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Does the gender of my mouthwash really matter?

I know my soap is masculine. Because it’s Italian (sapone = masculine noun). Does that affect how I feel about it? Fascinating studies have been done to see how grammatical gender assignments influence judgments. For example, the word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers use words like hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful to describe a key while Spanish speakers describe them as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny.

I want to explore the decision to incorporate masculine or feminine design aspects into a product. You might think it’s as simple as making a shampoo bottle black with sharp angles to appeal to men, or launching a set of office products in an array of purple colors to appeal to women. But industry has hit some tough lessons on this approach (uhm, remember the pens “for her?”). Knowing when gender-neutral is the right path to follow is a key decision in an environment where blatant gender stereotypes generate backlash.

When we consider that every person is a rich mix of strength and kindness, bravery and compassion, of both toughness and gentleness, how can we distinguish which of these could ever be assigned to just one gender? So when we design a product, it’s really more about the job to be done, the experience that we are hoping to deliver for our end user, our Experiencer. A tough job probably calls for more rugged “masculine” design features. A job that creates a pampering experience needs a softer more “feminine” design. Mixing these signals can come off as awkward and distracting. 

Deciding to design a product to be masculine, feminine or gender-neutral, has to be deliberate and thoughtful. You need to know your audience. Here’s how some companies are navigating this evolving landscape.

not just for him

I know very feminine women who love very masculine products. They like the edginess of them, the toughness. If you want to appeal to these strong, confident women with a line of products you should definitely avoid a “girly” approach. 

Recent advertising has shown a growing appreciation for this as they speak directly to women with a product (the very same product) they typically market to men. Consider GMC's commercial celebrating a woman’s preference for a pickup truck, or the Coors Light “made to chill” ad that understands the relief a woman feels when taking off her bra at the end of a long day. Speaking of beer, some beer companies have attempted to create a product specifically for women with dismal results. Why dismal? Well, first of all the products were condescending in their design. But more importantly, women who drink beer not only like the taste of beer, they like the masculinity of beer. I challenge you to consider that ‘masculine’ needn’t mean “for men.” Can you imagine if GMC attempted to design a heavy duty truck just for women? I cringe at the thought.

As people look to embrace and express the different aspects of their personality, they will look for brands that understand this. The woman who loves makeup, hair extensions, long finger nails and fashion is also the woman who dons the orange Carhartt hat as a striking masculine feature to highlight the strength of her femininity. “Don’t underestimate me,” she’s saying, “I am tougher than this pretty exterior might suggest.” 
@msrachelhollis on instagram

It’s about making it accessible. Forgo the derogatory gender stereotype while retaining masculinity.

I like examples. What about razors? First we had razors for men. Then we had razors specifically made for women. The women’s razor section became an odd sea of pink and purple. Fast-forward and the company behind Harry’s, a successful line of direct-to-consumer men’s shaving products, launches a modern razor line tailored for women under the Flamingo brand name. The color scheme? It’s inspired by interior design (not a Disney princess color palette).

Every Man Jack does a nice job catering to a male audience with a masculine package. When they decided to offer a women’s line they were able to retain their unique product silhouette and adjusted the color scheme and fragrance. Same family of products with a deliberate shift in design to appeal to specific and distinct gender targets.

special for him

Toothpaste just for men? Really? There are several “just for men” product launch examples that I won’t go into because my goal with this blog is to highlight good design. Basically, if you’re marketing your product to men, the gender stereotype must be tasteful (of course) and it should make sense. Men know they have the same teeth, the same hair, the same pile of laundry to do as everybody else. If you design a product for men, make sure it’s respectful.

everyman products

When Andrew Glass, founder of skin-care brand Non Gender Specific, realized how segregated the personal care industry was, he had the idea to develop a brand with absolutely no gender boundaries. “That is how we became known as 'the brand for all humans,'” he says.

I mean really, we all wash our face. Because skin is skin. And whose skin doesn’t like to be pampered? We’re seeing a shift away from "men's" and "women's" products, and the trend is only likely to grow from here with a rise in the launch of authentic products that work for everybody.

There’s a slew of brands that have launched sleek packaging and a neutral color palette in a deliberate effort to be unisex. But sometimes brands shy away from making any binary (masculine or feminine) design statement and fail to connect in an emotional way. Inkey List is gender-neutral, sure, but lacks personality.

Dermalogica does a better job balancing gender and a sense of clinical efficacy with a bit more style. 

While First Aid Beauty (FAB) doesn’t tout itself as unisex, their fan base is made up of both men and women, and FAB isn’t afraid of color or pattern. 

Youth To The People stays true to their natural super-ingredient messaging with their simple color palette designed intentionally to be accessible to anyone.

What about beyond the personal care aisle? Household products play in both worlds too, with rugged features to address their effectiveness at solving tough problems like scrubbing and removing stains, but also graceful features that make them nicer to hold and even keep on display.

For gender-neutral products, the focus needs to be on performance and the specific benefits they offer, because isn’t that what really matters with any product? Your product should target the outcome your Experiencer is looking to have, the job they want to get done, not their gender.

you do you

Knowing when to mindfully leverage a masculine or feminine approach to better target your key customer, or when to take a gender-neutral path, requires a clear and openminded view. You want to honor the individuality of your product user and create the right emotional connection with them. Your brand, your design, your product experience should line up with the values of the people you serve. They will then pick it up with the sense of being understood.

If you'd like to bat around some ideas on where your product line should fall on the gender continuum, email me.


  1. You have provided valuable data for us. It is great and informative for everyone. Keep posting always. I am very thankful to you. Betadine Mouthwash Gargle


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