Full-line discounter Target hit this question head-on several weeks ago when one particular “guest,” Ohio Mom Abi Bechtel, took exception to the retailer’s in-store signage that distinguished “Girls’ Building sets” from regular “Building Sets.” Her Twitter post set-off a social media firestorm that Target recently sought to extinguish by removing gender-specific signs from its children’s bedding and toy areas and by promising to avoid stereotypical colors like pink and blue on walls and shelves.
In a world that seems eager to abolish traditional gender labels and norms, it’s not surprising that many people have applauded Target’s efforts. For instance, Dr. Christia Brown, the author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue and a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, commended the retailer for taking action consistent with gender research that suggests that boys and girls are not born with predilections for certain colors and types of toys; rather they are socialized into these preferences.
Not all science, however, supports this notion of socialization. Other studies have suggested that male- and female-specific hormones are what determine gender tendencies. For example, a 2009 study from Texas A&M University found that 3- and 4-month-month-old boys’ interest in toy trucks (vs. dolls) was positively correlated with the infants’ testosterone levels. Likewise, researchers studying vervet monkeys found that when given an option, females chose dolls, while males selected wheeled vehicles like trucks.
So, while the nurture vs. nature debate over gender identity rages on, retailers like Target are left to decide whether to take a gender-specific or -neutral approach to their merchandising. From a marketing perspective, the right answer is likely “both.”
For instance, for products like toys, there’s little reason to use gender-specific signage or stereotypical colors, as it’s unlikely that either significantly helps consumers find or choose the right product. If other shoppers are like me, they’re peering down aisles and scanning shelves, rarely noticing signs. Colors can be important visual cues; however, it’s probably more important that wall and shelf shades aid in product presentation and overall store atmosphere than that they denote masculinity or femininity. In the end, a Pirates of the Caribbean building block set doesn’t care if the builder is a boy or a girl and neither should Lego or Target.
Of course, there are certain products that must consider gender because men and women are anatomically different, e.g., many types of clothes, from bathing suits to blazers. It’s important that such items are manufactured with gender in mind, and it’s helpful that most stores merchandise these items in ways that aid gender-specific selection. Furthermore, those gender references are even more critical for directing consumers' on-line shopping, where they often cannot see items until they’ve completed a search for them.
So, Target’s decision to make its toy and children’s bedding areas more gender neutral probably didn’t diminish stakeholder value, and perhaps it increased this value somewhat by removing the seeming gender constraints on certain items. At the same time, the retailers’ response also demonstrated important societal values like kindness and inclusiveness, without diminishing the beauty of gender differences. For these reasons, Target’s choice to merchandise toys neutrally for both girls and boys can be considered “Mindful Marketing.”