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Honda’s Pink Minivan Reminds Marketers that Stereotypes Can Backfire

Jan Lee
Jan Lee | Wednesday January 2nd, 2013 | 0 Comments

Gender_roles_pink_Honda_c56d09b865_Maple03You have to hand it to Honda, its release of a pink-chiffon-colored minivan was a bold move, one that might very well have signaled a coup in automobile manufacturing history, if it hadn’t been for its awkward choice of color. After all, few car companies have been courageous enough to tackle gender roles so boldly and come out with a car that would appeal only to the nurturing sentiments of women – and pregnant women at that.

But dressed in colors that seem oddly reminiscent of that first frilly (and itchy) dress we wore at age 3, Honda’s accomplishment (which even came with its own anti-aging armament, rebranded sun tinting) was hardly out of the garage before it had been sideswiped by critics.

Was it really the color? Or was it the tailor-made marketing that pundits objected to?

Was it the baby-bassinet shape, or the fact that shape and color have been used for decades to tailor the tastes of the female consumer?

Pretty in pink: Gender roles and stereotypes

Blogger Susan Dobscha, who is an associate professor in marketing at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has offered a few theories.

Ignorance, says Dobscha, was the car manufacturer’s greatest mistake: The assumption that stereotypes actually work, and don’t get outdated.

“While there are women who prefer pink, and it has become the official color of breast cancer, the NFL has since created more realistic jerseys for its female clientele.”

Marketers fail to understand that one size doesn’t fit all, and neither does one color when it comes to gender. The fact that the breast cancer campaign has adopted the color to point toward positive life memories doesn’t mean that all women identify positively with that branding.

If there is any lesson that marketers should have taken from the most recent elections, Dobscha points out, it is that stereotypes backfire. Independent women voters became an actual voting bloc long before the last vote was cast in 2012. Groups like ultraviolet.org, which have lobbied vigorously against gender stereotypes were, and continue to be, well supported.

But Honda doesn’t really have to study voting trends to ask whether the old images of the 1950s still hold true for the 21st century. The 65-year-old teen magazine Seventeen recently bowed to pressure to put away its airbrush after teenage girls flooded the editorial office with requests that it stop “thinning” images of runway models.

But are all assumptions about appearance and preference bad judgment calls? Is there no room for a minivan or car that caters to the needs of a niche market?

Consumer research and gender role assumptions

“The boundaries for gender marketing should be based on common sense and sensible research. A quality advertiser will carefully gather data concerning the preferences of their target consumer, and keep track of who is buying their product,” says online media specialist, Marc Pickren, on his blog marc2market.com. Pickren, who runs the marketing company Enversa.com, points out that marketers rely on strategy and customer classification to sell their products.

Dobscha agrees. “The automobile industry… does much better when it uses lifestyle and social-class classifications,” she says.

A vehicle that carries the nurturing image of a baby carriage suggests lifestyle choice, whereas the stereotypical use of color and old branding methods that remind us of past assumptions are counter-intuitive to many consumers.

Stereotypical gender roles will likely never be totally erased. The lessons of the 1950s, 60s and 70s seem destined to be repeated – for a while at least. But one sure lesson is that while color can be a persuasive motivator, not everyone (even the youngest consumers)  may identify with the lessons and memories it carries.


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