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Are gender neutral products the key to expanding the toy industry?

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Research has suggested that retailers should take note when it comes to gendered items. Clothes and toys don’t necessarily need to cater to either boys or girls. By focusing on a non-gendered audience, products will appeal to a wider market.

A report titled “Little Miss Understood” indicates that young girls prefer brands that empower them, rather than those which are specifically gender orientated. The research surveyed 1,070 girls aged 8-14 showcasing the brands they liked and disliked, and highlighting that the younger the child, the less they were influenced by gender. Gender is a social concept rather than a predisposed natural instinct.

Always’ advert ‘Like a Girl’ also struck a chord with retailers and consumers alike, identifying the negativity of stereotypically targeting children of different genders. The ad shows girls acting out ‘what it means to be a girl’, showing off the typical attributes that categorise them. Younger girls are seen running faster, whereas older girls run according to their gender’s stereotype, ‘girly’ or ‘ditzy’. Are products losing relevance with girls?

Danish toymaker Lego has already explored unisex figures, allowing its female characters to take on supposed masculine job roles. In 2014, three new Lego figurines were introduced, with a palaeontologist character, an astronomer and a chemist. The items were backed by a public vote and geoscientist Ellen Kooijman, who wanted to oppose the, ‘skewed male/ female minifigure ratio’. The toys were a success, selling out within a week of launching.

The main category on Lego’s website splits toys by age rather than gender, allowing Star Wars items and the ‘Detective office’ to appeal to a wider demographic. The company’s sales increased by 13% to $4.4bn in 2014, seeing it named as the world’s most profitable toymaker and powerful brand. Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO of the Lego Group puts this success down to the company providing, “children with a tool to express their imagination”.

Brands such as GoldieBlox also strive for innovation. Though targeting only girls, the brand focuses on strong female character such as the ‘zipline action figure’. The brand lets girls know that it’s okay to aspire to be something that is deemed masculine, such as an engineer. Though founder Debbie Sterling was originally met with hostility and told that, “construction toys for girls don’t sell”, consumers backed her plan, raising $285,881 on her site. Further backing was provided by investor Kickstarter, allowing the company to expand. The toys are now sold in 500 independent stores in the US and Canada, with a spot in toy giant ‘Toys R Us’.

‘ab’, a creative communications agency, emphasises that gender isn’t relevant to younger girls, finding that the main reasons girls will engage with a brand is if it ”helps them to have fun” and “allows them to be themselves”. ‘Let Toy Be Toys’ reported that the number of retailers using gender to categorise toys has dropped by 46%.

The results are reinforced with news of Mattel’s Barbie reporting disappointing financial results for its fourth quarter in 2014. Barbie suffered a 12% drop, while Mattell‘s net income fell 59% to $149.9m and sales dropped 6%. New CEO, Christopher Sinclair was less than happy with the situation, who said: “Our results were not acceptable,” and put the decline down to inconsistent product innovation, most probably the limited demographic Barbie targets.

Belinda Paramer, CEO of Lady Geek adds: “Successful brands that engage young women deliver on three things: emotion, reassurance and authenticity”.

It is no longer enough to target boys with blue and girls with pink. Successful retailers are subverting the idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, instead focusing on age groups for maximum exposure.

Published on Tuesday 03 March by Rachel Gee

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