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Do You Even Go Here? Why Brands Have to Look Deeper Than Memes and Slang

September 15, 2021


Do You Even Go Here? Why Brands Have to Look Deeper Than Memes and Slang

I was looking through my feeds the other day, reviewing content I put aside that tends to stick with me until I have time to ask “why”…and an ad from Old Navy popped up. I stared at it for a minute or so. Not because I wanted to buy what they were selling—because I couldn’t believe the ad copy I was seeing.

Old Navy was proudly advertising “girls’ gender-neutral hybrid swim shorts.”

HybridFor girls, but also gender neutral?

The first time I laughed and when I saw it again- I no longer laughed—this is so ridiculous. And it drives home the idea that we have to make sure we understand what we’re doing when we try on the latest meme or slang. Otherwise, we end up looking like $%^&*.

Winning Keyword Searches but Losing Customers

At first glance, the ad I saw might not look ridiculous. “Hybrid” tripped me up for a second weird word that means a bikini bottom sewn into the shorts so athey appear as swim trunks.

That’s all well and fine, and yeah, we could even call that style gender neutral. There’s no reason girls can’t wear swim trunks if they want to. And there’s no reason boys’ trunks may not have a brief-style lining in them either. (Split-shorts for running have a similar design, for both men and women.)

The problem is Old Navy’s copy advertised these shorts as both “for girls” and “gender-neutral.” Which is it, folks?!

If something is “gender neutral,” then it’s not specifically for girls or boys. It’s gender neutral. It fits anyone, whether they’re a girl or a boy or a purple people eater. Old Navy’s ad copy makes it clear they don’t understand that. They failed to realize that calling these shorts “girls’” was gendering them.

We could forgive Old Navy if this is about a keyword search strategy. They put both terms in there to make sure their ad pinged for “girls’ swim shorts” and “gender neutral swim shorts.” Or maybe they’re capitalizing on a trend of clueless but well-meaning parents Googling this stuff.

No matter what Old Navy is trying to do here, though, the outcome is the same: they look ridiculous. Whether it’s winning the keyword search or truly not getting it, people who are looking for gender-neutral clothing are likely to see this and say, “YIKES!!!”

These people are likely to react like me: trying to comprehend this, then laughing. Some people might even be upset. A few might chew Old Navy out for their obvious mistake in using these terms. Most people will turn away though. People who don’t believe in gender-neutral clothing will see this as pandering. Those who support gender-neutral clothing are going to say, “This ain’t it.”

At the end of the day, Old Navy adopted these terms to try and please more people. They’ve only succeeded in turning more away!

You Can’t Staple on “Woke”

Old Navy’s blunder here is the latest in a long string of brands trying to adopt “woke” stances, cool slang, or even memes … and missing the mark by a mile.

Why does this happen? The answer is that most brands do not actually get it—and they don’t try to get it either. They kind of slap it in there and hope it sticks.

The Old Navy ad might have been the result of an overeager intern trying to tell people these swim trunks are woke. Maybe the “girls’” thing was an older manager who insisted on it. It could have been the team seeing people looking for “gender-neutral” clothing. So they slapped the term in there without stopping to think about it.

That’s usually the case with memes and more too. A brand’s marketing team sees some term trending or a meme blowing up on their feed and they try to get in on the action. Because they don’t understand the term or the meme at a deeper level, though, they’re just mimicking the format.

For memes and slang, this sometimes results in a harmless faux pas. In other cases, you might take some heat or some bad press over it. In cases like Old Navy’s ad here, though, it speaks to a bigger problem.

Old Navy’s ad is an attempt at being “woke” without doing any real work. Instead, it’s Old Navy using terms they’ve seen floating around to entice customers to shop with them.

If you read the copy for these swim shorts, Old Navy announces they are “perfect for him, or her, or them!” And the style is something that anyone could wear. So Old Navy does seem to be making an effort here.

But the fact the shorts are still advertised as “girls’” is a problem. The website does a little better, saying these are “gender neutral swim shorts for kids.” But the product is still listed under “Girls’”. The fact that Old Navy still has “girls’” and “boys’” and “mens’” and “womens’” suggests they’re Not Quite Getting It.

They do have a gender-neutral section on the website. But these items are listed as “clothes in common” for adults or for kids. Advocates for gender-neutral clothing have suggested most brands miss the mark this way. Brands seem to think the term “gender neutral” means shapeless shirts and slacks that fit androgynous models. (They also critique the colour choices. Someone seemed to think “gender neutral” meant all the colours needed to be neutrals too!)

We can give Old Navy this: they’re trying. That’s more than can be said for some brands. But as much as Old Navy is well-intentioned here, they haven’t sat down and understood what people mean when they say “gender neutral” clothing.

By and large, what they mean is stop dividing the kids’ section into “boys’” and “girls’”. Your child is three. They want to wear a Batman t-shirt because they think it’s cool. Does that Batman t-shirt have to be pink because it’s “for girls”? Can’t a little girl wear the “boys’” t-shirt if she wants? And if a girl can wear it, is it a “boys’” shirt?

Some people are even more radical about this, especially younger people. A great example is Lil Nas X showing up to the 2021 BET awards in a ballgown. He also wore a floral-printed suit with lots of lace trim—something we’d call “feminine,” but cut into a “menswear” style.

Not everyone goes that far. But if we look at that example, then Old Navy’s attempts to go “gender neutral” seem even more misguided. Most of their collection is t-shirts or sweatshirts, with a few loose-fitting bottoms tossed in. Even their socks are listed as gender-neutral. Which, sure, socks can definitely be gender neutral. But that's not what the people who are looking for “gender neutral clothing” want.

You Have to Listen (and Learn)

The long and short of this is that you have to make sure you’re listening—and learning—from your customers. Old Navy heard that some people want gender-neutral clothing, and they jumped right on the bandwagon.

They didn’t stop to think about what that actually means. And they don’t seem to have talked to the customers they’re trying to win over with “gender-neutral” clothes! So what we get is a misguided ad campaign that makes them look ridiculous to everyone, including the very customers they want to talk to.

If they had talked to nonbinary people or gender-neutral clothing advocates, they might have understood what they want to see from clothing brands. And then Old Navy’s team could have figured out the best way to put that in place.

They still wouldn’t have made much sense to shoppers like me, but that’s okay! I’m not their target audience for this effort. But when the people who are your audience are saying you’re doing it wrong or they’re laughing at you, you need to take a step back. Talk to them! Ask them! Really listen and work to understand what it is they want and how that fits (or doesn’t fit) with your brand.

After all, not every brand is going to serve this demographic. Maybe Old Navy’s the brand that does—or maybe they’re not. To figure it out, though, they need to go back to the basics. And that goes for all of us whenever we think we want to jump on the bandwagon like this. We need to make sure we listen to our customers and understand it, see where it connects with our brand’s core.

So, like always, we have to start with the why!


A little more about me. My goal is and always will be to inspire and create conversation!

I am a businessperson who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles, I have written to inspire others

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