Writing to Sell in the Gender-Neutral Retail Landscape
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
I am starting this blog to have serious conversations about how we engage with the new retail landscape. Now that we are in the age of COVID-19, this is the time to be open and honest about how people shop and will shop in the future.
This post will centre around the fashion and beauty industries as these are a) part of my comfort zone and b) the territory most hotly debated in the realm of gender.
Of course, we shouldn’t narrow the retail outlook to just these two outlets. Folks buy all sorts of stuff! But for the sake of time and bandwidth, let’s dive into these two industries.
Yes! People Read Product Descriptions!
As a copywriter who specialises in brick and mortar and e-commerce retail, my bread and butter is product descriptions.
According to a 2017 report by Salsify, 87% of shoppers rate product content extremely or very important when deciding to buy and 50% have returned an item they bought online because it didn’t match the product description.
The inspiration for this blog post came whilst working on product descriptions for a South American fashion brand. Bless the lovely marketing manager for putting up with my anal rant on having tops and shirts and blouses as two separate product categories on the retailer’s website. “But this will confuse female shoppers!” I said. After sending that email, the thought occurred to me. Should the brand just put all top items under the header ‘tops’ or was it necessary to use the more feminine-issued term ‘blouses’ to bring a more striking visual image to the potential buyer?
This brings up a very good question for business owners, investors, advertisers, and copywriters. When writing product descriptions for fashion, you have the option to either go completely barebones utilitarian or create visual imagery with words to entice the elusive buyer. In beauty, my opinion is that you need a mix of both written style and function as there are more nuances to what goes into beauty products that customers are becoming increasingly aware of. Whichever route you choose, please remain consistent.
My copywriting style is a mix of the two elements, which I’ve learned from my 26 years of working the retail floor. People naturally do not just grab things and head straight to check-out. They may have gone to a retailer with a certain product in mind but they are first creating a visual when searching for the perfect item that fits their needs.
With this, product descriptions and a brand’s tone of voice need to reflect current society as a whole. Your target audience may not be who you originally intended it to be.
The Gender Play
Now, let’s get into gender. Gender-fluidity in fashion is not a new thing and some may argue the same for the beauty industry.
With the advent of athleisure wear being seen on every street corner around the globe and queues of Gen Zers lining up for the latest clothing drops from streetwear brands, gender is now something that retailers need to really contend with to evolve into this new buying age.
Statistics show that 56% of Gen Z consumers shop outside of their perceived gender (Wunderman Thompson). Retailers take note, this group holds 40% of the buying power currently (Bloomberg).
But for some reason, cis women feel more comfortable shopping in the cis men’s department than the other way around. I am unashamedly one of those women.
What’s in a Term?
Has the term unisex become a dinosaur to the flashy new term gender-neutral? The term unisex was first used in the American magazine LIFE in 1968 to explore the countercultural zeitgeist of that moment. Unisex implies both female and male gender elements combined into one whereas gender-neutral implies no gender at all. As a retail copywriter, I must admit that unisex is a more pared-down word form but gender-neutral would be the more appropriate term to use in our age.
“Looks great on any gender” I wrote once in a product description for a vintage-clothing brand in the UK that was touting itself as edgy and gender-fluid. The owner went behind my back and changed the wording. Obviously, it’s their brand at the end of the day but what was so scary about actually putting gender-fluidity beyond visuals into words when supposedly that was a brand value?
Treading on Soft Ground
As you can see, the written word is powerful. Gender neutrality is not a trend but a current that will rise, fall and evolve during the times. Here are some things to consider regarding copywriting and branding when exploring the gender-neutral focus.
Will your product line be unisex - both female and male elements combined or gender-fluid - where the product is perceived for one gender with the other gender embracing it (e.g. kilts) or gender-neutral, where there is no gender binary considered? Your whole brand and tone of voice need to reflect whichever direction you go in.
Athleisure, sportswear brands, skateboarding, Hip Hop-influenced, and denim brands are a gender-neutral playing field. Treat it as such. Don’t be scared. Be authentic about it. Buzzword for a reason, folks. Your customers will appreciate it.
If you do decide to go down this road, sizes, cuts, language, and delivery will need to be carefully considered. Consistency is the key to brand credibility, even if you must slightly pivot down the road. It must be a small swerve rather than a derailing.
Sounds like common sense but your visuals and brand messaging must reflect your audience or reflect what your audience wants to obtain.
Trousers were once considered men’s wear only.
Be respectful to people in all facets of your retail business and be human.
Note to skincare brands: You need to start casting off the 1950s housewife wholesome vibe now. Everyone is concerned about skincare! Stop genderising and/or segregating skincare already!
I conducted a recent interview with gender non-conformist activist ALOK V. Menon for THIIIRD Magazine. ALOK stated that “Clothes have no gender.” ALOK, who goes by the pronouns they/them, recently spoke at Business of Fashion’s Voices Conference 2019. ALOK’s presence at this event reflects how the fashion industry is attempting to examine this subject.
Of course, the retail industry is the land of the anxious and wanting to play it safe. But is secure really safe anymore?
Let’s continue this conversation. Email me at email@example.com. I want to hear your thoughts.
Aimée is a freelance retail copywriter from New York City, currently based in London. She is the former creative director of SHE. Magazine. Aimée’s passion lies in crafting words to serve underrepresented brands and people.