NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If you want to broaden the appeal of your product, the first thing you should do is figure out if it's a boy or a girl.
"The idea is to look at a category and examine what its [gender] orientation is," based on its inherent appeal and the marketing that's traditionally been put behind it, said Matthew Paprocki, president of Los Angeles-based creative boutique Boombang. "All their existing know-how is focused with a different orientation. If you flip that, you appeal to the opposite sex and increase the potential market for your products."
Some ad types say this concept, referred to as gender-bending for brands, is one all marketers should seriously ponder right now. As economic woes dampen consumer spending, marketers from fashion to package goods will need to be innovative and grow market share by reaching out to untapped consumer bases.
The onetime male-only skate and snowboard retailer Quicksilver called in Boombang a few years ago to help boost its appeal to women. Having grown from just surf-inspired sportswear into fragrance, beauty and even bedroom furnishings for young women, Quicksilver's Roxy sub-brand accounted for almost 35% of Quicksilver's revenue in fiscal 2008. Late last year, lingerie retailer Wish Room capitalized on an insight that men may secretly want bras of their own. It may sound like a joke or an episode of "Seinfeld," but Wish Room saw hundreds of "mansierres" fly out the door at $30 a pop in Japan.
Idea is not new
The notion of gender-bending for brands isn't new, of course. Philip Morris famously appealed to women during the 1960s with its "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" campaign for Virginia Slims. Just last week, Frito-Lay launched an effort through agency Juniper Park in the hopes of making its salty snacks more female-friendly.
Marketing experts note that today the strategy requires clients to tread more carefully with their messaging, and spend more time plotting packaging and merchandising efforts as part of marketing programs, too.
For Newell Rubbermaid, Boombang is helping its Ace division carve out a niche in the men's grooming industry. Drawing on the iconic Ace back-pocket comb, Boombang designed a line of tools specifically for men, including tweezers and clippers.
"Most men don't want to go to what we call the 'pink aisle' of the store to get tweezers and clippers that are made for women," said Valee Gallant, marketing communications manager for the Atlanta-based Ace. "They want products that look masculine and are made for their specific grooming needs. Until Ace, most implements for men were just women's products in a different package. "
Thinking outside the box
Boombang designed the tools to be more ergonomic for men's hands, but stronger too, to address issues such as thicker toenails and hair that grows in different places. The agency also tried to think out of the box in terms of merchandising, making the line of products available not just at drug stores such as Walgreens but also at Home Depot.
The firm hopes its chops in the gender-bending arena could prompt a new revenue stream. Among several internal projects, Boombang has re-imagined the square, tinfoil condom wrapper to cater to women with "Siren," a condom designed to fit in a lipstick-like tube, now being shopped to contraception marketers.
Marketing experts note that execution is key. To preserve brand equity, marketers must make sure they branch out from their core demographic without alienating their loyal consumer base at the same time.
"When most companies look at this strategy, they see the short-term gain, but I think they underestimate the degradation to the brand over the longer term," said Jill Avery, an assistant professor at Boston's Simmons School of Management who researches brand equity and gender issues.
Awareness is key
Ms. Avery said marketers have to be really aware of the ways in which consumers use their brands. "Some brands we don't use as much for identity, but certain ones we use to enact our gender -- to be a woman or be a man -- so that's where gender-bending becomes particularly dangerous."
"In the current economy, I think people are going to be going after those short-term gains more and more," Ms. Avery said.
"We recommend, when introducing a new brand, to use your existing brand to give it a level of credibility, but make sure that the sub-brand speaks to the new market," said Boombang's Mr. Paprocki.
"One way is to change the brand name just slightly, or put a twist on it" to make it distinct, said Lois Olson, who teaches courses on global marketing of consumer products at San Diego State University.
Another, albeit more disingenuous, technique is to "sell on the sly," Ms. Olson said. "Where you have a product that's very specific for a market, the best way to do it is keep the messages -- whatever your advertising medium is -- separate so that they don't overlap."
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