Snips and snails and puppy-dogs' tails?

Dr Chihling Liu  is a Lecturer and Assistant Professor of Consumer Behaviour and Marketing Research.

Marketing to men can still be based on some very limited parameters. Products need to make them feel like real men: bullish, thick-skinned, successful, attractive to women.

Gillette decided to go big and bold with its latest ad campaign, made especially for the traditionally male audiences of the Super Bowl final in January. Rather than the familiar “The Best a Man Can Get”, Gillette went for a challenging alternative in tune with the #MeToo zeitgeist: “The Best Men Can Be”. Ads showed typical dads behind their barbecues nodding approvingly at scenes of boys fighting; businessmen being overfamiliar with young women in meetings; before demonstrating how men could be better: one friend telling another to stop ogling women; a caring father encouraging his daughter to tell herself she’s strong.

In terms of attention, the campaign has been judged a giant success. There have been floods of media coverage globally and an ongoing buzz of social media traffic celebrating the change in Gillette’s tactics. While many have loved Gillette’s challenge to toxic masculinity, some have felt offended by how ‘old school’ men have been characterised. The issue is, have men ever been much like the stereotypes?

In our research, we wanted to find out more about men, and marketing to men, as human beings rather than a gender. We looked at the intimate issue of male grooming at the most basic level; so washing, shaving and dressing as much as moisturising or hairstyling routines. By speaking with a range of men from different professional backgrounds, aged between 20 and 76, we wanted to understand more about grooming as part of their lived experience, what they did and why, and how it made them think and feel about the world and their identity within it.

Bovver boots, stubble and after shave

From the conversations, we came to a picture of four dominant identities that men pursue in terms of their grooming habits, each using grooming for different reasons and with different resulting experiences.

The ‘compensator’ identity becomes relevant when men experience their body as a source of anxiety or insecurity and become preoccupied with personal grooming to increase their sense of self-worth in social situations; they’re looking for interpersonal approval to compensate for a sense of personal inadequacy. “You feel more attractive wearing a suit and people treat you nicer,” said ‘Dean’. "Wearing it can be a pain though, the fabric is less comfortable and it gives a tighter feeling around arms and chest, especially when you sit down. But you’re taught to believe people in suits are wealthy, more important and more intelligent, it’s ridiculous but it’s a very simple, short-term kind of ego boost. You become more inclined to approach people." A compensator generally acknowledges that such an ego boost in “approaching people” is transient though, because people’s positive recognitions are based on the body image at the time. 

The ‘carer’ has a focus on how their groomed body is useful for bonding and relationship building. “When you groom you show that you’re not trying to inconvenience people around you with your body odour or smell,” said ‘Ian’. “When I have a shower and aftershave it makes me feel fresh and brand new. And I think I smell, my body smells better you genuinely care because you don’t want to embarrass your friends by looking like a tramp or something like my body odour, Nelly the Smelly. I keep a distance from people then.” There’s also a moral dimension to the carer, conscious of what grooming means to others. ‘Jimmy’ said: “If I put that aftershave on, [my wife would think] ‘oh, you’ve got Bev’s aftershave on [laughter].’ That did raise an eyebrow, because she looks upon it as a highly personal gift [laughter], it is intimate to the body and you feel it on you. I wouldn’t wear anything else other than my wife’s favourite one. I just splash it on to use it really. I'm not there to wear one of the ones that Bev gets me [laughter]. Especially at that time Bev was single, if three of us go out together, I would wear the aftershave Bev got me, she would understand why I was wearing it.” 

The ‘antagonist’ perceives his general social surroundings as constraining his individuality and uses grooming for self-expression and nonconformity. Consumption is innerdirected, emphasising authenticity and personal growth. “I liked Doc Martens and it was never really a fashion thing at school,” said ‘Sam’. “I know now people seem to be wearing Doc Martens loads, but they’re all like, ‘Oh, yeah, have you got a pair of Doc Martens?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve had the same pair of Doc Martens for 12 years.’ And everyone’s like, ‘Have you got some new ones?’ I’m like, 'No, I’ve got the same ones that you were laughing at me that I had when I was at school’, that now, because some famous model’s worn them in a magazine, now everybody wants a pair. I’ve got an original pair from 2004 and when it wasn’t trendy and these are the people who were laughing at me because of the way I dressed at school who now have the exact same things that they were laughing at me for. But they don’t feel comfortable in Doc Martens, they just wanted that image.” 

By contrast, the ‘social acknowledger’ focuses on fitting in with others or signalling their suitable affiliation. They are looking to achieve specific social/interpersonal rewards such as wealth, personal security and social status. While the compensator focuses more on an internal sense of self-worth, the social acknowledger is more concerned with managing the types of external relation he has with specific others. Dean said: “I use an electric razor, shaving makes me feel good, fresh, like brand new. But I feel too baby face like, I don’t like it, I think I look better with a bit of a beard on. But society expects you to do it, so you do it. I don’t like being cleanshaven. It’s just a way of signalling. I’m not going to do something rude, it’s almost like I’m signalling that I made an effort to present myself nicely. You’ll be able to do more. You’ll be more welcome."

Marketing to humans

At the end of the study, so as not to skew answers to the initial questions, we asked the men what they thought constituted masculinity. They consistently pointed to the importance of taking care of the people around them, being a decent person. It’s a snapshot of how masculinity isn’t one thing or another, men are not always trying to compete or be dominant, but share very similar concerns to women. We found that men’s ideas of themselves are built up in complex ways from childhood and family background, resisting the broader, more clunky social definitions of masculinity.

Marketing professionals shouldn’t see men in terms of a single category, that they can ever possibly target the

standard male. They only do this by marginalising many different groups of men and male identity. These kinds of findings from our male grooming study can help practitioners better understand the preferences and needs of specific male consumer segments and tailor products and marketing communications to each segment. So the compensator may prefer a brand narrative that emphasises improved self-esteem; the carer may be more receptive to narrative that promotes an image of intimacy and community building; the antagonist may appreciate more distinctive product/brand messages; and the social acknowledger may respond better to messages that endorse assorted ways of meeting situational demands for social/interpersonal successes.

More than just commercial responsibilities, marketing has a social responsibility to not promote a reductive, binary masculinity for this and future generations. For example, research has shown that men in two income houses, where there is more sharing of roles, a more equal and caring environment, there is much less likely to be incidents of toxic masculinity and violence.

Dr Chihling Liu is a Lecturer and Assistant Professor of Consumer Behaviour and Marketing Research.

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