China Insights

How can marketers get gender right in China?

Martin Guo

Editor-in-Chief, Kantar China Insights

Brands 08.03.2019 / 18:23

Getting Gender Right cover orange

Advertising industry’s failure to portray and target women well impacts the effectiveness of individual adverts and campaigns. Male-skewed brands are missing out on an average of US$9 billion in brand valuation in US, UK and China.

Gender is a sensitive topic - one that society is renegotiating across social, cultural, political and commercial spheres.

Within the marketing industry, high profile initiatives such as the Unstereotype Alliance and the Gender Equality Measure seek to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes.

However, many brands have not kept pace with change.

In fact, some marketers seem to be avoiding the issue altogether, paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong. In this precarious environment, achieving a balance between acknowledging and recognising gender, while evading stereotypes that can burden a brand, isn’t easy.

To help marketers to navigate this important issue, Kantar has just published this year’s AdReaction Report: Getting Gender Right. Based on findings from this unprecedented report, marketers can feel more confident making strategic brand decisions using our comprehensive evidence and insight into gender differences in response to marketing.

The AdReaction includes analysis of 30,000 ad tests in the 2018 Link™ global ad database, survey responses of 450 global marketers, consumer advertising attitudes among almost 40,000 consumers around the world, and brand equity analysis of over 9,000 global brands to create an in-depth understanding of the role of gender in advertising.

The vast majority (88%) of APAC marketers think they are doing a good job of portraying women as positive role models in adverts. However, globally a significant percentage (76% of female, 71% of male) of audiences think the way they are portrayed in advertising is “completely out of touch”.

The advertising industry’s failure to portray and target women well impacts the effectiveness of individual adverts and campaigns. The report analysed the valuation of 219 brands from US, UK and China, and found that male-skewed brands are missing out on an average of US$9 billion in brand valuation.

AdReaction addresses the challenges brands are facing when trying to get gender right in five questions:

1. Getting Gender Targeting Right:

Globally, marketers have not overlooked female consumers. In fact, there are far more female-targeting ads than male-targeting ads.

EN Targeting Women Ads


But the problem is that marketers seem to heavily target according to stereotypes in some categories. For example, globally 98% of baby product ads, laundry product ads and household cleaner ads were targeting women, while the majority of drink and vehicle ads were targeting men.

EN Women Category Target

But the reality is that in China, purchasing decisions about many categories were jointly made by both genders of a family.

EN Joint Purchasing Decision

As a result, because many brands failed to engage both genders equally, they undermined their brand value. Gender-balanced brands drive far greater brand value while brands that skew male tend to underperform. Only 40% of brands in China achieve this balance.

EN Brand Value Miss


Among 68 UK brands, 71 US brands and 80 China brands in BrandZ database evaluated in this research, male-skew brands have an average brand value of US$11.45 billion, US$9 billion less than gender-balanced brands.

Solution: If a brand understands the gender mix of its consumers based on stereotypes, it is on the edge of reinforcing gender stereotypes rather than eradicating it. Empowered by real world consumer gender insights, smart brands can stand out from its peers, even successfully launch a new product line.

Success case: Chinese laundry product brand Liby (立白) has noticed Chinese male consumers were also heavily involved in household washing activities and buying for this category. It relaunched its Kispa brand with a new Chinese name: 好爸爸 (Good Daddy). It also signed well-known Chinese actor Huang Lei (黄磊) and popular young singer Jackson Yee (易烊千玺) as brand ambassadors. It’s safe to say that Liby has redefined this category.


2. Getting Gender Portrayals Right

The vast majority of marketers in APAC think they are doing a good job of portraying both men and women as positive role models in adverts.

EN Portrayal Positive

But still nearly half of global surveyed consumers (44% of male, 45% of female) think “he/she is portrayed in a manner I would consider inappropriate”. In advertisings Kantar tested in China, 64% of ads feature women (lower than global average of 67%), and 27% feature only women (lower than global 34%).

EN Ads Feature Women

Kantar’s advertising tests have shown that marketers need to optimise performance of ads featuring only women: the impact index for female only ads was 92 globally and 93 in China.

Solution: Both globally and in China, marketers tend to portray both men and women more as likeable and caring, it might because many advertising creatives were set in a family environment. But both genders live in more diversified scenarios, such as in offices or in hobbies. By thinking outside of the “family box”, marketers can portray both genders in other characters, such as aspirational or authoritative.

China is a highly diversified society. Consumers in different city-tiers or educational backgrounds will have different understandings of what “aspirational” or “authoritative” means. Brands need to familiarize themselves with these nuances to create portrayals that fit various consumer segments.

Success case: Nike ad


3. Getting Gender Response Right

There’s no such thing as a male or female brain. Gender differences in the brain are not binary.

Recent studies suggest that as little as 8% of the brain can differ between males and females, and even so, every male brain is different, and every female is different.

For example, some areas of the brain are known to be different sizes depending on gender, but not necessarily for everyone.

A paper published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Joel et al, 2015) suggests that there is a scale on which every brain sits, which goes from very male to very female in terms of characteristics.

For example, a female could have a characteristically male brain and vice versa.

The brain imaging study suggests that only 8% of the brain differs across males and females. (Of 116 grey matter brain regions scanned, 10 had the largest differences in males vs females)

Yet men and women do decide differently as men veer towards systems and women tend towards empathy. Men like operations and control and processes. Women lean towards emotional connections. 

EN Brain Difference

Stepping back, when we review overall responses to advertising by gender — enjoyment, involvement and branding — we find no differences. Both globally and in China, data suggests that a good advertising in women’s eyes is a good advertising in men’s eyes.

If we want to make things even better, our in-depth investigation of creative elements in our database revealed a few consistencies between ads preferred by men versus those preferred by women.

In fact, one of the differences we found in China was that women are more likely to prefer ads that provides new information.

Solution: Design creative to the edges. By pushing design to better serve the needs of extreme users, the result is something that simultaneously also serves those at the other extreme better. In this way, it is possible for brands to cater to both masculine and feminine needs without requiring additional creative.

EN Design To The Edges

Success case: Adidas: Create the Answer

This ad designs to the edges by making a women the hero in a very male setting. Breaking stereotypes can help generate engagement. Kantar’s advanced facial coding technology has revealed that female players in sports ads are still surprising.

Adidas response, overall

EN Adidas Overall Response

Adidas male response

EN Male Surprised

Adidas female response

EN Female Smile

4. Getting Gender Placement Right

Gender is an important strategic variable in media planning, targeting and optimisation. Globally, we see more impact from Word of Mouth and Point of Sales marketing among women, while websites have more impact among men.

EN Channel Impact Across Genders

Chinese consumers are more receptive to ads, but women are also more likely to skip or avoid ads if they have the option. However, if the ad is relevant to them, Chinese female consumers are more likely to pay attention.

EN Ads Relevant

Solution: Given that relevance is a very important characteristic for ads to drive impact, brands should study the gender mix of the channels they are going to place their ads. If the ad is targeting Chinese female consumers, then making it more relevant to them should be put at a higher priority.

5. Getting Gender Programmes Right

Achieving gender progress is a journey. Smart marketers embed comprehensive gender progressiveness programmes to institutionalize the changes. Diageo, for example, has already set a good example. They took a five-step approach to making the change happen in their business.

1) They began by establishing a benchmark for communications;

2) Then they sought to understand female portrayal around the world, with an extensive piece of research that demonstrated the variety of perspectives that exist in different cultures;

3) For that, they developed a new framework for advertising development marketers to view communications through four lenses:  Representation, Perspective, Agency, and Characterisation;

4) They used this to drive impact in the work that is produced;

5) Set up a method of measuring their success.

EN Diageo 5 Step 

Like many, their benchmarking showed lots of the issues we have already discussed, but writ large. Like our global picture, women were under represented, but when they were, the resulting ads were highly effective

On brands like Baileys, the change in approach had clear business benefits – with more progressive campaigns achieving much higher in market ROI. In this case, by replacing a female character only ad with a neutral creative, the ROI went up 48%.

EN Baileys Being Progressive


Commenting on the study’s findings, Rosie Hawkins, Chief Offer and Innovation Officer, Kantar Insights Division said: “It is clear from our findings that some introspection is required on the part of creative and media agencies and their clients. The failure to meaningfully connect with female audiences is selling brands short and limiting their brand value”.

Sirius Wang, chief product officer of Kantar Insights Division, China, said: “On the journey of getting gender right in marketing, brands shouldn’t run before they can walk. Remember to make progress that is comfortable for your brand and your consumers in the Chinese cultural environment. Brands need to be aware of how complex and diversified China is. They need to be aware of how they’re perceived by different Chinese consumer segments and how different segments want to perceive them on gender spectrum. Even with best intentions, going too far may risk backlash.” 

Source: Kantar

Editor's notes

* To reach the author, or to know more information of brand gender balance consultancy in China and other parts of the world, please contact us.

* Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive news alerts.

Latest Stories

Warning of ‘human-to-human transmission’ of COVID-19 effectively triggers massive public self-protection behaviour

Kantar’s nationwide consumer survey on their changing behaviour and attitude during outbreak.

Highlights of 2019 China Shopper Report Vol.2.

Technology will continue to redefine the media landscape in 2020, creating opportunities and challenges for marketers.

Across new and emerging sports, we see a consistent theme, sports that focus on discipline and strategy, but at the same time facilitate new friendships and connections.

Related Content
Social Network