Shortcuts, Not Stereotypes

Gender is in the marketing news again, with High Street mainstay Clark’s Shoes becoming the latest brand-that-should-know-better to launch a poorly-conceived girls’ range. In this case, it is not just the clumsy fluffiness of their Dolly Babe range that has offended, but the fact that it’s juxtaposed with the corresponding range of boys’ shoes, Leader. One wonders if those performed well in focus groups.

The ASA guidelines on gender stereotypes in advertising won’t bring about the end of stereotypes in advertising (there are far too many lazy strategists out there for that – easier to come up with a new creative treatment that skirts the right side of the line than to have a complete rethink). They do, however, reflect the prevailing trend for brands to embrace, and champion, modern “Millennial” values (another stereotype).

It might be argued that this new ethical orthodoxy is, itself, already producing a new set of stereotypes. M&S has described its recent “Spend It Well” campaign as a “radical departure” promoting a “shared attitude that connects with consumers regardless of age or demographic” (Marketing Week 4th May 2017). But this beautifully produced film bears remarkable similarities to other campaigns like Sport England’s earlier “This Girl Can”. Indeed, this whole debate about diversity, inclusiveness and empowerment in gender-specific marketing can be traced back at least to Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty. Ironically, Dove have, themselves recently been accused of gender-insensitivity over their new, body-shaped, shower gels packaging.

What about packaging design?

These new ASA guidelines might not apply to packaging design, but clearly, they are indicative of the sort of approach that brands must adopt if they are to remain in-tune with mainstream media and consumer thinking.

When it comes to the use of stereotypical colours and images, packaging is certainly not (pardon the pun) whiter than white. There was a big fuss a couple of years back about the use of pink and blue to denote “girls’” and “boys’” toys, because it was forcing children to embrace the social norms of gender-specific play. The supermarket at the centre of the media storm eventually promised to change their ways, a triumph for equality, and – incidentally – probably good PR for the retailer concerned.

‘Crafted For Her’

More recently, last month, The Grocer wrote about a new Czech beer brand, Aurosa, overtly aimed at women. (It even bears a label marked “Crafted for her”.) The Grocer observed how out of touch this launch is with contemporary attitudes, with its stylised bottle and “predictably Vogue-esque marketing”.

I don’t disagree with The Grocer’s stance that the launch is probably fundamentally flawed; but I do feel uncomfortable with its generally sniffy attitude towards the ways in which the brand is being executed. If the strategy is to launch an elegantly presented beer targeting a certain group of women, it makes perfect sense for the pack to be graceful and chic – especially if said beer is overtly tied in with Czech Fashion Week. There is nothing immoral about borrowing design cues from Vogue if this helps position this new product appropriately. If the strategy is flawed and there is no consumer demand for Aurosa, then the market will soon prevail.

There is, of course, a wider question here about whether social engineering is (or should be) part of the remit of marketing, but that is a debate for another day (or blog post). Our interest here is to look more closely at the issue for stereotypes in marketing and, particularly, design.

Getting It Right

As we have said many times, the role of brand packaging, and other forms of instore communication, is (drum roll please) to sell . . . more . . . stuff! Looking at it from the other end of the telescope, a key role of packaging is to make it easier for shoppers to find what they need, select the right brand for the specific requirement or shopping mission – and get on with their day.

We have conducted huge amounts of research into shopper motivations and preferences, how and why shoppers visit the stores they visit, choose the brands they choose, and make the decisions they do. We have yet to be told “I go shopping to acquire a set of ethical values, and adjust my moral compass.” Stores need to make it quick and easy for customers to navigate to the right point to find the goods they want, and the use of visual cues – colours and symbols that trigger instant recognition and understanding – is the most effective way to do this. These shared visual cues represent valuable shortcuts.


Stores need to attract a diversity (there’s that word again) of customers, and offer a range of products appropriate to their size, scope and sales targets. They also need to provide a shopper experience that is easy, effective, and hopefully enjoyable, because happy customers are more likely to return. This requires visual segmentation of products and categories, using cues, colours and symbols that trigger instant recognition and understanding. Such shortcuts make the shopper journey more efficient and less frustrating.

To be clear, we would never advocate the use of offensive or harmful stereotypes, which either cause or perpetuate prejudice and discrimination towards certain groups. However, the use of colours, shapes and symbols that that are widely shared and can guide the shopper through the shopping experience isn’t crass or crude – it’s common sense.

If you need guidance in creating and implementing these shortcuts, in a way that appeals visually, and emotionally, to shoppers and society (and performs as well instore as it does in research), we’d be more than happy to help.