Families in Flux: Celebrating Diversity in the Modern Household

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The dialogue about shifting family roles has reached a boiling point nearly 350 years after poet John Milton wrote, “Nothing lovelier can be found in woman, than to study household good.” In his epic work “Paradise Lost” – decidedly a product of its time – Milton relied on traditional gender roles to retell the story of Adam and Eve.

More contemporary references, such as those in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” or the Pew Research Institute’s study on “breadwinner moms,” paint a picture of families in flux. Gibbs & Soell’s own research on parents identified compelling findings about fathers’ attitudes toward the care and well-being of their families. Such recent snapshots strike deep cultural chords and reflect a society where families are reeling from the impact of economic and generational changes.

However, while many people acknowledge the changing trends, too many marketers still rely on stereotypes that date back to Milton’s Puritanical era. In doing so, marketers are not only failing to acknowledge changing social norms, they are ignoring the evolving needs of today’s diverse consumer audience.

Bumbling Children, Princesses of Cleanliness
The family nest appears to be littered with misguided marketing messages. The effort to transform the most banal of tasks—housekeeping—into 30-second TV commercials about hyper-moms often falls on deaf ears. As Adweek bluntly put it, the cleaning category in advertising, “…has been overpopulated for far too long with the sort of sexist bullshit that demeans both sexes, reducing men to bumbling children and elevating women to powerful princesses of cleanliness.” According to a Pew Research Study published in May 2013, men are now handling over a third of household tasks, yet women remain the target demographic for most items related to home management and childcare.

Gibbs & Soell recently commissioned its Domestic Dads™ Study to learn more about the attitudes of men toward nurturing and shopping for their families.The study found that the dynamics of home economics are undergoing a tectonic shift as the number of fathers directly involved with choices affecting their families skyrockets. Many fathers in the study reported they are the sole managers of their household expenses (45 percent) and are equally involved in caregiving for their minor children and other dependents (43 percent).

While the Domestic Dads research showed that fathers want to be more involved in the management of their households and the upbringing of their children, there is also evidence that parents are finding their way toward a middle ground in daily responsibilities.The Pew Research findings indicated fathers spend 10 hours a week doing housework, as compared to four hours a week in the 1960s, and mothers put in 18 hours of housework a week, as compared to 32 hours from 50 years ago.

Pink It and Shrink It
Gender stereotypes persist in many other consumer categories. Just as men are typically the invisible market in most consumer home categories, women have felt ignored by the financial services industry.

For instance, a 2012 Wall Street Journal article cited a Boston Consulting Group study in which female customers balked at the way financial advisers and banks have traditionally marketed a message of wealth accumulation. The women who participated in the survey felt the message failed to grasp their view of money as a means to achieve security and strengthen their families’ financial futures.

Women have grown weary of “pink it and shrink it” marketing tactics, or the patronizing oversimplification of the appeal of a single color and reduced size, in the promotion to female audiences of products ranging from automobiles to consumer electronics. In one of the most iconic uses of the pink symbol, Mary Kay Cosmetics is celebrated for its reward of pink Cadillacs to its top salespeople. The appeal of the car isn’t exclusive to female employees. In 2011, when a Michigan man from the company’s sales team was recognized with a rose-toned Caddy, he likened it to taking home the prized Stanley Cup or Heisman Trophy.

Another twist on gender marketing occurred during the 2012 holiday retail season, when toymaker Hasbro got singed for promoting its famed Easy Bake Ovens primarily to girls in its ads and product packaging. When a four-year-old boy set his Christmas wish on a gender-neutral version of the toy, his teenage sister went directly to social media to launch her campaign directed at the company. She recruited others to back her cause by setting up a petition on Change.org. The petition, endorsed by more than 40,000 signatures, was presented to Hasbro. Soon several celebrity male chefs, including Bobby Flay, voiced their support. Hasbro subsequently invited the children to its Rhode Island headquarters for the unveiling of a black and silver toy oven that was subsequently added to its product line.

Engaging a Transformed Household
There’s hope in the quest for a more modern depiction of families. For instance, following the results of the 2010 US Census, which reported a 28 percent increase in the number of interethnic married couples, Cheerios recently portrayed a multicultural family in its TV ad. Also shared on social media, the commercial has now been viewed more than 3.5 million times on YouTube. “At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all,” said Vice President of Marketing Camille Gibson in a Gawker.com interview. Other marketers that have included culturally-diverse couples in ads include Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Lexus and Dentyne, according to the Bergen Record newspaper.

Engaging transformed households leads to additional questions for marketers about creating brand experiences around more believable scenarios. How about same-sex partners maintaining a shared household or raising their children together? Retailers Nordstrom and JC Penney have recognized the need to extend their definition of family units to include LGBT couples. What about multi-generational families living under one roof? Current economic conditions have recast many families much like those found in an earlier era: unmarried adult children living with parents and grandparents. Households without children, or families headed by single mothers or fathers, are also among those that must be represented in the continual variegation of the modern family and home.

From Shelf Space to Lasting Place
Share of wallet remains a critical focal point for marketers in the fierce battle for shelf space at home and in stores. However, the challenge is to figure out who is holding the purse strings in a particular household. As the economic recovery sputters along, gains of new customers will matter even more to businesses seeking to grow their sales and position themselves for better times ahead.

Rather than heeding Milton’s more famous words celebrating the virtue of patience, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” brands that seize the immediate opportunity to prove their respect for the individuality of their consumers may earn a lasting place in many households.

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