Getting men to buy products that are traditionally made for and marketed to women can be an exasperating challenge. But, solving that problem could mean doubling the size of your available market. We’re not talking about getting men to buy things like whiskey, sports equipment, and chain saws. We’re talking about getting men to buy things like skin care products, grooming products, and other types of cosmetic and health and beauty products that are traditionally designed for women. Recent research by a Stanford Business School professor provides insights that help to better understand the male ego and the implications for consumer buying behavior. Can this research be applied to designing retail POP displays? We think so.
By way of background, it is important to acknowledge that the marketing landscape around gender is a bit of a moving target these days. In the old days, you were either a guy or a girl. Life was simpler, and the challenge for marketers was more straight-forward. Today there is a growing transgender population, an emerging “Genderqueer” (“GQ”, also known as non-binary or gender-expansive) population, a powerful LGBTQ (Q is for Genderqueer) movement, an explosion in same-sex marriages, and legislation requiring unisex bathrooms. Gender specific names like names like Kathy, Susan, Mike and Bob are being replaced by names like Skyler, Jordan, Taylor, and River. If you think it is confusing to figure out what sex you are, imagine how confusing it is for marketers who are trying to craft effective messaging for specific gender groups.
Against that backdrop, let’s look at the latest research regarding male ego and consumer buying behavior. Stereotypically, when we think of “real men,” we think of brave soldiers, muscle-bound athletes, and avid outdoorsmen. Strong, aggressive, powerful, dominant are typical of the characteristics we associate with men and key differentiating attributes that set them apart from women.
Professor Benoit Monin’s research shows that when a man’s masculinity is threatened, he will behave in a way that enables him to quickly recover it by avoiding products and activities that are stereotypically associated with women and by exaggerating his masculine attributes such as his height or the number of women he has dated. This type of response is less about aggressive chest-thumping and more about a man’s identity and sense of belonging to a group. “In the same way that we find that when Asian Americans’ identity as Americans is questioned they reassert it by displaying local cultural knowledge and choosing typical American food, men whose masculinity is questioned react by exaggerating characteristics they associate with masculinity and downplaying feminine ones,” says Monin.
Monin and his colleagues conducted two studies. In the first study, men were asked to take a computer-based “masculinity test,” the outcome of which promised to tell them how they scored on a masculinity scale relative to other men. The researchers rigged the tests to generate random scores. Immediately after learning their scores, participants were offered a range of male-oriented, female-oriented, or gender-neutral products. The second study asked participants to take a handgrip test to evaluate their physical strength relative to other men. As with the first study, grip strength scores were randomly assigned, and then participants were asked questions about their height, handiness with tools, number of previous relationships, etc.
The studies found that men who were told they scored low on the relative masculinity test were conclusively less interested in female-oriented products such as cosmetic products and apparel, whereas the men who scored higher were equally interested in all products. Furthermore, the men who believed they scored low also gave inflated answers regarding their height and number of past relationships, while also reporting higher levels of aggressiveness and athleticism relative to the group of men whose masculinity wasn’t threatened.
The research has implications for male consumer behavior. A key determinant of whether or not men will embrace a feminine products is how secure they are about their masculinity.
Monin says, “Marketers have to figure out how to alleviate concerns about masculinity as they try to convince men to buy products that could be perceived as feminine, such as skin care products. These companies need to design ads and marketing campaigns that make men feel very secure in their masculinity.”
These implications can also be applied to designing point of purchase displays. For example, using imagery of a macho guy on a skin cream display is more likely to convert a male shopper to a buyer compared to using an image of a diminutive, effeminate man using the product. If a man who might have scored low on the masculinity test sees a POP display graphic depicting a macho blue collar steel worker using a face cream, he is likely to reason that if it’s ok for the macho guy to use this feminine product then it’s ok for him. Similarly, using male-oriented language on the display rather than words like “soft and beautiful” is likely to be less threatening to a male shopper’s masculinity.
For more adventuresome brands, it would be interesting to design the POP display with a touch screen that invites men to take a short 5-question interactive masculinity test. The display could be programmed to randomly generate high scores. Accompanying the test score could be a 20% off mobile coupon. There are numerous other creative ways to engage men in a way that reinforces their masculinity so as to trigger the purchase of a feminine product. There are a lot of men out there. It’s worth a try.