How to Sell Menswear to Women and Womenswear to Men
A growing number of fashion labels are moving away from being solely a single-gender brand to one that caters to at least two.
The Swedish apparel brand Asket is launching womenswear in August for the first time, expanding upon its existing line of utilitarian staples with items tailored to fit women. In March, Issey Miyake introduced IM Men’s, a line of function-focused, lightweight clothes designed for travel. In May, Kendra Scott, the jewellery brand, released Scott Bros, its line of single-strand beaded and corded bracelets, and Rothy’s, known for its women’s flats, added men’s sneakers and loafers.
To be sure, most of these brands are sticking to the male-female binary, at least in the way they label their new offerings. But customers’ increasingly fluid views on gender are lowering the barriers for branching out, even for brands like Rothy’s or Asket that built their name on catering to a single gender.
Brands that get the product and messaging right can double their potential customer base. But that’s not easy. They have to walk the line of marketing to one gender without relying on traditional stereotypes nor offending customers who never saw it that way to begin with. Although marketing to a new gender requires acknowledging potential new customers, sometimes the best strategy is to ignore the gender gap that separates them entirely — without ignoring the fact that the products may have two different customers in mind.
“If we look at the marketing side and language we’ve used throughout the years, we’ve built a pretty strong foundation there in terms of how we communicate,” said Asket co-founder August Bard-Bringéus. “So, going into womenswear, that’s kind of been a no-brainer.”
What’s In a Name
Asket’s permanent collection is made up of men’s utilitarian staples: Bleu de Travail-inspired overshirts, washed and raw denim jeans and Merino wool sweaters that are available in neutral colours like olive green, navy blue and oatmeal-coloured creams.
You have to know what is the part of, the essence of your brand that stretches, either the brand itself or with the name that exists and the associations that exist.
The brand pitches men on the idea of purchasing fewer, better clothes, a messaging strategy that Bard-Bringéus said can be just as effective with women. The clothes will be sold under the Asket name, rather than a new sub-brand, in order to create a “parallel journey” for customers, he said.
Still, Asket is treading carefully. It’s taking a “drip-feed” approach to market its womenswear, in part to avoid confusing its overwhelmingly male following on Instagram.
Other brands, from Rothy’s to The Row, have taken a similar approach in selling menswear and womenswear under the same name, while Issey Miyake and Kendra Scott opted for new labels.
“You have to know what is the part of, the essence of your brand that stretches, either the brand itself or with the name that exists and the associations that exist,” said Gaby Barrios, partner and associate director at Boston Consulting Group’s Centre for Customer Insight. “If it doesn’t stretch, you’re better off creating… two separate brands.”
The Right Fit
Marketing according to gender stereotypes has long been the case for segments like perfumes or beauty products, despite the lack of functional differences between how anyone can use those products.
But a cornerstone difference in marketing men’s and women’s products comes specifically when communicating around fit. Highlighting how a product can be worn by anyone can be useful: For example, a T-shirt that is a regular fit for men may be boxier on women, which is in fact appealing to some of Asket’s customers, the brand said. But if a product is made with a specific body in mind, it is valuable to be explicit about that.
Lululemon’s provocatively-named ABC — or anti-ball-crushing — pants are among the athleisure apparel maker’s top-selling men’s styles. But they have also helped expand how consumers think about the brand, once previously thought to be specifically for yoga mat-touting women.
The two extremes of gender-based marketing include, on one end, relying on binary stereotypes and on the other, insisting clothes are completely genderless. And while the former is something many marketers already try to avoid, diving too deeply into “genderless” marketing can also risk alienating customers.
Many consumers imagine gender-neutral clothing to be shapeless and bland. Often, terms related to gender-neutral clothing repel customers. According to Edited, a retail market intelligence company, the word “unisex” is considered by consumers to be dated, but is still used to identify the bulk of products meant for people that identify across the gender spectrum, especially compared to terms like “genderless,” “gender-neutral,” “gender-fluid” or “gender-inclusive,” the latter two being scarcely present.
Gender is everywhere, gendered products and categories impact the purchase decisions of everyone.
“The jury’s out in terms of which words will stay,” Barrios said.
Instead, focusing SEO on product keywords is best. Marketers should use the same keywords that customers would use to search for specific items, like “responsibly-farmed Merino wool jumpers” or “comfortable workwear shoes.”
Website design is also important to consider. Although consumers may be used to shopping in-store or online according to sections determined according to traditional gender binaries, brands should consider organising their website first according to product categories — like pants, shoes or accessories — and letting customers narrow down their preferred sizing or fit options from there.
According to Kantar research published in September 2020, the firm found that nearly half of LGBTQ+ consumers “report they are often in situations where they feel they need to suppress how they express their identity,” wrote then-senior director Max Ward, an issue that becomes difficult when shopping according to gender binaries. “Because gender is everywhere, gendered products and categories impact the purchase decisions of everyone,” meaning a consumer may choose not to spend money with a brand whose products are filtered first according to gender.
“Just because [gender-based marketing] is easy doesn’t mean it’s right,” said Barrios. “If the value proposition of the brand is that it is something that cuts across [gender lines], then it’s worth a bit of work to find the right messaging for people to enter.”
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