OPINION20 July 2020

Tracking the new masculinities

Media Opinion Trends

Conceptions of masculinity have shifted since the ‘lads’ mag’ era. Emily Porter-Salmon reflects on the findings of a cultural analysis to explore dominant and emergent views of masculinity.

Masculinity man male sunglasses_crop

While all brands need to be aware of social and cultural change, it’s yet more vital for heritage brands. Having history can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’ve got established trust and recognition, but on the other, your brand may be carrying some less desirable baggage. Some notable cases have recently been thrown into relief by the Black Lives Matter movement, with both Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s announcing changes to name and logo to move past outdated racial stereotypes.

While it’s great that these household names are making changes, they’re reactive measures in the face of mounting consumer pressure. How can brands ensure that they remain ahead of the cultural curve?

That’s what our partners at Condé Nast were wondering in 2018. The company is the publisher of GQ, the leading fashion and lifestyle brand for men with 20 global imprints. Since 1957, when the words ‘Gentleman’s Quarterly’ first appeared on a magazine cover, the brand has been a cultural touchstone of all things masculine.

But what is masculinity in the 21st century? Today’s cultural context is a very different one from when GQ had its origins. While sexy underwear shoots of female models had been a staple of the ‘lads’ mag’ world of the past, Condé Nast understood that in the #MeToo era, things are moving on.

The way men consume content has changed considerably in the past decade, and conceptions of masculinity are changing even more rapidly. Condé Nast wanted to evolve with the times and engage a new type of reader, while still continuing to address the needs of current audiences. How could it go about this?

At Sign Salad, we use semiotic and cultural insight to address these questions. Brands don’t exist in a vacuum. We look at a brand in terms of the cultural context that surrounds it, shedding light on the way consumers really perceive the brand.

To assist GQ, we conducted a cultural context analysis across seven markets, identifying how conceptions of masculinity have been shifting. As semioticians, culture is our data – we apply methods derived from critical and cultural studies to a range of sources to identify key themes, cues and narratives that emerge. In this case, we examined film and TV, literature, music, print media and beyond to provide GQ teams with an overview of what masculinity has meant for audiences in the mainstream, and where it is moving towards at the leading edge.

We were able to identify two overarching shifts – firstly from a single, exclusive definition of masculinity to acceptance of multiple possibilities, and secondly a move from inherent privilege to personal negotiation and self-exploration. For each of these avenues we provided culturally relevant examples to assist local teams in actioning the research, including visual and language inspiration.

While the dominant (more mainstream) examples will be familiar to us all – think traditional signs of virility such as body hair, muscles and aggression – those at the more emergent (future-facing) side of the spectrum include diversity of body types and even biological sex. Is there room for discussion of a post-gender masculinity beyond maleness and men? Our research suggests that there is, identifying ‘boy’ bands in China made up of androgynous-presenting women, and cis-male social media influencers garnering contracts with major cosmetics brands. The boundaries between masculinity and traditionally feminine behaviours are increasingly fluid, especially across younger demographics.

The findings of this study have been shared internationally across Condé Nast, with considerable successes for the business. GQ España recorded its best performing reach after making use of the insights, with unique users up 78% year-on-year, while a partnership between the UN and GQ partnership – the first of its kind – was secured based on the evolution of the brand and its new direction and has been rolled out in markets including the Middle East, France and India. GQ is now on track to shape the future of masculinity on the world stage.

Cultural insight has historically been seen as a nicety rather than a necessity within some areas of our industry, but times are changing. It is ever more vital for brands to ensure that they engage with culture meaningfully, sensitively and in a timely fashion – increasingly consumers expect brands to take a proactive stance, rather than bowing to pressure after the fact. Investing in cultural research provides brands with the toolkit they need to lead the conversation, rather than merely follow it, and is invaluable in future-proofing for the events and challenges that lie ahead.

Emily Porter-Salmon is associate director at Sign Salad. Porter-Salmon is speaking at the MRS Media & Advertising Virtual Summit 2020 tomorrow ( 21st July).