Calculators for women? The problem with identity-based marketing

Sangria for men, pens for women, shampoo for African Americans... Do they really sell well? Research confirms that labeling products based on gender or race can easily backfire.

Kate Barasz

When BIC launched a marketing campaign for its pink and purple ‘Pens for Her’ products, it ignited an immediate public backlash. Social media was awash with mocking memes from consumers as well as other brands. One reviewer noted: “Well, at last, pens for us ladies to use. Now all we need is ‘for her’ paper, and I can finally learn to write!” 

The US-based superstore Target made its stores and products gender neutral after online petitions against toys labeled as ‘building sets’ and ‘girls’ building sets’. Black consumers felt unfairly singled out by card company American Greetings, which sold a Father’s Day card featuring a Black couple and the phrase ‘baby daddy’ (a phrase commonly used to refer to a father who is not a husband or official partner of the child’s mother). The company eventually withdrew the card from sale. 

This negative impact can be reduced if the categorization is targeted at multiple groups

Targeting segments of the population is marketing 101, but identity-based labeling deployed by marketers to appeal to specific markets can easily backfire — and research from a team including Esade’s Kate Barasz has revealed why. 

Barasz, together with co-authors Tami Kim (University of Virginia Darden School of Business), Michael I. Norton and Leslie K. John (Harvard Business School) conducted a series of studies to identify the type of identity marketing that would alienate consumers, and the type that would attract them.  

Their findings, published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, provide evidence for the theory that when people feel pushed into a particular category of consumer by marketing messages (categorization threat), they will actively avoid that product or service. However, this impact can be reduced if the categorization is targeted at multiple groups or seen as necessary to differentiate core products

Backed into a corner 

Identity-based marketing can sometimes serve a purpose, however clumsily. The logic that pink-packaged ‘Chick Beer’ or a sangria labeled ‘mangria’ will appeal to women and men respectively is consistent with labeling theory research. 

But marketing messages aimed at shaming consumers into their purchase — “If you’re a responsible parent, you’ll use this sunscreen on your kids” — can reduce the likelihood of a sale because the buyer feels their agency is being undermined

And, when people feel they’re being forced into a category rather than seen as an individual, they can reject the product entirely — even if it’s strongly associated with their identity. This phenomenon is particularly seen in marginalized groups, even if the stereotypical messaging is considered positive (e.g. women are kinder than men, Asians are good at math).  

But getting identity marketing wrong doesn’t just cause consumers to reject brands and products— it can have an impact on health. In 2011, researchers studying the messages used in breast cancer campaigns discovered that gender-based messaging triggered defense mechanisms that interfered with the key objectives of the campaigns

Rejecting stereotypes 

Empirical evidence of this categorization threat felt by consumers targeted by identity marketing, and their subsequent rejection of associated products and services, was gathered by Barasz and her co-authors via six studies.  

In lab-controlled conditions, participants’ appreciation of messaging was tested to find out why and when identity appeals backfire by alienating the consumers they want to attract. Using a range of colored, labeled and unlabeled products, they revealed: 

1. Categorization backfires 

Female participants offered a calculator labeled ‘for women’ were half as likely to choose it than those offered the same calculator without the label. 

2. Stereotyping of marginalized groups backfires 

When female participants felt their gender was not highly regarded and they were therefore part of a marginalized group, identity-targeted appeals failed. 

3. Positive stereotyping doesn’t work 

Participants were significantly less interested in products with positive but stereotypical messaging aimed at their marginalized group. 

4. Targeting multiple identities reduces the negative impact 

Participants who were offered a range of identity appeals (‘for Asians and food lovers’) were less likely to reject the product. 

5. Legitimacy is acceptable 

Messaging targeted at racial groups with needs-based requirements (such as hair types) had a significantly more positive impact.  

A template to avoid marketing faux-pax 

Segmentation and targeting are essential in marketing, but the gaffs from BIC, Target and the like show that not all practitioners are able to use common sense or avoid offensive, outdated stereotypes

The guidance from Barasz and co-authors guidance on when — and more importantly, when not — to resort to strict identity labels offers a clear template for marketers to adopt in their practice straight away.  

Not all practitioners are able to use common sense and avoid offensive stereotypes

On a wider level, the research illustrates that while consumers may enjoy the benefits of increasingly tailored products and services, it doesn’t follow that identity-targeted marketing messages provide the same advantages

Stereotypes are stereotypes; Barasz and co-authors have confirmed that there are few benefits to brands of continuing to pursue them. 

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.