How can brands avoid the pitfalls of Toxic Masculinity?

Typing the word “masculinity” into Google yields the following result:

Qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men:
“handsome, muscled, and driven, he’s a prime example
of masculinity.”

This definition might have been widely accepted a decade or so ago, but today it would probably be termed “toxic.” The concept of toxic masculinity is used to refer to certain repressive cultural norms on the role and characteristics of men in society. It is also often described as actions or beliefs that define manhood in such contrast to femininity as to reject and despise all things that are (or are perceived to be) feminine. It’s an idea that has proven to be harmful to both men and to those around them.

However, it is also important to note that masculinity at its core is not toxic. It is a key part of society and is a defining factor of many people’s voice and identity. Disregarding masculinity in its entirety risks both demonising men and stripping a large part of the populations of their identity and values.

Fortunately, the discourse around masculinity has evolved in the last few years to become more open, expressive and liberating. So it is that, for example, men can make a mentally healthy habit of expressing their feelings without being labelled weak, and wellness and grooming are understood as acts of self-expression and care, instead of being “girly.” Masculinity is evolving into a wider range of beliefs, behaviours and forms that promote individuality.

New brands and campaigns are emerging to match this, and the global male wellness and grooming industry is predicted to be worth around US$ 29.14 billion by 2024. So how can brands operating in this evolving space seize the opportunity to promote these more open, inclusive masculine values, and avoid falling into the toxicity trap?

Dear Future Dads

A brand that recently did this exceptionally well is Dove. Its #DearFutureDads campaign was created to help men in the fight to get fair paternity rights. It celebrates male sensitivity and champions opportunities where men are able to put family and parenting first – a value and responsibility that is traditionally assigned to women.

A Grooming Brand For All Men 

Another brand that has done this successfully is shaving subscription start-up Harry’s, with their ‘A grooming brand for all Men’ ethos. One particularly clever campaign shows a young boy trying to teach an alien how to be “a real man.” In the end he gives up and says, “There’s no one way to be a man.” This message, paired with diverse, real and representative imagery, promotes the idea of individuality, and that being a man doesn’t mean following a set of restrictive, damaging rules.

A Betterment Brand

From a design perspective, wellness brand Asystem has created a look and feel and a tone of voice that speak to and are relevant to men, without being alienating for anyone else. For example, the pale green colour palette is inspired by the natural ingredients in the formulations, and the language is inspired by the world of science and functional nutrition, making it clear and neutral. The website also doubles as a platform for open, healthy debates about wellness and betterment.

Waging a Risky War

Male make-up brand War Paint has been subject to much controversy and criticism. The product and the founder’s initial idea come from a good place: the brand seeks to normalise the use of make-up among men and goes the extra mile by offering mental health support to men. However, everything from the military brand name to the heavily tattooed, macho models in aggressive poses, embodies all the principles of toxic masculinity.

Instead of celebrating makeup’s transition into a world of gender-fluidity, War Paint takes a product that can be for anyone, and forces it into a hyper-masculine entity.

It can be hard to presume how consumers will respond to certain messages regarding masculinity. It’s a hot topic, inspiring heated debates and contrasting views. However, a few things seem to be clear: people are not looking for hyper-masculine, one-dimensional products. They want good quality products that encourage and help them to express their individuality and be their best self. As masculinity continues to evolve, it is important that brands keep up with this point of view, so as to not risk miring themselves in an old-fashioned, toxic and forgotten category.

Winning brands are those that recognise that it is not about appealing to men/women but, more simply, the key is communicating the functions and emotions of a product, building on values and aspirations that are not gender-specific but human (e.g. feeling good, succeeding, caring for yourself).


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