Friday, April 1, 2016

5 things you should know about dual gender

Today, there is a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement for IP owners and managers to evolve or reinvent their IP to be more dual gender.  

Because our Meta-Story work cuts across such a varied cross section of both entertainment and product that is male, female, dual gender, older and younger, I have five important insights to share for those pondering what to do about the question of embracing dual gender for IP or brand.
Making the dual gender decision is not an automatic multiplier to your success. It can have a very positive effect, but it can also dilute or, in some cases, even reduce the brand and franchise adoption you are seeking from either or both genders.
Here are 5 key factors that anyone creating, managing or owning a brand or entertainment IP that is considering whether or not to lean into dual gender stories should know.

1.    There’s a big difference between ratings/box office and property usage/play patterns

I’ve recently read a number of articles suggesting that the IP and brands that will be the big winners in the near future will be dual gender. I think that there is some truth to that statement if the success you are seeking is box office, VOD downloads or TV ratings. It’s simple math. If your content is interesting to a broader audience then you have a better chance at bigger numbers.
Though this common sense rule is generally true, as the audience leaves preschool age and heads for their tweens, teens and young adulthood, robust dual gender becomes a lot trickier to achieve and may not be what your brand business is all about.
Additionally, what your audience/consumer shows up to watch does not necessarily translate into what they find relevant and useful in their lives on a daily basis and that is what drives commercial adoption and deeper loyalty.
As an example, we are seeing a strong trend across industries where the 6 and up boys are exiting or significantly reducing their usage of brands that had previously had strong 6 and up boy loyalty.  What we’ve found is that for male play and socialization, boys of this age need and hunt strongly male content (see point #5).
Several factors are contributing to why these boys are feeling that these brands no longer represent what they want and need at the point they are in their growth and lives. Underlying changes to the structure of the IP and entertainment that can happen when becoming more dual gender can be a significant contributor to that messaging. It is interesting to note that as reported in several recent articles, more of the work of becoming dual gender is happening in boy’s properties for a number of reasons. To be clear, there is a big, big difference between being gender inclusive/respectful vs homogenous (see point #3)

2.    The “Gender Structure” of your story is more important than the gender of your characters

It can be easy to think of creating dual gender success almost like it’s a spreadsheet with character gender boxes to check. If the gender balance sheet looks good then you’re on the right track to win with both boys and girls! Well...
Boys and Girls, Men and Women, instinctually move and resonate with the structure and themes of the story somewhat independent of the gender of the characters. Boys and men showed up in droves to see the new Mad Max movie with Charlize Theron solidly in the main protagonist role.
There are male structured stories, female structured stories and dual structure stories. Being aware of what you are making and carefully tuning it to deliver the results you are looking for is critical to post-entertainment adoption and retention of the audience and brand themes you want.

Well done stories of any structure can often get both genders to consume the entertainment. though it seems clear from both data and anecdotal evidence that girls are more likely to consume boy content than boys consuming girl content. This is largely because to tell a good human story you have to include social/emotional moves. In action stories this can give girls what they need as well as the action and excitement they want to be included in. To tell a good social emotional story you don't have to include the action and heroic elements and structures boys want and need.

Net/net, there are distinctly different power structures that each gender needs. 
The most direct way to explain the difference in the narrative gender power structures is with these two simple statements:
Female Power: I am more powerful when my tribe is more powerful!
Male Power: My tribe is more powerful when I am more powerful!
For the female structured heroic narrative the female hero is at the center of the tribe delivering on a key female imperative: healing the tribe’s dysfunction. There can be a little or a lot action involved (and girls today don’t want limits on their action and adventure) but fundamentally the resolve is driving towards healing the tribe.
For a male structured heroic narrative, the male hero stands outside the tribe to defend against all threats. He has emotional stakes in the tribe but the resolve is about defeating that threat, not primarily healing the tribe.
Meeting that threat often involves a unique kind of sacrifice known as “the hero’s choice.” Batman sacrifices his “normal” life in order to function as Batman. As a contrast, Disney’s Big Hero 6 is a good example of great male and female heroic roles in the story and a resolve that doesn’t impose a classic hero’s choice on the male hero. This story is dual gender with a more female structured resolve as he heals the tribe and as a team they vanquish the threat.
There’s a whole lot of other structure and narrative considerations that cascade from those two simple differences that I won’t dive into here.
What’s interesting is if you think of those structures as dials. Both can be at 10 or one at 0 and one at 10 and everything in between. It is being aware of how you are setting those dials that has everything to do with the commercial viability of your IP with both or either gender!
This is a key part of the reason why Video games seem to be gobbling up the guys at a younger and younger age. Yes, the play is very immersive. Yes, the worlds and action are seriously cool, but what may be the most important truth about video games and guys is that the structure of the “you-drive-it” narratives is overwhelmingly a male heroic resolve. Video games are the strongest “house of guy” on the planet right now and boys/guys instinctually join the tribe to find what they need for gender identity growth and rite-of-passage guy-community. (Let’s not roll the gender depiction issues for video games into this conversation. I recognize its importance but we’re focusing on illustrating narrative structure.)

3.    Inclusive vs homogenous

What’s really important in any story (brand or entertainment) is giving each gender what they need culturally, emotionally and developmentally.
It’s also important not to have characters inserted into stories or brands simply to deflect criticism.
I greatly prefer using the phrase “gender inclusive” versus dual gender or gender neutral because it describes, what I believe, is the strongest approach right in the title. 
a.     Understand what the business of your IP is (ratings/box office and/or boys, girls or dual gender commercial franchise)
b.     Structure the story to fulfill its intended role with the right empowerment and resolves.
c.      Include both genders in the story (not necessarily equal in numbers)
d.     Write each gender respectful of what they need within the context of your story and especially targeting the core commercial opportunity you have defined.
Within brands, it is also possible to have a single brand develop robust but separate offerings for each gender. Here too it is not about just turning up the pink or blue dial on the product. It is about delivering what each gender needs and wants at the life and cultural stage they are at.
Nerf is a great example of this kind success. The brand is inclusive of guys and girls but has distinct segments that are well tuned to each.

4.    Age is a big factor

Dual gender is much easier to achieve for preschoolers because prior to around 5 years old, boys and girls are in the business of building basic understandings of their world and making their first forays into non-ego-centric thinking. Though they are aware of being a boy or a girl and are beginning to absorb the cultural and familial gender examples, they haven’t yet moved into the ages of growing and exercising gender-based power.
Once past 5 or 6 years old, peer opinion becomes increasingly important. In fact, past preschool, one could say amongst peer opinion, same gender opinion ranks supreme.
The older a child becomes, the more they naturally tend to spend more time in single gender tribes to define what it means to be a guy or a girl by exploring and growing into life’s challenges in full collaboration with their chosen gender peers. We do this because, like most mammals, we have an inborn and important gender role to discover and contribute to the world and to our species.
Net/net, family culture starts the gender journey but community, gender tribes and mass culture take over defining what it means to “fit” into a gender.

5.    Boys and Girls have different needs

To talk about the differing needs of guys and girls we need to unbox what it means to live in The House of girl vs The House of guy, and why those two houses are important no matter what time in history we are living within.
In order to avoid accidental and kid-confusing gender engineering, we must understand the difference between cultural influences (that should be questioned and sometimes challenged), versus the natural and important developmental and community needs that can be different for boys and girls.
The house of Girl or the House of Guy, are a shorthand way of describing the big buckets of ideas, norms, cultural influences, outward messaging and inward journeys that each gender seeks to belong to as they seriously engage in their own journey into adulthood. This is definitely one of those concepts that boys and girls instinctively “know it when they see it,” and just as clearly, know when something does not have that gender identity nourishment and support built into it.
Brands such as American Girl have grown to amazing strength by living clearly in the house of girl and attaching a vision and higher purpose to it. These two houses often resonate with connection to girlness or guyness that cuts across generations, evolving as it progresses but including the best of gender goodness from the unbroken gender past.
Understanding these needs and these houses helps us to see that there are big differences between gender neutral, dual gender and gender inclusive.
It also helps us to filter decisions and ideas about gender positioning and to understand that there are some concepts that cannot be made commercially dual gender (vs gender inclusive) without losing a significant part of their commercial strength and the reasons why the audience loves it and wants to use it in their lives.

Going forward:

As we continue the important work of continual cultural evolution in our storytelling and brand management it helps to avoid seeing the discussion about gender balance in IP and brands as a single, simple statement that “the winners of the future will be dual gender.” History, biology, commerce and the kids themselves are telling us something more nuanced and powerful.  Instead, I like to think that getting good at being gender inclusive, whether I have a boy’s brand a girl’s brand or a true dual gender brand, is a great way to do right by both genders and do right by your business at the same time.