'Blue for boys and pink for girls' - Why is gender stereotyping still king when it comes to packaging design?

Right here, right now, women are in the majority when it comes to gaming; it’s perfectly acceptable for men to wear make-up; and marketers don’t rely solely on the traditional ABC demographics anymore – they’re taking into account individual preference and browser history. Yet when it comes to packaging - the last and most powerful call to action in our decision to buy - this disruption of gender norms is still largely ignored. Here, consumer stereotyping is alive and well.

Sadly, there are good reasons for continuing gender bias: just last month, a study from Social Psychology revealed that food packaged according to gender stereotypes is more appealing to both genders, while The Drum reported on similar findings from easyFairs showing that women are more likely to respond to personalised and gender-specific packaging.

But that doesn’t mean the outdated concept of “blue for boys and pink for girls” should remain all-pervasive. Blind adherence to this mindset has resulted in numerous cases of overdone over-feminine and over-masculine packaging. As an American abroad, I can testify that the situation is even worse across the pond. (Take Axe’s shower tool, for instance, a beefed up sponge for all those tough guys who want to keep clean without feeling like a girl.)

Yet products that were previously aimed largely at women have since caught on amongst men. Despite a penchant for the Shoreditch beard spreading across the faces of men across the UK, a third of the male population here is still not averse to some face moisturiser and a dab of body lotion.

So what happens when women’s brands start catering to men? As the tide turns, discerning brands are producing packaging, free of any reference to gender. Natalia Ramirez’s unisex makeup Enter Pronoun is a case in point. Clinique’s and Clarins’ more specialist, science-led men’s ranges do a pretty good job too. Simplicity in this form shifts the focus to brand-trust and functionality. And consumers respond well to packaging that emanates reliability.

Brands like Carmex and Burt’s Bees are also great examples of gender aspecifity, mainly because sex is irrelevant in this case. It’s tempting to say that men feel more comfortable buying these products because they don’t look too feminine. But what’s really key is the simplicity of packaging. Both containers sport a plain, decidedly gender-neutral design. In truth, the tins they come in have hardly changed in decades. Most importantly though, the product itself works. Ultimately, consumers pick them up because they want to soothe their chapped lips.

The notion of gender-specific packaging may seem like a no-brainer, but the examples cited above – as well as the shift in our understanding of how consumers live and behave today – means that the third option of sex-less packaging design is seriously on the agenda. After all, which brand wants to settle for targeting only one half of the sales universe, when it could reach it all?

Kate Fischer is account director – creative at Sun Branding Solutions.

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