Sex matters? Marketing to women in the nutritional food space

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01 Aug 2018 --- Gender roles are undoubtedly shifting, with recent headlines being heavy on gender-neutral rhetoric. But what effect does this have on the nutritional foods space, where consumers drive NPD and marketing as much as in any other industry? As consumers become more interested in personalized nutrition, does gender matter?

A series of studies published in Social Psychological and Personality Science has identified how pervasive gender associations are imbued in the food we eat. This series of studies reveal, for instance, that sour dairy products tend to be perceived as relatively feminine, whereas meat tends to be perceived as relatively masculine. Men are inclined to forge their intrinsic preferences to conform to a masculine gender identity, whereas women appear to be less concerned with making gender-congruent choices.

However, aside from social influences potentially playing a role in our food consumption patterns, it can be argued that a lack of scientific research has led to a nutritional landscape where there is a lack of necessary gender-specific products, as Jonekos Staness, Founder of nutrition company Eat Like a Woman tells NutritionInsight: “All nutrition has not been created equal. Women have very specific needs thatClick to Enlarge have been ignored. Women are not ‘small men’ who just need different portion sizes.”

Men and women: Different nutritional needs?
Personalized nutrition has taken the industry by storm as consumers seek nutritional deliveries that are tailored to their personal needs. In this way, Staness says, “we know that the combination of genetic, hormonal and physiological differences [from gender] affects not only our susceptibility to disease but also how our bodies respond to diet.”

“Yet for years the only differences acknowledged in science were reproductive. A female’s metabolism and biochemical makeup, the way her brain works, and even how her digestion functions are all very different from a males.”

Mike Danielson, Marketing Representative for Regular Girl, a female orientated fiber supplement that can be added to cold foods and beverages, further tells NutritionInsight that there are some specific nutritional areas where sex does matter. Women have a higher need for iron and a higher prevalence of anemia, and womenClick to Enlarge, on average, consume less fiber and are more likely to have IBS than men, Danielson explains.

Importantly, Stanness notes that until 1977 the US FDA banned females from clinical research, which led to an overarching assumption that “females are the same as males except for reproductive differences.” Until now, she adds, science has largely relegated women to the sidelines.

So, if there are indeed biological differences between men and women that constitute the possibility for a difference in nutritional intake, how has the market responded?

Marketing strategies falling short?
A once popular marketing strategy specifically aimed at women, Staness explains, was coined “Pink and Shrink,” which essentially meant marketers would take (often) gender-neutral products and shrink them – make them smaller – and color them pink to make them “female friendly.”

Such marketing ploys are, arguably, shallow and old-fashioned, mainly focusing on color difference and portion size as opposed to the actual difference in necessary nutritional quality. This strategy is, she adds, tiring and “if something is marketed to females it better benefit and empower the woman.”

Innova Market Insights data show that in 2017, 86 percent of new food and beverage launches tracked with a gender claim were for “female.” However, the rate at which products are tagged as male or female is growing at a similar rate, with an CAGR of +9 percent from 2013 to 2017 for female and +8 percent CAGR for men, with sports nutrition proving an important category.

Click to Enlarge
Innova Market Insights data shows that formula
is the top category for “female” products, highlighting 
the space in the market for products that
are aimed at women and for women.

A new future?
There are products out there that do appeal specifically to women, grounded in science and nutrition. Eat Like a Woman’s products embrace gender specific sciences, Stanness explains, tapping into how women and men experience stress differently, develop heart disease differently and metabolize energy differently, for example.

Regular Girl’s products are also based on science, as two studies demonstrate the product addressing two different health issues common to women: digestion and iron deficiency. The products marketing approach was embedded in listening to the primary consumer market, Danielson explains. 

The product launched with a professional education campaign, which generated useful data for the company to move forward and amend their strategy, if possible. They approach the marketing with a “tongue in cheek” attitude.

Such products represent an approach that has moved away from a superficial “Pink and Shrink,” toward a method embedded in science and nutrition and appeals to the modern, mindful woman.

However, as Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, points out, the food industry spends close to US$20 billion a year convincing the public that its products are delicious and nutritious. She tells NutritionInsight that much of the gendered marketing that goes on is merely marketing aimed at expanding sales and profits.

Click to Enlarge
 The modern consumer may wish to
see more language embedded in science.

The rise of gendered products is noticeable in the tea market. Numerous teas positioned toward women and men claim to have gender-specific effects, however, they largely seem to utilize masculine versus feminine language around relaxation. Men's Tea from Yogi Tea emphasizes stress as negatively impacting on power and strength, with dark brown packaging, while Women's Tea from the same brand emphasizes empathy, and is packaged in pink.

As gender becomes increasingly politicized, it may be pointless to only engage with it on a shallow marketing level to make extra cash as a consumer may see through this. Instead, as more research comes to the fore detailing real and essential nutritional differences between men and women, exciting space for more gender-specific products on these grounds opens up. This space is particularly ripe as the wave of interest in personalized nutrition sweeps the market.

By Laxmi Haigh

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