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Gen Z Is Reimagining Masculinity. Brands Are, Too

Fashion is finding new ways to speak to men and male-identifying customers beyond gender stereotypes.
Images from Faculty, a new men's grooming line.
Images from Faculty, a new men's grooming line. Collage by BoF.

When TikTok star Chase Hudson — also known as Lil Huddy — arrived at the iHeartRadio Music Awards at the end of May, he did so with a head of freshly-dyed hair, his neck and wrist covered in jewellery, and wearing bright red nail polish to match his Yves Saint Laurent blazer.

His ensemble was a reminder not just of Hudson’s own status as a Gen Z style icon, but also the widening definitions of masculinity his generation is embracing, particularly when it comes to fashion.

“Musicians, influencers and photographers are using social media to push the norm when it comes to fashion and style and this goes for gay and straight men,” said Joel Moore, a style blogger and digital creator. “The younger generation doesn’t want to be stuck in a box of what is and isn’t allowed.”

Gen Z is far more flexible about gender roles than previous generations — according to Pew Research, they’re more likely than any of their generational counterparts to know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Gen Z-favourite celebrities like Harry Styles, ASAP Rocky, Billie Eilish and Travis Scott regularly push style norms.

The evolving definition of masculinity is presenting new challenges to brands. Not all consumers are as comfortable with new forms of masculinity as the typical TikTok user. But fashion can no longer solely advertise to men through a stereotypically male lens.

“We need to stop seeing men as two-dimensional creatures who care about sports and grilling because their interests and lives are more complex,” said Jasmine Bina, a fashion brand strategist.

We need to stop seeing men as two-dimensional creatures who care about sports and grilling.

Brands that manage to strike the right chord are able to engage with a male audience like never before. Some brands have introduced more gender-neutral clothing, including Levi’s, Stella McCartney, Gucci, PacSun, Nordstrom and Hollister, with its new Social Tourist brand. Others see a chance to make and market new takes on product specifically for men or male-identifying customers.

“Going gender-neutral is the easy way in, but to be completely honest, you end up targeting everyone and it mainly hits women,” said Sophie Freeman, the business director of digital marketing agency FanBytes. “Campaigns are successful when they are data-led, have a specific niche and know exactly who they are speaking to.”

Evolving Masculinity

Historically, marketing to male shoppers meant building campaigns around athletes, objectification of women and other stereotypes of what men like. But as the definition of masculinity has broadened, brands must expand their thinking in marketing to men as the “ideas of masculinity are being eroded and reconstructed,” said Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

For brands, making room for different versions of masculinity also means featuring a wide array of models and products, according to Fenton Jagdeo, the co-founder of men’s grooming line Faculty, which sells men’s nail polish and will debut other products later this year.

One way to do this is to highlight male shoppers’ many identities, said Bina, the brand strategist. And while plenty of brands go the extra mile to showcase men in less traditionally male spaces during Father’s Day campaigns or highlight diversity during June’s pride month marketing, the strategy should be a year-round consideration.

“A lot more men are being primary caretakers of children, taking up cooking and occupying other roles that used to be seen as non-traditional,” Bina said.

Victoria Taylor, a digital marketing and content consultant, said that young male shoppers want to see all different types of body types and personalities. That includes looking beyond athletes and actors in selecting brand partners, considering figures like Hudson, who has worked with brands like Lululemon, or Sebeey Chi, a TikTok rollerskater who’s worked with Coach.

“A big mistake brands make is using this dream image, but it’s not relatable and doesn’t come across as authentic,” Taylor said. “Brand messaging should allow them to feel less fear and not like they have to live up to that perfect male stereotype.”

Kendra Scott, who recently launched a line of men’s jewellery, Scott Brothers, said part of the brand’s influencer strategy was to look beyond influencers and work with community members who live near its 100-plus stores, like firefighters and aquarium employees.

“Homegrown marketing,” as Scott called the strategy, is “better than a TV ad.”

In certain categories, the need to abandon more traditionally gendered messages is especially important. The British men’s makeup brand War Paint, for example, was ridiculed in 2019 for its name and advertising, seen as an attempt to utilise toxic masculinity to sell its product.

A big mistake brands make is using this dream image, but it’s not relatable and doesn’t come across as authentic.

Jagdeo said that instead, men’s beauty products should present their products proudly to customers.

“We just make it matter-of-a-fact: we sell cosmetics,” he said. “It’s something that’s part of a routine and not a crazy spectacle.”

Approachable and Not Intimidating

Of course, not every consumer has embraced a more inclusive idea of masculinity, and there’s a risk that in doing so, brands could alienate or even offend in the short term. But Lightman believes evolving will ultimately help brands compete.

“I think the upside of inclusion ... outweighs alienation of particular consumers,” he said.

To connect with the men who may have responded to more traditional male-focused marketing, the answer isn’t just to retain the status quo, but rather integrate elements of it into a more modern approach. Personal care brand Hims, for example, recruited the retired baseball player Alex Rodriguez (who is also a Hims investor) to star in a campaign for its new concealer stick. As a successful athlete, he is a recognisable figure within certain spaces, said Hilary Coles, the company’s co-founder and vice president of brand and innovation.

“We want to address stigma and someone who has identified with more of a traditional masculine space like Major League Baseball hopefully helps broaden the audience and help men feel like they are really seen,” Coles said.

Lightman said that for brands, using athletes and other “typically-macho personas” can be an effective way to spark new ideas about masculinity within their consumer base.

“It’s a good way to test the waters and introduce new products and ideas to an audience that might otherwise be reluctant,” Lightman said.

Hims has experimented with joking about stereotypes and masculinity, Coles said, an approach that’s also been used by brands like shave and personal care label Dollar Shave Club and soap purveyor Dr. Squatch. Lightman said that injecting humour into a more traditionally masculine message can help shoppers realise how outdated some marketing feels.

“We use humour and fun and culturally connect with men or people who identify with men, by showing them that really, it shouldn’t be this hard to take care of yourself,” Coles said. “That’s something that’s always been missing from the men’s market. Everyone has gone super utilitarian, but we spend extra time to romance the customer.”

Related Articles:

How to Sell Menswear to Women and Womenswear to Men

The Rise of Gender-Inclusive Beauty

How to Create More Inclusive Recruitment Processes

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