The spat between Nestlé and Mars over the “gender-orientation” of their brands is, on the face of it, little more than light-hearted banter. The week before last, Nestlé Rowntree marketing director Andrew Harrison noted Mars’ “feminising” of its brand with its latest relaunch and – with tongue firmly in cheek – claimed that his own brand’s revamp of Yorkie was an attempt to “take a stand for the British bloke and reclaim some things in his life, starting with chocolate.”
But behind the jokey strapline for Yorkie’s new ad campaign – “It’s not for girls” – lie a number of serious issues, which confront many of the UK’s top consumer brands. For confectionery manufacturers, there is the question of how to stem a four per cent annual decline in the value of sales. Wrapped up in this is the issue of how to strike the right gender balance in brand positioning – women tend to buy confectionery as an indulgence product and a treat, while men see it more as a snack food.
Mars has cut the weight of its bars by 2.5g for the relaunch, and is using the strapline “Pleasure you can’t measure”. The company admits it is trying to persuade more women to buy the product. A spokeswoman says: “The truth is that Mars Bars are mainly eaten by 25to 44-year-old men. Three-fifths of bars are eaten by men, and only two-fifths by women. The aim is to remove that disparity.”
There have been many examples of brands that have failed to bridge the gender gap, or to extend a sector aimed at one gender to the other, particularly in the grooming sector. Boots axed trials of two men’s grooming stores in Edinburgh, and Unilever closed down its Lynx barbers’ shops. Body Shop’s men’s toiletries range never achieved the success of its women’s products, although some male gender positioning is maintained – the company’s male moisturiser, for instance, is the macho-sounding “Face Protector”.
Lady drivers are no joke
While sexual roles are changing, women’s earnings increasing and old notions of gender flying out of the window, it seems some brands are confused about how to approach gender. Some have managed it – the motor industry has succeeded in marketing car brands (Fiat Punto, Renault Clio) to women, pubs have catered for the female market with more female-friendly bars and drinks manufacturers have spent much of the past decade dreaming up alcohol brands to appeal to women.
It has been pointed out that women do not seem to mind taking up brands which were previously positioned at men. Instances abound, including car brands (Audi, Saab and MG), beers (Stella Artois and Hoegaarden), shaving products (Gillette, which has launched the Venus shaving system for women) and football (a growth sport for women). Men, on the other hand, are sensitive about adopting “female” brands – they are wary of, for instance, many personal care and alcopops brands, which they perceive as having a female slant.
As Carolyn Watts, a planner at brand consultancy Smith & Milton, says: “Women are claiming what has traditionally belonged to men, and the men have had to stand there and take it on the chin. Recent research found that men are increasingly fed up with being depicted in ads as emotionally dysfunctional individuals who are unable to do DIY, make decisions on their own, hold their drink or even outsmart their girlfriends. What are men left with to call their own?”
Enforcing the gender bar
Nestlé and its ad agency J Walter Thompson have invested a great deal in the first new Yorkie campaign in six years. The marketing spend – &£3.5m – may be only half of Mars’ &£7.5m, but Nestlé is determined to make as much noise as possible. Packaging has been redesigned, with the “O” in Yorkie turned into a street-sign image of a woman with a red line across her. Posters and print ads include lines such as “Don’t feed the birds”, “Not available in pink” and “King size, not Queen size” (MW last week). Not everybody, however, is impressed.
Janet Veitch of the Women’s National Council, which represents women’s organisations to the Government, says of the campaign: “The message may be tongue-in-cheek, but some people may not get the joke. I would not be surprised if this campaign is a huge turn-off, both to men and women. If this is a bid to boost Yorkie’s market share, it is likely to fail, because its target market excludes more than half the population.”
Equal opportunities in advertising
JWT planning director Marco Rimini says he will be surprised if anyone is really offended by the campaign. He adds that gender issues have always been important in brand positioning, but that they are also great issues for advertising. He claims part of the secret of Smirnoff Ice’s success in recent years is its unisex positioning, as opposed to the female positioning of rival Bacardi Breezer: “Smirnoff Ice is successful because it was advertised so as not to put off men. We made the advertising appeal to both sexes.”
And Harrison says research shows that Yorkie’s male positioning has gone down well with the “ladette” market. The gender breakdown of Yorkie’s sales is similar to Mars’, with 60 per cent bought by men and 40 per cent by women. Harrison adds that Yorkie’s &£40m a year sales have held up well, partly because of the brand’s sponsorship of the Premier League. But it is a much smaller brand than it was after its launch in 1978 – sales have fallen by about two-fifths since its heyday. The brand was ruthlessly targeted by other confectionery companies, which had never before had such a strong competitor in the slab chocolate market.
In truth, Mars Bars are also facing a gradual decline – sales fell by seven per cent last year – and it is no longer as much a part of the national diet as it once was. Competition from the ballooning range of snack and takeaway foods means confectionery has to be positioned both as a snack food and as an “indulgence” product.
Creenagh Lodge of brand consultancy Corporate Edge says that the selling-point of the Mars Bar is the nougat, which makes it chewy, provoking salivation which makes the bar easier to eat. Yorkie, on the other hand is pure chocolate, to be chomped rather than chewed. Lodge adds: “Mars has been around for a long time and is part of people’s basic food repertoire. Yorkie is a relative newcomer.” While Mars is trying to appeal to as wide a market as possible, Yorkie’s relatively lower sales mean it can be more selective in its targeting.
But there are dangers in aiming a brand too much towards one gender or the other. As Lesley Salem, insight director of brand consultancy Futurebrand, says: “It becomes dangerous when a brand anchors itself to a gender type so rigidly that it misses the pointers of change. For instance, Loaded magazine recognised the trend towards “lad culture”, but was unable to realign itself when its readers became interested in health issues.”
And in a warning for Harrison, she adds: “It is also dangerous for a brand to adopt a position based on attacking the opposite sex. This sends out a message that the gender the brand is representing is feeling defensive about its role, which may be somewhat outdated for the majority of society.”
She says a recent European study of people in their early 20s showed that young people see the genders as equal. Their approach to lifestyle aspirations, brands, values and shopping have virtually no association with gender and have more to do with personal preferences. She says: “Traditional marketing assumptions based on gender are becoming defunct.” She gives the examples of Smirnoff Ice and Adidas as “successful unisex brands”.
Whether the relaunches of Yorkie and Mars will add enough excitement to confectionery to turn around the market’s gradual decline will be apparent soon enough. Many brands may wish to sidestep the issues of gender preference in their positioning, but there will always be advertisers who seek to add interest by playing gender games. Yet, no matter how humorous a campaign they may devise, they should be aware that such plans can backfire.