Sanet Yelland
Sanet Yelland

Beyond binary: Consumer & shopper behaviour

by Sanet Yelland. Do we need to designate ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ in products and services? It is time for change.

by Sanet Yelland. Gender neutrality is filtering into mainstream conversations, featuring in social cues, consumer messages, clothing brands and in store retail experiences, how we navigate shopping aisles, and even in market surveys. Addressing a more inclusive and diverse gender perspective involves not just allowing, but designing for, gender identities that extend beyond the binary.

Gender dynamics manifest in several ways, including gender identity and expression. Gender identification describes whether someone identifies as a man, woman, somewhere in between, or none of these. Gender expression describes how one approaches external signifiers like fashion and make-up and how one speaks and carries oneself. These dimensions lead to many unique and multifaceted experiences of gender for marketers to consider in communications.

Although the concept isn’t new, it’s gaining more recognition and influence as the notion of masculinity and femininity are losing their exclusive attachment. Kantar Retail data revealed that about 10% of male Gen Z consumers describe themselves as ‘very’ or ‘somewhat feminine’; compared to an average of 2% of men across the previous four generations.

Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Cara Delevingne identify as gender-fluid, while Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness and singer Sam Smith identify as non-binary. Demi Lovato also announced her identification as non-binary, stating, “I am proud to let you know that I identify as non-binary and will officially be changing my pronouns to they/them moving forward.” Using they/them as pronouns, “best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression”, she said.

Societal conversation reshapes what people are willing to tolerate from brands. With a broader acceptance of gender fluidity, there’s an expectation for brands to develop relevant narratives for authentic customer communication.

Where do we typically see gender shifts and communication impacts?

  • Genderless communication is driven by consumers, leaning into changes of personal identification and challenging societal gender constructs that do not align with their views.
  • Binary consumers don’t want to be boxed, stereotyped and classed in siloed communications, neither in ‘defining of self’ nor in marketing.
  • Gen Z’s want exploratory spaces to express themselves more authentically. Shopping is a practical and expressive extension of their values and who they are.

Elements that are being impacted in gender neutrality:

1. Gender packaging cues

Traditionally, product packaging has focused on gender cues to signal feminine or masculine definitively. Examples include kitchen appliances tailored for women, gender-specific toys, colour-coded baby gender products, haircare and make-up. Functionally-led packaging may dial-up or even create gender-driven need states. Gender-neutral greeting cards from Etsy and GingerBread Co-Op food campaigns are great examples that help drive the change. Lego also vows to remove gender bias from its products and marketing, releasing ten tips for parents to ‘support stereotyped growth’.

2. Shoppability and product selection decision-making

Traditionally, retail store layout enables better navigation of the retail environment; often, the split-up flow includes gender demarcations. In some cases, genders are assigned to categories and the assumed shopping behaviour. Not surprisingly, this mindset and legacy planning have been transferred into the online environment bound by gender relevance and even ‘predicted gender solutions’. According to a news release, with a fresh approach to a clothing range launch, Pacsun launched its first dedicated gender-neutral clothing brand, Colour Range, with a live-streamed shopping event. The retailer ran a ‘Life in Colour’ social media series that profiled TikTok micro-influencers to market the apparel line.

3. Unbiased personalisation and customisations

Retailers can take the gender conversation out of the mix and focus more on customers’ solutions based on personal shopping preferences. Non-binary shoppers are all about non-conformity to gender norms, preferring to shop for unisex clothing. There is no distinct guideline, but having a perspective on how the category can be shopped without male and female cues, can provide better customer-centric learnings.

4. Digital gender-neutral user navigation

In 2019, German-based clothing retailer, Zalando, launched its ‘Free to Be’ brand campaign, encouraging customers to use fashion to express their identity. As consumers better understand the impact of gendered branding, gender neutrality is increasingly expected. Brands need to consider these questions to be more inclusive:

  • Do we need to designate ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ in products and services?
  • Do we have room for more than two boxes in a survey?
  • Can we leave it up to the consumer to decide what is appropriate for them?

The key take-out for brands, marketers and even consumers, is to be responsible, sensitive and authentic in shaping conversations to consumption, where everyone is welcome. Suppose the principles of consumer engagement are based on richer target audience understanding and bringing products to them that are more relevant, customised, and personalised. In that case, there will be an increase in more gender-neutral shopping communication experiences of true value. The space should not be viewed as challenging or daunting; but fresh, with new commercial success opportunities, enriched by better efforts to make a difference.


Main image credit: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.


Sanet Yelland is the CEO and founder of Streamline Advertising, a full service agency. She has worked across the industry for 30 years, on clients within financial services, wholesale, retail, FMCG and government sectors on notable brands, including Massmart, Dis-chem, SAA, City of Johannesburg, Nedbank, Absa Bank, and Pick ‘n Pay (Score Supermarkets and RiteValue brands). Yelland started the Young Community Shapers initiative in 2000. This project acknowledges and celebrates the achievements of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing funding, bursaries, and mentorship.


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