Ugg, others take a shot at gender bending

Marketers struggle to put masculine spin on women's brands

By Published on .

Its pink and purple boots may have helped Ugg Australia build a booming business among women and girls, but they certainly didn't help convince men the brand crossed gender lines. Now, Ugg is set to move beyond the pastel hues and position itself with ads and products as a unisex must-have.

Ugg, a unit of Deckers Outdoor, is among the many women fashion brands that are trying to expand their business by crossing gender lines.

"Ten years ago, you could count fewer than 24 different women's fashion brands that had entered the menswear market, but today it's well over 100," says NPD Group Chief Industry Analyst Marshal Cohen.

However, what is prompting the majority of those efforts to fail, he says, is that while the tactic worked brilliantly when the majority of men's products were purchased by women (in 1975, he said, 75% of men's clothes were bought by women), now that 75% of men are buying their own fashions, "makers can't rely on the familiarity of the brand name among women to influence guys." Instead, they have to work harder to talk directly to men and overcome the obstacles that originating in women's products might present.

Michael Wolfe, associate publisher of GQ magazine, has seen a number of brands that advertise with his publication come from the female side, among them Liz Claiborne, which has developed Claiborne for Men. But, he says, although it can be done, "It's not easy, since men-who've recently emerged as shoppers with confidence on their own-can be picky about a masculine reputation."

It's no surprise, though, that marketers are trying the tactic despite the odds as it presents significant growth opportunities. Sales of men's fashions outpaced the percentage growth of women's fashions in 2005 and have continued the momentum this year, with men's sales up 5.9% to $53.4 billion for the year ended March 31 vs. growth of 4.1% to $97.6 billion in the women's market, according to NPD.

Those growth numbers have certainly influenced Anders Bergstrom, marketing manager for Ugg. Mr. Bergstrom has seen more and more men seeking luxury products (the metrosexual revolution may have something to do with that, he suggests) and so he is set to "re-educate men who've grown accustomed to seeing Ugg products on women in recent years that we're not a women's brand, it's a brand for everyone." Though men recently have made up a small percentage of sales, he says Ugg originated as a surfing accessory used mostly by men.

upping ad support

To apprise men of their misperception, he says, Ugg is putting more weight behind its men's business both from a product innovation and marketing and media perspective, launching a slew of shoes and slippers for men this August that will be backed later in the year by double the amount that Ugg spent on men's media last year. Among the new ads are those that, unlike last year's men's ads featuring product only, actually portray shots of men and couples wearing the products as part of their luxury lifestyle.

Featuring men and women together in luxury pictorial advertising is a growing trend as marketers try to make the crossover and become the next all-encompassing lifestyle brand a la Ralph Lauren. Cole Haan, for example, which has expanded its originally male-targeted line to include women (a move so successful that sales of its women's products recently eclipsed those of its men's), is launching a similar "narrative" campaign this fall in men's, women's and dual-gender publications.

Tom Julian, senior VP-strategic director of trends, McCann Erickson, New York, says he sees more women's designers entering the men's arena than totally new brands because retailers are looking for already successful, recognizable names.

In the case of premium denim, for example, all the brands including 7 For All Mankind proliferated in the women's department and brought excitement retailers wanted to apply to the men's category, he says.
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