Is Your Brand Male Or Female?

An interesting gender play can help brands make a statement, Manley said. Take Panera, whose ads have a "mother Earth vibe" and a female announcer whose voice stands out in the crowded fast-casual category, he said.

Despite social strides toward gender equality, the prevailing theory in marketing has been that it's easier to sell a masculine brand to men and women than a feminine brand to either sex, Manley said. With men making up the vast majority of the nation's chief marketing officers, that approach still dominates, he said.

But there are signs of a shift. Manley points to McDonald's Archenemies ad campaign that launched earlier this year, in which historic antagonists -- Batman and the Joker, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Gargamel and the Smurfs -- expressed affection for each other, sometimes by sharing a burger or offering a fry.

"That's an interesting one that feels like it has more of a feminine sensibility," Manley said. "Working out differences instead of just fighting over them."

Anyone who teared up watching Dove's Men + Care commercials during the Super Bowl, in which fathers were seen lovingly comforting their children, witnessed a strong female brand using a feminine characteristic -- sensitivity -- to appeal to a male audience, he said.

Younger generations are driving some of the rethinking. Manley described a focus group his firm did with young men last year as it was developing creative concepts for Miller Lite. One of the ideas presented was about "being with your bros, homeboys."

The young men said it felt like pandering.

"The interesting quote was, 'Some of my bros are women,'" Manley recalled, suggesting a desire for a more gender-inclusive message.

Miller Lite has misstepped before overdoing male tropes. Its Man Up campaign was blasted for being sexist, Manley said, because it ridiculed men doing anything -- wearing skinny jeans, carrying a purse, hanging out with mom -- that could be considered feminine.

Leo Burnett's McCabe, while he de-emphasizes the importance of a brand's gender, noted that as some traditionally masculine brands expand their audiences to include women, they seek to connect with what's important to them.

In a recent spot his agency did for Firestone tires, the growly voice of the male announcer narrates the "epic errand" of a woman tearing through town -- and through stores -- in a minivan as she picks up items for her son's birthday party, meant to suggest that the exhilaration of driving a truck is for everyone. In another, for Firestone Auto Service, a woman piles her chain saw, ax and other work tools into the back of a pickup before gently buckling her kids into the back seat.

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