Why is Gender-specific Marketing Faltering? Ask Rey from Star Wars.

Adweek published its annual Women’s Issue this week. Across its lineup of interesting stories about consumer trendsbody imagehigh-profile industry professionals, and more, one thing is clear: It’s startling how quickly the Internet has shifted the national conversation on how gender is marketed.

The online era has only been with us for a generation and a half: Gen Xers hit the Internet as young adults, and millennials have been there since birth. But during those 20 years, for the first time in history, everyday people have been able to wield mass media to publish/broadcast/discuss their own perspectives on their own lives. Increasingly, that has meant identity groups — like, for instance, women — coming together in online communities to define themselves, often repudiating the sorts of identity definitions that the professional media has relied upon for decades.

“Hashtags like #NotBuyingIt, which protests sexism in advertising … went viral in 2014, garnering millions of tweets.”

In doing so, they’re overturning some longstanding industry wisdom about how people relate to gender-specific marketing.

A recent Quartz feature on the mass-media mainstreaming of feminist content explores that shift, noting how DIY media platforms, from the early days of blogging up through Twitter and beyond, have provided a space for women to challenge corporations over traditional marketing paradigms: “Hashtags like #NotBuyingIt, which protests sexism in advertising … went viral in 2014, garnering millions of tweets.”

Those millions have the industry listening. For instance: Brands that used to be considered “male” are now going out of their way to target women, because they’ve realized that heavily gendering their product was a self-perpetuating circle that excluded a large percentage of their potential market. As Elina Vives, the senior director of marketing at Coors, tells Adweek“Any brand nowadays has to stop insulting women first and foremost and be much more inclusive…. Women drink 25 percent of the beer in this country, after all. That’s not a niche.”

Toy giant Hasbro, which routinely produces fewer female than male action figures, got schooled in this lesson recently. The new Star Wars movie’s breakout character proved to be its female protagonist, Rey — and the toys weren’t there to support the character’s fast popularity. Retail news website Retail Dive notes that Star Wars merchandise totaled some $700 million in U.S. sales last year — “but just imagine those sales totals if Hasbro had produced enough Rey toys to satisfy consumer demand. ‘People wanted more Rey figures, and [Hasbro] didn’t have ’em.’”

Star Wars’ Rey seems to have become the poster child of the moment for the self-defined millennial woman. She’s an action hero whom the story values for her talents, accomplishments, and personal character, not for men’s perceptions of her sexuality. She’s empowered to achieve things in her world — and that sense of empowerment resonates with the cultural shift we’re seeing right now throughout the media in our own world.

The CEO of YouTube tells Adweek that, according to its statistical tracking, brands whose ads make a point of empowering women by focusing on their accomplishments, rather than their looks, are far more likely to be liked, shared, and followed. “In the past year, the number of empowering advertisements that appeared on our Ads Leaderboard — our monthly tracker of the most watched ads on YouTube — more than doubled…. the top 10 empowering ads were 2.5 times less likely to be skipped than their peers.”

Meanwhile, U.K.-based marketing site The Drum cites recent research that as many as 70 percent of women feel alienated by the traditional advertising and marketing they see. And Forbes notes that the old industry truism that women will buy male-marketed products but men won’t buy female-marketed products is visibly crumbling:

It’s clear that there are gender differences to consider, but the old ways of marketing aren’t working. Marketing for today’s female consumer requires a more thoughtful, evolutionary approach. By moving past stereotypes, marketers can focus on the deeper aspects of what appeals to women: delight, reverence, value, service and communication. Brands that successfully deliver on even one of these attributes won’t dilute the appeal of a product to men; but will allow brands to meaningfully connect to all.

If there’s a clear indicator that industry leaders are waking up to this shift in mindset, it’s this: The prestigious Cannes Lions creative-awards festival has instituted a new award category, the Glass Lion, to honor work that challenges gender biases, with proceeds going to fund support for producing more gender-neutral communications. In the award’s first year, there were 18 honorees. We can expect a lot more in years to come.