Stop asking women 'if they actually like whisky'; include us and see the rye ROI
Anna Hamill, global chief strategy officer and London MD at Denomination, sees a growth opportunity for drinks brands ready to stop fixating on men.
The drinks industry has long been dominated by traditional gender stereotypes, with “male” drinks like whisky and beer primarily marketed towards a very narrow definition of hyper-masculinity.
While some are moving away from overtly male branding – bikini girl ads are thankfully few and far between these days. The conversation around gender in culture is evolving rapidly; it’s no longer binary and it is time for adland to do more than catch up; it must actively work towards creating a more inclusive environment where people of all genders feel welcome at the bar.
A recent report by Our Whiskey Foundation sheds light on the ongoing prevalence of gendered thinking within the industry. A staggering 81% of the 600+ women in the sector reported being asked “if they actually like whiskey” while at work or making a purchase. Despite efforts to promote female representation and equity, the industry still grapples with the issue.
This is important not just from an equality perspective but because many drink categories increasingly have an aging consumer base. If brands want to bring younger customers to the brand, which they’ll need to do to survive, they need to reflect those consumers' values and beliefs.
Surprisingly, craft beer has been more successful than others at embracing diversity and engaging with broader audiences.
By prioritizing creative expression over gendered positioning, their marketing and design allow far more nuanced and distinct storytelling. This, combined with a genuine passion for creating drinkable, high-quality products, has positioned the category as one of the most dynamic and vibrant in the industry. Cloudwater is an excellent example of this: its overall aesthetic is much more approachable and genuinely beautiful, drawing inspiration from its “community” and emphasizing creativity and ethical values. It’s not designed to appeal to a specific gender but to someone who loves a great beer.
Equally, a handful of whisky brands are beginning to shift from the dark, moody imagery of a man in a leather armchair to more vibrant, engaging worlds. Glenmorangie X and Johnnie Walker Blonde are two notable success stories globally, with sales demonstrating a desire for more of the same. By redefining sophistication and aspiration with fresh colors and style, they’ve expanded their appeal without alienating their core audiences.
While these examples represent the more premium end of the spectrum, which often has more license to experiment and push boundaries, there is still a real challenge in helping more everyday brands with a very male audience evolve – and in a way that doesn’t exclude those consumers.
Instead of focusing on a particular gender or age demographic, brands should underscore the different occasions their drink could be enjoyed, emphasizing food pairings.
Corona is an excellent example of a mass brand that has positioned itself as the embodiment of an afternoon sat at the beach for decades, focusing on an occasion rather than trying to appeal to a specific gender. The more brands talk about sensory product experiences and how a drink is enjoyed, the more the industry can move from stereotypical gender tropes.
Recognizing that this conversation needs to be approached with sensitivity and authenticity is important. This was demonstrated by the backlash and boycotts Budweiser faced in the US earlier this year from its partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. The move felt sudden and unexpected for a brand that has traditionally catered to its Mid-American base.
In response to the negativity, the business then launched a campaign so heavy-handed in its male patriotism that people on both sides of the debate criticized it. The lack of follow-through has done far more harm than the partnership itself would have in the long run. Had it continued to support and rally around the LGBTQ+ community in actions and words, it would have at least earned the respect of those young and old who support these values. What might have come from a good place now looks like an opportunistic attempt to drive sales without truly driving change.
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Bud’s missed opportunity highlights the industry’s need to open a dialogue about genuinely embracing and championing different lifestyle choices. The reality is that more people, both young and old, are demanding an end to overly-gendered branding and brands that lack inclusivity.
There are signs that change is coming, but it’s slow progress. The industry’s future hinges on adapting to a changing society and staying relevant. While this is only one of many challenges modern-day drinks brands face, it is essential. And one that is potentially far easier to solve than the effects of climate change and water scarcity. The call for acceptance and equity across the board continues to grow, and the time has come for drinks brands to embrace a more nuanced approach to representation genuinely.