needs, and how those perspectives may vary based on gender.
    • Sandra Pickering
    • Founding Partner, opento
    Jill Avery's work provides powerful learnings for brand marketers.
    I've referenced her work in many presentation, including this one on psychology in marketing:
    • Jean
    • KM Specialist, Govn't
    Another example of changing men for their benefit with a wider selection of products, would be bicycle saddles.

    A saddle with a hole cut-out or depression in the middle..much of those saddles had been marketed to women. But now in the past 15 years or more, increasingly there are saddle model lines that are branded as unisex.
    • Ed Nickle
    • Porsche Nut
    I agree with the story. There were many of us that did not embrace the Cayenne and the Panamera. Even the Cayman is having difficulties because it is not a 911 although it sports a boxer 6 and performs well. I remember when Porsche went from the 356 to the 911. I thought they ruined the brand. Until....I saw how it performed. I had a 1967 911S for 23 years and regret selling it.
    BTW: I was just in Zuffenhausen to thee new museum and they did not have a Cayenne, Boxer or Cayman on display. Hmmmm.
    • Jonathan Foster
    • Architect,
    Porsche has long kowtowed to the 911 crowd and not truly advanced their business they way they thought best for the product, the sports car. The 911 is now an oversized , overpowered pillow with struts, compared to the 911s of 1969, a light, quick, well handling sport of a car.
    Now that they have made the company large enough with the development of the Panamera and Cayenne, true sports car folk should be thrilled that Porsche has the R&D to continue to experiment in the sports car arena..
    • Lisa Wong
    I would be interested in knowing the sales figures for the 911 before and after the introduction of the Cayenne and Panamera, and then compare these figures with the sales for the Cayenne/ Panamera/ competitors, and their respective categories over the same period of time. It would also be interesting to have some numbers and comparisons for the other products that are mentioned in the article.
    • John Graham Seeliger
    • Creative DIrector, NOVA Power Marketing
    I've been around this industry over 50 years. Honestly, when I first read this story I thought it was hilarious.

    Now that it's had time to percolate, I find it more depressing than funny.

    Here's the ultimate killer: "... a real Porsche person wouldn't do that (park next to 'another' car) because that shows a lack of respect to the car."

    Golly gee, I park my S Class Benz right next to VWs and stuff just all over the place.

    Sheesh. Is our market REALLY that shallow?
    • John Graham Seeliger
    • Creative DIrector, NOVA Power Marketing
    I've been around this industry over 50 years. Honestly, when I first read this story I thought it was hilarious.

    Now that it's had time to percolate, I find it more depressing than funny.

    Here's the ultimate killer: "... a real Porsche person wouldn't do that (park next to 'another' car) because that shows a lack of respect to the car."

    Golly gee, I park my S Class Benz right next to VWs and stuff just all over the place.

    Sheesh. Is our market REALLY that shallow?