How Feminine Is Your Latte?

A new poll gauges gender association among activities, mundane objects, and what that means for brand marketers
Getty Images / Morning Consult Illustration by Vladimir Gorshkov
November 20, 2019 at 12:01 am UTC

Is wine a “feminine” drink? What about scooters: more masculine or feminine? Binging TV shows? CBD oil?

A new Morning Consult poll sought to determine whether a list of miscellaneous products and activities, from hand sanitizer to posting pictures on social media, were perceived as more masculine or feminine. And although experts said ascribing a gender association to objects is quite natural, it could create obstacles for brands trying to market goods and services heavily associated with one gender, such as diet colas, especially among male consumers.

For example, research shows the public perceives odd numbers as more masculine, while even numbers are viewed as more feminine. James Wilkie, an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who co-wrote the study, said this gender association could imply a differential liking of even and odd numbers: The public tends to like even numbers more because math equations are easier with even numbers, while feminine stereotypes — warm, nurturing and emotionally sensitive, for example — are more likeable than stereotypical male ones — strong, independent and competitive.

More importantly, consumers quickly learn that society often penalizes those using objects that mismatch their gender, marketing experts said, a practice that starts fairly early in life.

“Men and women are differentially sensitive to gender identity threats,” said Aaron Brough, an associate professor of marketing at Utah State University who is also the Harry M. Reid Endowed Professor of Research at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business. To a certain degree, men see women as a dissociative reference group, the experts said, one that they would not want to be associated with. That means men are more sensitive than women to the kind of consumer goods they purchase and use. 

“In general, if men perceive a product to be feminine, they perceive that as a threat to their gender identity if they were to use that product,” he said. 

Brough and Wilkie were part of a research team that found men shun eco-friendly behavior because it is typically viewed as a feminine habit. Brough credits the feminization of recycling to the fact that early eco-friendly products tended to be cleaning items, products still closely associated with women. 

“Men are reluctant to use those kinds of products, because they're very sensitive to maintaining their gender identity. Women do not perceive the same level of threat from using gendered products that are more masculine,” Brough said.

It’s more acceptable for women to choose consumer products viewed as more masculine than the reverse, Wilkie said. Men still face more social pressure to choose the more masculine things, he said, and thus face more penalization if they choose a mismatched consumer product.

Because of this, the marketing experts advised brands that hawk products perceived as feminine to lean heavily into their masculine branding or even create an entirely separate line and brand. Wilkie and Andrews pointed to Coca-Cola Co.’s Coke Zero as a prime example of a product -- low calorie or diet soda -- that was created to sell items to a male crowd that are traditionally viewed as more feminine.

Another approach is masculine affirmation, or reassuring men that their gender identity is not under threat. Such an approach worked in Brough and Wilkie’s project exploring recycling and gender dynamics.

“By confirming their masculinity and helping them feel secure about it, they were more comfortable going green,” said Brough. For example, men who were told that their handwriting was masculine were more likely to select eco-friendly products than those who didn’t receive such affirmations.

As the youngest generation of consumers relaxes these tightly held gender norms, Brough and others predicted that consumer product gendering, as explored in the new Morning Consult poll, could become less dramatic. 

“The findings that we reported are very much conditional on this being perceived as a threat,” Brough said. If gender becomes more fluid, he said, that threat will lessen.

A headshot photograph of Joanna Piacenza
Joanna Piacenza
Head of Industry Analysis

Joanna Piacenza leads Industry Analysis at Morning Consult. Prior to joining Morning Consult, she was an editor at the Public Religion Research Institute, conducting research at the intersection of religion, culture and public policy. Joanna graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications and holds a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Colorado Boulder. For speaking opportunities and booking requests, please email [email protected].

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