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Why beauty brands are removing gender from their marketing

Brands are trying to attract male-identifying customers with packaging and advertisements that aren’t associated with traditional gender stereotypes.

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)
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For many years, the world of mass-market beauty and personal care has traded in gender tropes and stereotypes. Think about thick blue disposable razors vs. dainty pink ones; pine-scented, dark green deodorant sticks vs. flower-scented, pastel-packaged antiperspirant; leathery-smelling aftershave in wood-topped bottles vs. pink face lotion in clear jars. In some cases, although the products aren’t very different — a razor is a razor — the packaging makes the target demographic clear.

But as skin-care-obsessed young women share their enthusiasm with their brothers and partners, a teen like James Charles takes a turn as the face of CoverGirl, and male beauty experts on YouTube show other men how to apply cosmetics, the traditional gender lines are blurring, if not disappearing altogether. And while it’s too soon to tell whether men will embrace makeup with anything approaching women’s fervor, one trend is obvious, observers say: Beauty brands are pivoting toward more gender-neutral products presented in unisex packaging.

Newer brands are entering the gate with gender fluidity already built into their DNA, experts say, using advertising that reflects diversity in race and gender, and packaging products in ways that avoid old stereotypes. “They’re more inclusive, and they hit on more of the things that are important to younger consumers today, like ‘sustainable’ or ‘clean’ or ‘genderless,’ ” said Larissa Jensen, senior beauty analyst at market research firm NPD Group. “That’s something that’s more of a movement from a younger consumer perspective.”

Oft-cited brands popular with Generation Z (defined by the Pew Research Center as people born from 1997 onward) such as Milk Makeup, Glossier and Fenty Beauty all feature diverse casts in advertisements, interact with their customers on social media, offer numerous shades to cater to different skin tones and use neutral colors in packaging such as gray, white, pale pink, nude and silver. (Milk Makeup and Glossier did not respond to interview requests about their advertising and packaging strategies, and a representative for Fenty Beauty’s public relations firm declined to comment.) “Our goal is really to evolve the mainstream conception of beauty while creating a space for people to express themselves authentically,” said Laura Kraber, co-founder and chief executive of We Are Fluide, a gender-neutral makeup brand founded in 2018. “Our packaging and product development has tried to not be extremely masculine or feminine, and we discard those notions generally because our whole belief is that gender is more of a constellation than an extreme of one or the other,” said Kraber, who is a parent of two teenagers. “If makeup is joyful and transformative and fun, nobody should be left out.”

Younger consumers are largely credited with eroding gender norms and definitions, and studies suggest they have less rigid definitions of masculinity and gender identity than older customers do. A 2019 Pew survey of 10,000 Americans found that about 59 percent of members of Generation Z said forms that ask about a person’s gender should include options besides “male” and “female,” compared with 50 percent of millennials (ages 22 to 37 in 2018) and 37 percent of baby boomers (54 to 72 in 2018).

David Yi, founder of Very Good Light, a men’s online grooming publication focused on Gen Z that aims to “redefine masculinity and men’s beauty standards,” credits that generation’s openness to its innate fluency with social media and its global worldview. Yi, who is penning a book about the history of male makeup, notes that men around the world have used cosmetics at various points in history, and that it is more associated with femininity in Western cultures. “We’re slowly untangling that with Gen Z,” he said. “They’re cognizant that American or Western culture isn’t the end-all, be-all.”

According to NPD Group, although makeup revenue sales across the board have declined, skin-care sales have increased. Jensen said that, for men, there’s less of a barrier to entry for skin care because it lacks the “gendered focus” that makeup as a category has traditionally carried. Clare Hennigan, senior beauty analyst at Mintel, a market research firm, has observed growth in the men’s skin-care category and notes that “across the board, we’ve seen men taking more care of their personal routines.”

One brand poised to take advantage of this shift is the Ordinary, which Jensen called “the ultimate genderless skin care.” It offers serums, creams and acids that range from about $5 to $20 in simple, clinical-looking packaging. Its unisex look is intentional. “Since its conception, [the Ordinary] was never intended to target a specific gender identity in any capacity,” Nicola Kilner, co-founder and chief executive of the Ordinary’s parent company, Deciem, wrote in an email. “The packaging of the line, much like the formulations, was always about being straight to the point and educational.” She adds that the brand doesn’t feature models in campaigns or on social media, but rather uses its own employees because “we feel as though we are a representation of our fan base — diverse, passionate, in love with skin care and ultimately, just human beings.”

Ursa Major, a skin-care brand co-founded by Oliver Sweatman and Emily Doyle, also has gone all-in on genderless products. The line, whose customer Sweatman and Doyle call “the mindful explorer,” includes face, hair and body products containing natural ingredients that are sold in eco-friendly packaging featuring blue, green and white mountain outlines.

The couple, veterans of the beauty industry, started the brand in 2009 after moving from New York to Vermont “to reboot” and realizing they were sharing many products. “My personal take is that the lion’s share of products can be used equally by any gender,” said Sweatman, whose aim is “a healthier product that delivered nourishment in a non-gendered way.”

Colors aside, recent packaging tends to be simpler and more pared-back. “When you think about the trends in packaging, and I think skin care has this more, it’s not pink, it’s not black or blue; it’s very clean and very simple,” Jensen said. Steve Seeley, president of Elitefill, a packaging company that specializes in cosmetics and skin care, has noticed that packaging has become more straightforward in the 20 years he has worked in the beauty space. “I think it’s probably the Apple concept of just being basic, clean and clear with your message,” he said. “I think what [brands] realized is make it simple: Say what it does, and let the product speak for itself.”

At this stage, the types of products being marketed to male-identifying customers are simple, too. According to NPD, the top-growing products are tinted moisturizers, lip glosses, lip balms and brow products — all items that contribute to a pared-back, minimalist makeup look.

Glen Jankowski, a senior lecturer in critical and social psychology at Leeds Beckett University in England who studies body image, wonders what effect this has. “It’s promoting a very unrealistic standard in a pernicious way,” he said. “At least with expressive, bold makeup, people know it’s decoration and it’s not part of your appearance. With this more hidden, subtle makeup, it’s more like, ‘This is what a human should look like.’ ”

Phillip Picardi, former editor of Out and Them, started a grooming column for GQ in November, with subjects such as how to look younger, how to groom eyebrows and a beginner’s guide to makeup. He acknowledged the possibility that holding men as well as women to beauty standards could be a step backward. “It’s not a good thing for us to be peddling consumerism to men and women,” he said. “The answer would be to eradicate all of it. But it’s just not the world we live in.”

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