They/them in branding: How gender neutrality has impacted the world of packaging


For those new to the conversation, gender neutrality is the concept that social institutions should not distinguish roles according to a person’s sex or gender. In recent years, parents with young children are focusing on personal identity, offering children plenty of choices and encouraging traits that make a good human – not just man or woman. 

The CPG industry has been slow to follow suit. Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at USC, has found “there is an unspoken taboo that prevents marketing traditionally “girl” toys to boys.

“We want girls to play with a chemistry set but we don’t want boys to play with dolls or tea sets. But in fact, learning how to care for others, taking turns, and interacting socially might be really important values for building a better society,” Saxbe says*.

Some brands, however, are starting to challenge whether gender even has a place in design. Just like the ahead-of-its-time Calvin Klein One fragrance of the 80’s – why can’t brands be for a boy AND a girl? A recent Mintel study implies that brands might do better to focus on the need they are fulfilling rather than the gender they are targeting. Basic human needs, after all, are usually not gender specific. 

Odele bath products appeal to both our need for simplicity and gender neutrality. The women-owned business states on their website “we decided to throw this whole his/hers/theirs nonsense out the bathroom window and start Odele.” They go on to say “Our 100% natural fragrance is ungendered, and our products are developed based on needs by hair type; not by gender, age, or any other measure”. We say Brava!

Another brand throwing out traditional rules is the aptly named Fluide. The make-up brand was established to cater to a growing number of people who do not identify with a gender or as they put it “…gender expansive identities.” Fluide’s partnerships with LGBTQI health & advocacy groups show that they are prepared to live by their line “We are they. We are them. We are you.”

How can designers support this evolution and serve as actors of change? By acknowledging their gender biases and stereotypes, prioritizing the needs of the target consumers as people, looking beyond the history of gendered graphics  – but most of all, by being aware of the gender neutral movement and understanding how to respectfully address the needs of an evolving population.


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