Some of the biggest product and PR fails are related to gender-based campaigns. Brands can’t win them all, but these products and campaigns show us how easy it can be to overlook the simplest things when it comes to filling customers’ needs.

Bic Pens for Her

Who can forget the PR disaster that just kept on giving in 2012? When BIC released their “For Her” line, “designed to fit comfortably in a woman’s hand” you have to wonder whether they considered it would receive any sort of backlash. And when they did get crushed on social media (and all over the internet), it took them what seems like an eternity to even respond. (I guess as a brand that develops something so inoffensive as pens doesn’t feel the need to have a crisis plan in place.)

If their goal was to just generate buzz regardless of what it was, then they achieved that goal, but it really wasn’t positive. The line of lady pens was slammed on Ellen, but the real winner was all of us who got to read all of the amazing questions and reviews on Amazon.

Stonemill Bread for her… and him!

Ah, January, a time for attempted New Year’s Resolutions, hoping for the end of winter, and bread for women? In January 2015, Stonemill Bakehouse stirred up a bit of controversy over their gender-based breads. The biggest differences between the bread for men and for women? Green vs. Pink (of course) packaging, a “hearty” vs. “milder” and “light-textured” bread, and advertising campaigns that mostly reordered the benefits and ingredients (which were almost the same).

Stonemill ended up pulling the product from shelves to re-release it with different, non-gendered packaging.

Lady snacks

Even hypothetical product discussions can get brands in hot water. In early February 2018, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi discussed the upcoming launch of snacks specially designed for women. Well, the internet did what the internet does, and the story of Lady Doritos was born. Of course, Nooyi did drive the narrative forward with her discussion of how women don’t like regular Doritos as much as men because they are messy. Oh, and, of course, the crunch is too loud to eat in public.

Ultimately, PepsiCo shot down the rumors of Lady Doritos. I guess we’ll have to see what other lady snacks Nooyi was referring to. I would assume they would approach these product launches with extra caution after this backlash.

Pink and blue Kinder Eggs

Kinder Surprise, the maker of those deliciously sweet shells with the toy inside, ran into the gender stereotyping roadblock in 2013… and again in 2017. In 2013 they launched two separate lines with pink and blue packaging respectively – the “traditional” colours for girls and boys. The toys in the pink packaging were dolls, flowers, and other stereotypically feminine things, while the blue package had cars, creatures, and logic games and puzzles – commonly associated with masculinity. Parents were not pleased with the shift and the company defended its position saying, “we do not advocate or promote our products as gender specific.” That being said, there were images of packaging that was clearly labelled “for girls” on the shelves.

The company doubled down on their strategy by launching new partnerships in 2017 that would put Hot Wheels in the blue eggs and Hello Kitty toys in the pink eggs. Didn’t they learn from the first backlash? They were finally flying under the radar!

Apologies to our southern neighbors, you’re going to have to come to Canada to try these gender-stereotyped treats.

What can we all learn from failed gender-based campaigns?

There will always be takeaways from situations like these that should help to guide you on your own branding and marketing journey. We should always learn from mistakes – our own and others’.

  1. Always listen to what your customer wants/needs, not what you think they want/need. If you are listening and engaging in dialogue with your customers, you should be able to avoid a lot of this type of backlash with any of your marketing. And if you are ever unsure about a move you are going to take, ask first. Your customers will be happy to tell you what they think.
  2. Put aside your pre-conceived notions and stereotypes. Stereotypes can be dangerous in marketing and product development because they are often based on feelings, not fact. Again, it often comes down to engaging with your audience to gain a better sense of the dialogue surrounding issues, but it also means doing some internal dialogue to figure out why you think what you think.
  3. Don’t take too long to respond when it goes awry. Avoidance is the worst thing you can do if you run into an issue with public backlash. At most you should take 24 to 48 hours if you need to strategize – knee-jerk reactions can hurt you even further. When you do respond consider the dialogue that is out there and mirror the tone. If, like in the case of Lady Doritos, there is sarcasm and humor, then respond with humor. You need to read the situation to know what is appropriate.
  4. Be clear. In your response to any situation, make sure you have a good idea of the big picture. For example, if your company has labeled things “for girls” or “for boys,” don’t say you haven’t.
  5. Don’t be a repeat offender. Making your first mistake happens, but when you make the same mistake again (and again), you are only hurting your brand. Figure out what went wrong the first time so you can avoid setbacks in the future.

Mistakes happen. But it seems like gender-based campaign mistakes happen too often in marketing and product development. We don’t live in a vacuum, so study those who have done it before and don’t fall into any traps for yourself.

A version of this article was originally posted to the SongBird Marketing Communications Blog.