The end of masculinity: 5 steps into the future for brands

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A dad loses himself in playtime with his kids in an ad for Citi.
A dad loses himself in playtime with his kids in an ad for Citi. Credit: Citibank

Twenty years ago, I said a revolution is coming in which women would supersede men. I guess I was a little early with this prediction (it's a problem we futurists have), because it's happening right now.
As women forge ahead—pursuing higher education, amassing wealth, and demanding an accountable society—I'm looking at the shifts this will trigger tomorrow and asking, "What about men?"
Masculinity used to be a place of strength, power, stoicism. But the cracks are showing: Men now start businesses at half the rate of women, for instance, and they represent 70 percent of all suicides. Even the very building blocks of maleness are declining: Testosterone has fallen 17 percent, and the Y chromosome is showing signs of crumbling.

The world men created and ruled doesn't work anymore, and they don't have the tools to fix it. The media needs to help.

Our job, as brands and marketers, is to interpret these deep, difficult shifts and put new products, imagery, messaging and support out there. In June, I led a panel at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity called "The Death of Masculinity." Our group—which also included drag queen Violet Chachki, men's studies and sociology professor Michael Kimmel and creator of female-led co-working spaces Amy Nelson—debated about where things would go. We discussed that men will get angrier before they accept change. That women will separate themselves and rise. That it's a mandate to show youth a path forward.

It's the embedded notion of masculinity that needs a total renovation, not manhood itself. No one wants to see half the population in distress, foundering and failing. When masculinity gets rethought, men rise. Women rise. All humans rise.

So here's what I have to say to those of us in the business of brands and marketing: We need to take the following five steps together.

1. Create the third aisle: Make products that are not for men or women, but for either and all the shades in between. Quit drawing distinctions where they aren't needed. Half of all millennials believe gender is a spectrum and the rest of us need to get on board. Look at how Mr. Smith hair care is gender-neutral, designed for human heads—the person's genitalia don't matter. Study Jecca cosmetics, made for the trans community, adopted even by those who are not in it. And look at Target's Cat & Jack kids' clothes, which are gender-neutral. Lastly, watch your pronouns: Use they/them/theirs.

2. Innovate their image: Present men as complex, thoughtful, loving—not as tough guys or doofus dads. We're well on our way to leaving the bro imagery of dated beer ads behind us, but let's hold ourselves accountable to show men at their best—the vulnerability expressed in the Harry's "A Man Like You" short film, the dad losing himself in playtime with the kids in Citi's "Kiddie Shoes" ad. The strong, silent guy who holds all the cards and has all the answers is officially dead and buried.

3. Co-create: Axe/Lynx, working with Promundo, launched a survey of thousands of men around the globe and learned that most still felt bound by rigid ideas about male identity. They said they felt the pressure to be strong, decisive, unemotional and to know exactly what to do in any situation. Those insights led to Axe's brilliant "Is It OK for Guys…" campaign. In it, real men's private questions became public, showing that men do have doubts and need guidance. What a genius way to normalize this questioning.

4. Support the left-behinds: Be a helpline for men who feel scared, powerless and angry as they resolve their vulnerability, confusion, fury. Men with lower incomes and education are the most likely to revert to stereotypical tough-guy behavior. Give them the tools not to. What can your brand offer them? A chat room with a therapist? Some meet-ups? Skill-building? Guide them, and get their loyalty.

5. Change—or die: In this revolution, women will gain strength, men will find new footing, and the gender-fluid will rise. Get ahead of their needs or get out of the way. Now is not the moment to play it safe. We have younger generations that demand transparency, so make your policies—about promoting women, holding men accountable for bad behavior and re-educating men—clear and boldly communicated. Show initiative. Disrupt the conversation and have female employees mentor men, and have millennial males show boomer ones the way forward. Your consumers will follow.

It isn't easy, but it will take you to a much better and more comfortable place. Looking forward to seeing you there.

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