Galaxy or Yorkie? Walkers Sensations or McCoy's? The choices we make at the supermarket checkout are less down to personal taste or preference than we might like to think. Forget sexual stereotyping, gender targeting is the latest mantra as food marketers exploit the hidden cues in the packaged foods and drinks we buy. It's what makes Food Doctor Easy Goodness Roasted Basil Chicken with Puy Lentils & Spelt more appealing to many women than the prospect of a bowl of Mr Brain's Pork Faggots.
Take Eve, a light alcoholic drink being launched nationally by brewing giant Carlsberg next month. It's not just in the name. The drink is flavoured with exotic fruits like lychee and passion fruit, the logo is looped and curling. Eve is, the company boldly declares, "a synonym for women and femininity". Or Koko by Cadbury, the confectioner's recently-launched chocolate gift selection which aside from the passing nod to Coco Chanel in its name underlines its fashionista credentials with luxurious pink and brown, ribboned packaging, and was sold alongside exclusive Koko-inspired silver necklaces designed by fashion label PPQ in Selfridges at launch.
Then consider Pot Noodle Doner Kebab with its meaty promise of Turkish lamb in a black plastic tub and neon logo described by Graham Walker, flavour development manager at Unilever, the food company behind it, as "the ultimate man-food snack". Or Wrigley's 5, the eponymous gum manufacturer's new sugar-free gum. With assorted flavours boasting names like Cobalt and Pulse, and its predominantly black, ribbed packaging, some have likened the packaging design to a box of condoms.
"Food companies have many cues to play around with when it comes to making sure they attract the particular consumers they want to appeal to. Actual content, flavour, and consistency are just the beginning," says consumer psychologist Cathrine Jansson-Boyd of Anglia Ruskin University. "We tend to purchase things that are an extension of who we are and who we want to be seen to be – that's why much marketing is still channelled along gender lines, albeit increasingly subtly, and food is just another extension of this."
In the drinks market, for example, lager is predominantly, if not exclusively, marketed at young men and – surprise surprise – in the UK it is 18 to 34-year-old men who predominantly drink it. Trouble is, sales are falling – down 10 per cent between 2004 and 2009 – due to people cutting back on their drinking, plus the recession and beer companies' failure to broaden their appeal beyond this core audience.
"British beer marketing has a long tradition of targeting men through male humour and sport. The bitter flavouring of many domestic beers, meanwhile, means far fewer women drink beer here than in other countries like Ireland, the US and parts of Asia," says Harriet Easton, a Shrewsbury-based student entrepreneur who in her gap year developed a pale ale for women called Harry's Beer, which she now hopes to roll out nationally. Attempts by established brewers to woo women drinkers are a "logical next step", she says, and long overdue. Molson Coors, for one, recently trialled a women's lager flavoured with dragon fruit and green tea, and has since launched a campaign to encourage women's appreciation of beer.
Foster's has come up with Foster's Twist, "an easy drinking beer with a hint of citrus", designed to appeal to the female palate. Heineken, meanwhile, has developed a ladies' sparkling cider called Charli.
Yet while a number of brewers have talked about developing women's lagers, there has been a tendency to hold back from overtly positioning them as such – perhaps for fear of alienating the male drinkers they already have. It's a suggestion that Easton reluctantly endorses. Though Harry's Beer has been designed to appeal to women – each bottle features women's silhouettes – the name, inspired by her own, was chosen to be gender-neutral so as not to alienate men.
Chocolate, in contrast, is a product category dominated by female-focused brands, despite being consumed by both sexes in equal numbers. The more indulgent the product, however, the more feminine-focused the brand, according to Jill McCall, Cadbury brand manager for Koko. She draws a clear distinction between chocolate intended for self-indulgence and what she calls "hunger bars" like Boost or Double Decker, which by being big and chunky appeal more to the male desire to use chocolate to satisfy hunger.
"A large proportion of boxed chocolates are bought by women for women because men are often scared of getting it wrong," she adds. "Women, however, tend to follow a debit-credit system when it comes to chocolate consumption, which means that if they indulge now they must compromise on something else later. So, if they are going to indulge, it had better taste, look and feel perfect. It's a trade-off which women readily understand, but which many men don't and worry about it when buying chocolate."
Colour is a common gender cue found in a wide array of food and drinks packaging, and so is shape. "Whether a bottle or packet is curved or straight matters. Women are naturally drawn to rounded contours, even if they claim otherwise; sales prove it. Labels, too, tend to be more decorative, with more detailed patterning and lighter colour tones," says Jansson-Boyd.
On-pack messaging also has a role to play, she adds, with products clearly marked "low-calorie" or "healthy" predominantly aimed at, and bought by, women. Any suggestion of a health expert's endorsement or nutritionist's advice – for example, the perceived connotations that can be drawn from the brand name Food Doctor – also creates female appeal.
"As soon as you put 'Diet' or 'Light' in a name, the product is generally perceived as being aimed more at women, even though many men are now as calorie-conscious," says Penny Segal, head of strategy at brand development consultancy Brandhouse. "It's why Pepsi and Coke have been doing smart jobs with Pepsi Max and Coke Zero – offering the low-cal benefit desired in a new, male way." That said, not all products presented to appeal to women are solely intended for women to consume.
"Although more men are living alone, and more men than ever now share domestic chores, the majority of grocery shopping is still done by women and food brands simply can't afford to ignore that," says Jon Howard-Spink, strategy and planning director at advertising agency Quiet Storm, whose clients include Kerry Foods.
David Williamson, the marketing director at Kerry – whose brands include Mr Brain's Pork Faggots and LowLow cheese – endorses this. "A product like LowLow has a female skew because we position it as healthier, but that's so that we appeal to her as the primary shopper, who acts as gatekeeper and guardian of her family's health," he explains. "While there is some male bias given to products with meaty textures, our aim is to push the appeal of all the food products we make to as wide a market as possible."
Mr Brain's Pork Faggots is, he says, a case in point. Although it is a product eaten more by men than women, it is packaged and marketed with cues carefully balanced to appeal to both. "Given the product's name, the yellow pack and its bright red logo that looks like it's come straight out of the Beano, Mr Brain's is not a brand that takes itself too seriously," Howard-Spink observes.
In the Mr Brain's commercial now running on TV, the man of the house is presented as a hero for fixing the stair carpet and rewarded accordingly, and the product is presented to women as "a real man's meal". "There is a recognition that we know you know this is irony," he adds. "Yet there is a grain of truth in the old idea that satisfying the stomach is the quickest way to a man's heart." Sexual stereotyping or gender targeting?
The jury remains out.
Sex sells: His n' hers brands
Walkers Sensations or McCoy's?
Ads with Victoria Beckham launched Walkers' posh crisps, Sensations, but the range has been extended to include meatier flavours for the menfolk. United Biscuits' McCoy's brand – known for flavours like Steak & Ale Pie – is just what it says in its latest TV ad: "man crisps".
Galaxy or Yorkie?
Though Galaxy promised British consumers "a share of country goodness" throughout the Eighties, it has since been re-positioned as "true chocolate indulgence" by its manufacturer, Mars, playing on a perceived female need for 'me time' and a desire to 'self-reward'. In contrast, Nestle's Yorkie was aimed at men from the outset. Big and chunky enough to fulfil a man's appetite, it also capitalises on its 'It's not for girls' positioning.
The Food Doctor Easy Goodness Roasted Basil Chicken or Mr Brain's Pork Faggots?
Healthy-eating associations for ready meals such as The Food Doctor range appeal mainly to women. Contrary to first impressions, however, Mr Brain's – with its tongue-in-cheek name, no nonsense packaging and humorous marketing – is also aimed at women wanting to give their man the meal he deserves.
Diet Coke or Coke Zero?
Coca-Cola had years of success with Diet Coke and sister diet cola Tab. Trouble was, men seemed reluctant to buy products labelled "diet" or "low cal". So, in 2006, the company introduced a sugar-free drink called Coke Zero (dubbed "bloke Coke" by food industry insiders) which came in a more manly black and red can. A TV campaign featured a man's surprise at finding taking sugar out doesn't ruin the taste – "Why can't all things in life come without downsides?" he ponders, "Like girlfriends without five-year plans."
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