In our latest look at consumer trends in the drinks industry, Ben Cooper turns his attention to the marketing of products along gender lines and asks, why are drinks brands struggling to keep up with society's changing approach to the sexes?

In many countries, the concepts of gender are broadening. As a result, the trend towards genderless or gender-neutral marketing is clearly linked to the gradual erosion of norms around male and female roles in society. However, while often lauded for its innovative and creative advertising, the drinks industry does not appear to be in the vanguard of this trend.

While creations such as Smirnoff's Vogue Legends campaign may well point the way forward - and certainly show the drinks industry has its thought leaders in this area - drinks advertising en masse has more than its fair share of gender stereotyping. This is the view of Alexandra Matine, senior strategist at Smirnoff ad agency 72andSunny, who believes the alcohol sector too readily defaults to "lazy gender stereotypes" and sexism in its advertising. "For decades, it feels like brands have been telling people that you carry your gender in your drink," Matine tells just-drinks.

"Bars are a place where gender roles are overplayed"

However, she does not lay the blame solely on a lack of vision. Drinks brands inhabit a world that is itself a strong reinforcer of gender stereotypes. "Bars are such a highly-gendered place or a place where gender roles are overplayed," Matine suggests. Moreover, she believes no consumer goods sector currently stands out from the crowd in this regard. Rather, individual sectors have certain brands that are pushing the envelope.

Of course, the corollary of drinks marketing being somewhat behind the curve is that there is an opportunity to be capitalised upon. The Drinks Report, published by brand consultancy Protein late last year, highlights both the concerns among the early-adopter audience it was surveying around gender equality, as well as how the changing norms are informing consumers' responses to product marketing.

"As the ideas surrounding topics like gender fluidity begin to permeate the mainstream," the report states, "marketing that relies on gender norms and conventions is falling out of favour very quickly. Being the disruptive, ethically-minded lot that they are, global early-adopters are keen to subvert and overthrow these conventions. In their place, our audience are establishing a more honest, open message that allows for the multi-faceted nature of human gender dynamics rather than a strict and rigid binary."

Tailoring marketing to fixed genders is growing more antiquated by the day

The report adds that tailoring marketing to fixed genders "is growing more antiquated by the day". Market data support the contention that some of the long-established gender-based consumer preferences are breaking down.

According to US craft beer trade body, the Brewers Association, around 15% of craft beer drinkers in the US are women, with women also accounting for more than 25% of total beer consumption. According to Nielsen, meanwhile, only 15% of whisky drinkers in the US 20 years ago were women. Today, that figure is 27%.

These shifts have come about despite the efforts of marketers, the Protein report damningly suggests, rather than as a result of them. "Despite marketing conventions that are languishing behind the mindset of vital pools of our audience, the proportion of female whisk(e)y drinkers has increased by nearly 150% in two decades. With these stats in mind, it doesn't take a huge leap in imagination to predict the complete de-gendering of drinks occurring in the very near future."

Matine does not only bemoan the stereotypical and sexist advertising that reflects the least progressive thinking in the drinks sector. Indeed, she suggests that some attempts to capitalise on changing gender preferences only serve to reinforce stereotypes. A glaring example, she maintains, is the received wisdom that flavoured whiskies will be the natural entry product for female drinkers coming into the broader sector.

Matine is also critical of advertising that ironically observes traditional gender-based stereotypes for humorous effect, such as recent campaigns for Old Spice men's care products.

There is more work to be done to arrive at truly genderless or gender-neutral advertising

Even the more progressive brands, Matine argues, find it difficult to move beyond gender without referencing gender norms in some way. While this is understandable - and perhaps forgivable - it represents something of a dichotomy, and suggests there is more work to be done to arrive at truly genderless or gender-neutral advertising. "At least in the western world, moving beyond gender is definitely where it feels society is moving," Matine concludes. "If you really want to show that you're beyond gender and you're not accepting the old gender constructs, then just stop talking about it and reflect what society is really like, and the way they see themselves."

The Protein report makes a similar observation, suggesting the objective of gender-neutral marketing should simply be to reduce altogether the relevance of gender to the message. "Gender fluidity is becoming a more widely-accepted concept and, as usual, global early-adopters are leading the charge," it states. "It's not always as straightforward as simply creating something that doesn't instantly fall into either a male or female category, however. To truly be in line with the global early-adopter's attitude, brands need to understand it's not just about shifting male-focused marketing to be more inclusive of women. Instead, it's about making gender less relevant overall."

What both Protein and Matine highlight is that much of the marketing that seeks to break the gender mould is focused on Millennial consumers. There are likely to be reaches of the mass market for alcoholic drinks where a rather more unreconstructed view of gender preferences may be seen as still serving the market well. More traditional messages and imagery may still resonate well with consumers, and there may well be an "if it ain't broke" approach here.

But, to see these changing attitudes and evolving norms around gender as the sole preserve of trend-setting Millennials, and therefore only relevant in marketing to young adults, would be a mistake. They are far more pervasive and will only become more embedded in consumer consciousness generally as time goes on.

As the Protein report concludes: "This kind of thinking, which challenges gender norms and constantly questions and redefines conventions, is the default attitude of global early-adopters. As this mindset permeates the mainstream, brands that refuse to take a less gendered approach will fall behind."