Gender neutrality seems to be ‘in’. Be it fashion or fragrances, it is no more taboo among brands and consumers.
Calvin Klein introduced the first unisex fragrance CK One in 1994. Reportedly, in three months of the launch, CK One registered $60 million in sales globally. In addition to the CK range (CK One, CK Be, CK all, CK Everyone), many other international brands (Black Orchid, Tom Ford, Hermes) have unisex fragrances.
Indian fragrance brand ITC Engage introduced its first gender-neutral fragrance, One Soul, in the second week of January 2023.
“One Soul is inspired by the open skies and wide spaces, and its composition of sparkling citrus, crisp aromatic spicy notes, and smooth amber & woods, is a representation of the non-binary and gender fluid society. This fragrance is meant to match the free-spirited nature of individuals, with a balance of masculine and feminine elements,” said the brand in an official statement.
Can Engage One Soul replicate CK One’s success?
“It is an excellent move by ITC to create a product differentiation by using a ‘gender neutral’ nomenclature,” observes Communications Expert Shweta Purandare.
She contends that ITC’s One Soul could attract a set of consumers who are wooed by ‘inclusion’ message and a second set who do not prefer traditional fragrances associated with overtly masculine or feminine notes.
According to her, it is a clever marketing tactic to create gender-specific variants and expand the overall market size.
She elaborates, “As a pharmaceutical scientist, let me state that most of the functional products such as soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and skin creams were and can be gender neutral. A very apt example that comes to my mind is that of fairness creams. Fair and Lovely was launched in 1975 and was used by women and men alike. Now, would you have called it ‘gender neutral’ then? However, it was a 2005 launch of Fair and Handsome by Emami that created a storm in the men’s almost non-existent grooming market. A celebrity like Shahrukh Khan convinced men that they should use a product designed exclusively for men. Apparently, this was based on Emami’s research that the texture of men’s skin is different from that of a woman. How unfair that the Fair and Lovely team during its 30 years of existence did not figure this out. But hey, they were quick to learn, especially when Fair and Handsome market shares started to make a dent. Fair and Lovely Menz was launched soon – now rebranded as Glow and Handsome. Emami stayed ahead in the men’s fairness cream game, with their first-mover advantage.”
This gender differentiation extended to many other categories in men’s grooming like face wash, talcum powder, and even to hair trimmer or epilator devices. Marketers adopted product sensorial differentiators, certain textures, colours, fragrances notes and packaging colour codes to create ‘masculine halo’ around it, explains Purandare.
“Aren’t we glad that there is no toothpaste, mineral water or pain balm only for men? A popular dishwash for men unfortunately did not see the light of the day. As ITC states, One Soul Eau de perfume is ‘their’ first gender-free fragrance whereas Indian consumers are already familiar with ‘unisex’ fragrances. The perfume industry often markets men’s fragrance and women’s fragrance mainly by the amount of perfume oil as well as the notes and ingredients. Eau de toilette can be used by both men and women. In my opinion, gender neutral variant is just old wine (erstwhile unisex) in a new bottle ‘packaged and labelled’ to ride on the gender inclusivity wave. I am sure it will co-exist and thrive with the gender specific variants; and if it smells divine, why complain?” Purandare adds.
Yesudas S Pillai, CEO & Founder, Y&A Transformation, says the innovation will surely give the brand some talking points.
“There’s a difference between male and female natural scents, which when mixed with perfumes worn, the final scents are projected very differently. At least people who understand perfumes also believe that the top, middle and base notes of perfumes for men and women are constructed differently. Having said that, this I do not think is catering to the evolved perfume users, but to consumers who look at perfumes for the basic duty it performs. With the growing gender-neutral conversations among the millennials and the Gen Z, the concept will find some favour for sure. Perfumes are very personal. While it may attract the innovators, as per the diffusion of innovation theory, to the proposition initially, I don’t know if it will find the mass market. If musk and fruity/flowery largely defined the men-women ranges, I presume the brand will need to also find a neutral spot. But this innovation will surely give the brand some talking points and it is a disruption from that angle,” Pillai adds.
According to Lloyd Mathias, Investor and Marketing Expert, the move from ITC Engage and will help break down gender barriers and promote inclusivity.
“In today’s world brands need to address niche segments including people of non-binary genders. India being a large country there will be a fair amount of people who will be identified in strictly non-binary terms. Globally, brands like Calvin Klein, Lego are targeting non-binary gender people. In fact, India is moving progressively on this and at New Delhi’s Central Vista – Kartavya Path – the former Raj Path, they have designated male, female and gender-neutral washrooms. Hence, I believe it’s a positive development and one should welcome the move from ITC Engage,” he notes.
“ITC’s recently launched One Soul is a unisex perfume. Comparisons to Calvin Klein’s iconic CK One perfume, launched almost 30 years ago, which continues to be a bestseller, is inevitable. And whether One Soul will achieve the cult status and do the volume of business that CK One did is something time will tell. Prima facie, One Soul is very affordably priced, and is expected to drive volumes by appealing to the masses. However, choice of fragrance is a very personal thing and it depends on individual tastes,” observes Piali Dasgupta, Senior Vice President – Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities.
Is India ready for ‘gender neutral’ products? In which categories can we expect to see gender-based segmentation blur?
“The time for gender-neutral fashion and gender-neutral products is not yet here in India,” opines Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.
“I foresee it to be ahead though. The first and easy category is food and beverage. It has always been gender neutral. We don’t have tea for men and tea for women. Not yet. Expect acute genderisation of products as well as a reverse trend. Just as we have cornflakes, we have Kellogg’s K for women! Remember! Perfumes and deos can go gender neutral for sure. A smell is a smell. No point calling it Davidoff Men and Davidoff Women,” Bijoor adds.
According to Dasgupta, India is perhaps a tad late in even playing the catch-up game as far as gender neutrality is concerned.
She contends that as gender roles evolve with the changing dynamics in society, products and categories will continue to become genderless.
“And gender neutrality is not just a passing fad; it is here to stay given that its context is connected deeply to the socio-economic-political construct of the modern world,” she adds.
“To say all of India is ready for gender-neutral products wouldn’t be right. There are certain segments of younger people who are ready for it.
Gender stereotyping and prejudice can be observed in children as young as three to four years of age, as children take on cues from around them to decode and understand the world,” says Mathias.
“When you talk about categories, I would say fashion & lifestyle which includes clothing footwear, bags, and accessories would be the category where gender neutrality is relatively better accepted. Second one would be in terms of gadgets, for example Lego has moved ahead with gender-neutral toys. Historically we buy separate toys for boys and girls, of late we are seeing gender-neutral toys in the market, as parents are becoming slightly more modern. In areas like sports equipment like bicycles, a lot more gender-neutral products will be launched,” he notes.
“We are seeing and can expect to see gender neutral products in a large number of lifestyle and fashion categories such as jewellery, wearable technology, watches, bags, footwear and clothing,” concurs Dasgupta.