Vive la difference! Since women and men are so wonderfully different, it’s no wonder that many brands try to address them in different ways. Where many brands fall down, however, is in stereotyping their audiences and forcing people into unwanted gender roles. In the past, marketing has often been aimed either at men, or at men’s idea of women. Until the 1990s, little brand communication was aimed at women on their own terms.

A general movement toward equality between the sexes, together with greater self-assertion by women in marketing and media, means that now, fewer of Western society’s commercial monologues (the media and advertising) are dominated by a male-oriented worldview. More companies have realized that women make buying decisions and wish to be addressed in ways that are not male-defined.

Automobiles, for example, were traditionally sold to men, until numerous studies made undeniable the fact that, not only do many women buy cars themselves, but in many families and couples in which the man buys the car, he listens to his wife’s or partner’s opinion. Once carmakers accepted this, they began to make changes, both to cars themselves (with changes such as a fold-down makeup mirror on the driver’s side as well as the passenger side), and by targeting some of their advertising at women.

Much advertising still addresses and portrays women and men differently, in ways that reinforce their self-positioning through stereotypes. These stereotypes are not always presented in an obvious way: the subtlety of branding for men vs women is often intriguing.

Happily, the best brands are able to move past stereotypes of gender (and race and class) to speak to customers as intelligent individuals. Not only “old male” brands for things like cars, but also traditionally “feminine” brands such as Dove soap have discovered that cultivating a passionate following among women involves addressing women in ways that are respectful, joyful, and supportiveā€”in short, sisterly rather than paternalistic. And while this may seem obvious, it was still a courageous step for many brands to take.

One motivation behind more female-oriented branding could be the general trend toward building whole brand experiences. There is empirical evidence that women tend to prefer holistic experiences that engage them on an emotional as well as a rational level. By focusing on experiences, marketers may, intentionally or not, be giving brands greater appeal for women. Marketers still generally treat men and women as different audiences who respond to different stimuli and different emotional appeals. However, the most interesting and persuasive brands are often the ones that challenge preconceived gender roles rather than repeating them.