What Brands Can Learn from Patagonia’s Gender-Neutral Marketing
Studies have shown that green equals girly in the eyes of consumers. Except that's not the case in the outdoor industry, especially when it comes to the Ventura-based apparel company.
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When it comes to being green, men have a problem.
A recent series of studies led by a Utah State University business professor found that greenness carries a feminine connotation among both male and female consumers, which researchers believe plays a role in the well-documented notion that women are more environmentally conscious than men. “Consumers who engage in green behaviors are stereotyped by others as more feminine and even perceive themselves as more feminine,” says the report, published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “This green-feminine stereotype may motivate men to avoid green behaviors in order to preserve a macho image.”
But all you earth-loving dudes out there, take heart: among buyers of outdoor brands, at least, it seems that men are about equally as eco-enlightened as women. “I’ve never really heard (green) characterized as feminine,” says Matt Powell, outdoor industry analyst for the NPD Group. “Never have I had a conversation with anybody in the industry about it.”
That may be partly due to the environmental ethos that already pervades the outdoor apparel and gear sector. Reflecting on the biannual Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Powell says he can’t think of a single brand in attendance that isn’t green in some way. “It would be marched out of the building,” he says.
The most prominently eco-focused outdoor brand may be Patagonia, which has made sustainability a central tenet of both its business philosophy and marketing strategy since its founding in 1973. In its mission statement, the company promises to “cause no unnecessary harm” and “implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” aspirations it backs up with initiatives from garment repair and recycling to environmental activism.
Though the recent studies suggest this kind of well-publicized stewardship would appeal more to female shoppers, for Patagonia, that’s not the case. “Patagonia’s customer base is roughly 50/50 by gender,” says Vincent Stanley, the brand’s director of philosophy and co-author of The Responsible Company, with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. “Our gender mix indicates that more men who wear Patagonia actually buy it for themselves, which would contradict the research.”
The brand also doesn’t subscribe to the studies’ theory that companies looking to sell green goods to men should adjust their marketing campaigns accordingly—that “men’s inhibitions about engaging in green behavior can be mitigated through masculine affirmation and masculine branding,” as the research says.
Instead, Patagonia opts for a gender-neutral strategy when touting its eco-consciousness. “We don't differentiate by gender when telling our environmental and social stories,” Stanley says. “Instead, we have in mind a ‘citizen’ when we talk about those issues.”
If there’s any divide among outdoor consumers’ appetite for sustainable brands, it may lie more along age lines than gender. A 2015 Nielsen study found that 72 percent of millennials were willing to pay more for purchases from companies with a strong environmental and social ethic—more than any other age group . “Millennials really want to know what the values of the company they’re doing business with are,” Powell says. “They want to understand that this company is taking a stand.”
Yet no matter how consumers perceive an outdoor brand or product—green or conventional, feminine or masculine—Powell says the bottom line is performance. Stanley speculates that may be another key to Patagonia’s success in striking a gender balance. “Perhaps the fact that we make clothes for difficult and rugged use, designed to stand up to the most difficult conditions, provides safe harbor for our male customers who may be reluctant to look green.”