The Masculine Earthquake

7th February 2016

Axe knows what it means to be manly. Do you?

We are witnessing the fastest transformation in the meaning of gender since Adam’s rib was robbed. What we held to be just so is no longer ‘so’ at all.

This is a time of flux, confusion, and also great hope. It is as if gender is being reclaimed from the grip of a society which ordered us how to behave, and returned to where it more comfortably belongs: with the individual. This has profound ramifications for how we build brands and communicate to intelligent people (and yes, on average, people are).

Our job in marketing is not to invent culture, but rather to be present at its leading edge. Marketing arises at dawn. It is there for the cricket’s first song, the first warble of the hedge sparrow, and the gentle twinkling of Venus before she retires through the hours of light. The job of marketing is to herald the new day – not to invent daytime.

In 2016, gender stands in the golden light of morning, a new and fascinating thing to behold. The shifting sands of the binary world we thought we lived in are being shuffled around. Ms Caitlyn Jenner, and the catapulting of transgender into the mainstream, has been 2015’s perfect palate cleanser. We’re ready for something fresh.

In my own work, I’m currently most interested in shifting masculinity: what exactly does it mean to be manly in 2016? In many qualitative insight discussions, I sit with young men in Dublin, London and elsewhere, and hear them talk about the pleasure of looking good, of being themselves and of making an effort.

What is remarkable is how forthright they are, how detailed their reflections, and how fully honest they are free to be. And all of this in conversation with their own peers (an old codger like me is both invisible and, at any rate, irrelevant to a young man’s theory of self).

It was not always thus. What social psychology calls our ‘hegemonic masculinity’- the dominant expression of masculinity in a culture – is pretty clear to us all: being manly calls for layers of muscles, mixed with a desire to dominate. This dominant expression of masculinity is slowly being chipped away. Of course, nothing massive evaporates overnight. Our culture’s casting of a cool mensch will very gently wane.

Depending on the category in which your brands reside, you may well want to just be aware of this, and to make no change. Zippo. But then again, marketing is naturally interested in the green shoots, and the garlands of victory are usually crowned on those who dare.

Who then are the first movers in masculinity?

Take Axe. The tired old trope of get-the-girl manliness, all dressed up in randy testosterone suddenly feels wizen, and maybe even disempowering. As of January 2016, Axe’s relaunched brand now defines masculinity as individual invention: ‘find your magic’ is the by-line of a world which embraces all that’s unique in you.

So, in the case of Axe, the shift is this: masculinity was about aping the demi-gods of assertive sexual ambition and rippling musculature; its new man is all about identifying his most special and interesting essence, and then working the hell out of it. Naturally, both expressions are intended to build one’s social equity, but the balance of agency has clearly shifted to the individual.

Let’s call this Unilever’s ‘neo-ballsy’ behaviour. Nice work, Axe.

But, so what? What does this mean for the likes of the sports apparel category, which famously talks to the heart of the market, purposely treading the middle-path where most guys feel anointed? Where does this leave the financial services sector, a category with an apparent predilection for decisive men and confused women? Where too does it leave politics, that space where a man channels his power by being shouty, whereas a woman may not raise her voice in emphasis, for fear of being labelled shrill?

I am inclined neither to panic, knee-jerk nor capitulate. Brands do not do well when they invert spontaneously. There must be a governing reason for change.

Having said that, Calvin Klein have just today announced some kid from the American South as their new ‘underwear hunk’ with their chief marketing officer, Melisa Goldie, praising her new model for his “raw masculinity” and “sense of athleticism.” Given her brand’s stated wish to ‘connect with a much younger consumer’, Melisa will hopefully be planning a gender sit-in at Calvin Klein in 2016 to sharpen up on her gender adjectives. “Raw” is so 2010.

In truth, these new definitions of masculinity are most interesting for innovation, or for a purposeful pivot to another place, when one is sure one’s consumer-base is with you.

Ryanair’s bully-in-chief, Michael O’Leary, used kitten kindness as a means of relaunching an airline with flagging growth. The emergence of Sweet Michael was fully purposeful (albeit patronising and cynical).

Axe, I’m inclined to believe, had somewhat fallen behind the spirit and values of its own late-teenage consumers. In a sense, Axe found itself trapped by ‘hegemonic masculinity’. As a brand, it was the canary in the coal mine of shifting gender, given the youth and changiness (a word I have invented in honour of Stephen Colbert) of its core target. Axe needed a new seam to mine. It needed to move on.

Gender is never whimsical. Rather, its construction and expression through brands tells consumers something very profound about the brand and what it values. It is my experience that the clues for the ‘right’ decisions on gender exist not within the brand’s strategy, but in the hearts and souls of the people who choose them most.

So, it’s time to get observing and talking. Because, it’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. And man, am I feeling good!

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