Rapaport Magazine

Neutral ground

In a world where the line between male and female is increasingly blurred, jewelry marketers must learn how to speak to a gender-fluid audience.

By Leah Meirovich

Image: De Beers Jewellers

The fashion and jewelry industry floors are littered with unintentional marketing gaffes — religious, racial and cultural. It’s hard to forget Bulgari’s Chinese Year of the Pig campaign featuring miniature swine wearing jewelry with the tagline “Be my bright JEW in the palm.” While the luxury brand meant it as a cute play on the Chinese word “zhu,” meaning “pig,” the unintentional religious insensitivity angered many.

Meanwhile, Gucci’s not-as-appealing-as-intended balaclava sweater was swiftly removed from shelves following a backlash over its resemblance to blackface, and Dolce & Gabbana provoked a public relations scandal with a culturally inappropriate ad of a Chinese woman trying to eat spaghetti and pizza with chopsticks.

While brands have used these examples as a learning experience, there is another area that may present advertising pitfalls: gender.

Shades of grey
In the past, companies have seen success with ads that target a particular gender group, such as Dr. Pepper’s launch of a diet soda specifically for men, or Old Spice deodorant’s “Smell Like a Man” campaign. But today, such black-and-white distinctions have given way to shades of grey.

Research shows that millennials and Generation Z tend to blur the lines when it comes to gender. In a 2019 study by public-opinion specialist Ipsos, 34% of Americans and 40% of global respondents disagreed with the statement that there are only two genders — male and female — rather than a range of gender identities. In December 2020, 51% of consumers said they liked seeing brands explore gender bending, according to a survey by market research company Mintel.

“As the gender-spectrum paradigm continues to become more mainstream, brands must understand this framework and how it impacts the gender identity and expression of all consumers,” said Mintel senior analyst Lisa Dubina at the time.

Even Barbie has gotten in on the action. Last year, the classic toy’s creator, Mattel, released its first gender-fluid doll line, complete with changeable hairstyle lengths and diverse fashion options.

“Toys are a reflection of culture, and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” says Kim Culmore, senior vice president of Mattel Fashion Doll Design.

Classifying by not classifying
What does this emerging gender fluidity mean for the jewelry industry, which has long been mired in traditional gender norms?

“The younger generation, from millennials to Gen Z, are more experimental in many aspects of sexuality, in their way of dressing and expressing their individuality,” says Paola De Luca, founder of luxury trend forecaster The Futurist. “As jewelers, we can’t say yes or no; it’s what is. We have to follow consumer trends, and marketing has to adapt. If the world is going in that direction, we have to follow. And here, semantics is very important. The new classification is not classifying.”

Ben Bridge Jewelers has noticed this trend toward less distinct gender boundaries and has taken steps to adjust its advertising, says Stacy Speicher, vice president of marketing and commerce for the Seattle, Washington-based chain.

“We think about this a lot,” she remarks. “We know that people want to see themselves in our marketing, and so inclusivity is one of our core values for sure. When it comes to marketing from a gender perspective, I would say, honestly, it’s becoming less and less necessary to designate female or male, because people wear jewelry for joyous occasions, and whatever speaks to them is the right piece for them. I think having those labels is definitely less important than it’s ever been.”

Tilting the balance
The erasing of gender-identity lines has been in motion for a number of years, but until recently, it wasn’t considered a significant trend in fashion marketing. Many experts point to the December 2020 cover of Vogue, which depicted singer Harry Styles in a ruffled dress and traditional women’s jewelry, as a defining moment in tilting the balance.

“People want to see a broad base of looks and express their personal style,” says Theresa Palermo, senior vice president of marketing and commerce for Signet Jewelers. “Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue is a great example of that. Three weeks later, he might be in a more traditional male outfit. So he’s using gender as a way to express himself, and jewelry is just another way for the consumer to really have a broad base of self-expression, regardless of gender.”

De Beers, meanwhile, does not see this trend as something completely new, but more a broadening of what already existed.

“Diamond jewelry has a unique advantage because classic designs can easily be worn by both women and men, such as tennis bracelets, studs and rings,” the company notes. “Historically, men have always worn jewelry. However this is a trend that perhaps has been more sedated until recently, where the codes governing masculinity have been loosening and men are experimenting and becoming increasingly adventurous, both in more traditional male [jewelry and in] androgynous designs.”

A new language

Marketing in a gender-fluid way isn’t difficult, but it also isn’t simple, says De Luca. There’s no one correct method or quick trick to getting it right; every company has to figure out the best way to move forward based on their location and target audience.

For brands that operate in a more conservative environment, marketing jewelry as a lifestyle rather than simply a product can be helpful. Instead of using the term “gender-fluid” or similar, for instance, the brand might run images of a man wearing the jewelry in a luxury setting, letting the pictures speak for themselves. For others, it might be enough to add a third category alongside men’s and women’s.

“I would introduce a new language, ‘designed for all,’ which can make everyone happy,” De Luca suggests. The category can feature some of the same products that are in the men’s and women’s segments, but allows customers to choose how they want to shop.”

Crafting the right collections
Retailers have made strides in revamping their marketing and products to reflect the audience that buys their jewelry. In May, Tiffany & Co. launched its first line of engagement rings for men, while in June, online jeweler Blue Nile debuted a non-gendered collection of wedding bands and engagement rings by designer Zac Posen.

“More and more, we are seeing a growing demand for inclusive jewelry pieces that symbolize love and commitment in all forms,” says Katie Zimmerman, chief merchandising officer for Blue Nile.

Meanwhile, Signet is debuting a campaign this year that tweaks a classic slogan to fit the current climate. “We plan to take the iconic ‘Every Kiss Begins with Kay’ and really reimagine it to be just every kiss, with the goal of celebrating how we embrace every kind of kiss within a community,” says Palermo.

De Beers, for its part, believes a picture is worth a thousand words. In March, the company introduced Chinese singer and songwriter Cai Xukun (Kun) as the newest ambassador for De Beers Jewellers. The print campaign features Kun wearing the company’s Dewdrop and Enchanted Lotus collections, which have classically been worn by women.

“[The campaign] shows that our jewelry can be worn by either women or men, depending on personal taste,” says Céline Assimon, CEO of De Beers Jewellers and De Beers Forevermark. “By not dictating whether a collection is female or male, [we] encourage experimentation and self-expression through inspiring imagery and storytelling.”

Companies must follow society’s lead when it comes to gender categories among consumers, Assimon continues. “Our clients are now plural, and they are ready to experiment more and embrace their different facets. We want everyone to feel inspired by our collections and campaign, and working with an ambassador like Kun, and creating bold imagery of him wearing iconic...collections is one way to convey gender fluidity.”

Another way is to create a new line without men or women in mind — just a beautiful aesthetic any customer would like to wear. De Beers is exploring the possibility of creating such collections in the future, Assimon says.

Hybrid approach
Despite all the advances jewelers have made toward inclusivity, fully relaxing gender lines can be difficult. Many customers still expect to shop the “old-fashioned” way: While 48% of Gen Z-ers in a 2018 McKinsey & Co. study said they valued brands that didn’t classify items by gender, only 38% of consumers in other generations agreed.

Signet solved this problem by continuing to have men’s and women’s jewelry categories, but offering a genderless search option as well. “Our goal is to make it easier for the consumer,” Palermo says. “So if you want to shop by gender, then you have that option. If you want to shop by a specific product category, then you have that option, too.”

Ben Bridge implements a similar strategy, according to Angela Hope, the company’s vice president of merchandising. “I wouldn’t say we don’t have any labels; we do. We want to quickly enable our customers to narrow down their search, so we do still have some of the traditional labels to help with that process, since we know customers do use them. That said, we are constantly pushing ourselves to innovate...and find other paths to make that process faster and easier in ways that someday may not involve labels at all.”

Important conversations
Trying to get it right can often involve getting it wrong. Many companies hesitate to change their marketing and promote inclusivity for fear of saying the wrong thing. But being afraid is no longer a valid excuse, marketers say.

“It’s scary to talk about some of these topics, because there is so much weight behind them, and they’re so important,” stresses Speicher. “But remaining silent is not the right path forward. If you come from a place of sincerity, you are trying, and trying counts. These are important conversations, and it’s easy to accidentally not say the perfect thing. It can for sure happen, but that’s not enough of a reason to be silent.”

And if you do inadvertently make a misstep? Issue a sincere mea culpa, advises De Luca, and use it as a learning experience. Not owning up to it — or hoping you can lie low until it blows over — can have negative repercussions.

“You have to apologize publicly and show that you are willing to make a change, because the mistake was not made intentionally, it was done out of ignorance,” she says. “Being humble is the most important thing, and I think [it] can actually become a turnaround point, like it was for Gucci.”

The word on labelsFour industry members from Gen X to Gen Z weigh in on gendered marketing

When you are buying a product, do you prefer to see it marked as “men’s/women’s,” “gender-neutral/unisex,” or not marked at all?

Rami Baron: I think it’s irrelevant, maybe almost archaic. The imagery will dictate the target audience, and customers can make up their own minds.

Alain Zlayet: There are products advertised as “men’s” or “women’s” that are simply absurd. I prefer to buy gender-neutral. If I like a product, I’ll use it, and I don’t really care about the opinion of others.

Prernaa Makhariaa: It’s subjective. Products marked “men’s” or “women’s” may be relevant for some products, while it may be neutral for others. When it comes to affordable luxury, I would prefer to see it as “unisex” or without any labels at all.

Melissa Smet: Although I usually buy products that are marketed as “women’s,” I think many of these products shouldn’t be marked at all and have unnecessary gender labels.

Do you think it’s offensive to some people to label products by gender?

Baron: I don’t think it’s offensive because of my age and gender, but I think it is limiting, and yes, in some cases, offensive to label products by gender.

Zlayet: I don’t think it’s offensive, but it limits the market of the sales company. The company that labels by gender automatically excludes the other group of consumers.

Makhariaa: I don’t think it’s offensive. This is a personal choice and may differ from person to person as to how they perceive it.

Smet: Yes, I think it is offensive to some people. By labeling products by gender, some people might feel pressure to conform to gender roles and might feel constricted.

Have you ever bought a product for yourself that was marketed to the opposite gender?

Baron: Yes, I have bought, and continue to buy, an excellent hand moisturizer that was clearly targeted and labeled for women. I smelled it and felt it, and the labeling was irrelevant to me.

Zlayet: Yes, I have. I’ve used female makeup products for different occasions. I know women who have used men’s perfumes, too. I see a lot of women wearing men’s watches. I have a very big client who wears a pink watch because he likes it.

Makhariaa: Oh, many times, and I will always continue to do so. I wear cuff links in shirts I put on for business meetings. I have diamond brooches that my father and I both wear on our jackets, and we share our watches, too.

Smet: Yes, I am currently using an app for an abdominal workout marked for men, since the app is user-friendly and offers a workout program that suits me perfectly.

Do you think marketing needs to be more inclusive regarding gender?

Baron: I think this is a very relevant and timely question. The fact that we need to ask this question reflects how out-of-sync we are with the demands of the market, and the critically important blind spot that marketers have toward the LGBTQ communities. We in the diamond and jewelry space need to lead by example, with less rigid imaging and a greater acceptance, by way of example, of gender-diverse communities. I believe there is a massive gap, and hence opportunity, for those who can see and respond to this need both socially and commercially in this ever-growing market.

Smet: Like many millennials, I prefer companies that have a positive impact on society — for example, by adopting an inclusive marketing strategy. First and foremost, marketers should avoid gender clichés when designing advertisements and should remove gender bias. Storytelling based on stereotypes mainly shows that the brand or company is not keeping up with the times. Secondly, marketers should consider reducing gender categorization and introducing gender fluidity — for example, by no longer dividing products based on gender...but based on other criteria (types of chains, different lengths, etc.). More and more customers don’t want to be labeled, whether the label is based on gender, age, [or otherwise].

Makhariaa: If we go back into the history of India, royal and luxurious pieces of jewelry commissioned by the big jewelry houses were for the maharajas of India [and] were also worn by the maharanis. Perhaps the men wore more jewelry than the women. Another example is from the music industry: The jewelry worn by rappers isn’t gender-based. They wear layers of diamonds and gold along with stacks of watches and rings. Apple’s marketing simply says, “It’s an Apple”; they don’t specify their gadgets being gender-biased, and as an Apple customer, for me, it’s the ease of using the product, perceived value, and customer service that matter.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - October 2021. To subscribe click here.

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