Executive summary of “Toward an understanding of brand sexual associations”

Journal of Product & Brand Management

ISSN: 1061-0421

Article publication date: 16 March 2015


(2015), "Executive summary of “Toward an understanding of brand sexual associations”", Journal of Product & Brand Management, Vol. 24 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPBM-01-2015-0796



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Executive summary of “Toward an understanding of brand sexual associations”

Article Type: Executive summary and implications for managers and executives From: Journal of Product & Brand Management, Volume 24, Issue 1

This summary has been provided to allow managers and executives a rapid appreciation of the content of the article. Those with a particular interest in the topic covered may then read the article in toto to take advantage of the more comprehensive description of the research undertaken and its results to get the full benefit of the material present.

Brand associations often determine a brand’s success. Researchers consider them a dimension of brand equity, along with brand awareness, perceived quality and brand loyalty. Given their importance, brand managers should seek to enhance their understanding of brand associations and their structure.

Symbols attached to brands are responsible for creating particular meanings for them. One common practice is the use of metaphors, whereby brands are perceived as possessing human characteristics.

What Azar describes as the “brand-as-a-person metaphor” is not universally defined. One consequence of this is uncertainty about what can be covered by the metaphor. According to the literature, the metaphor approach essentially fits one of two forms:

  • Brand personality, associating both personality traits and demographic traits with a brand; and

  • Brand relationships, whereby brands are regarded as “real partners” by consumers. Behavioral features are incorporated among the 15 different types of relationships identified in the literature. Arranged marriage and best friendship are two examples. Studies have also defined various brand relationship dimensions including commitment, attachment, satisfaction and trust and among others.

In the author’s opinion, this metaphor can be used to explore demographic, personality and behavioral traits to understand meanings or imagery consumers attach to brands.

Imagery used by marketers in advertising helps to create associations in the minds of consumers. A common practice is to use images which are sexual or erotic. More recent developments in this area include managerial practices, whereby the use of sexual associations is being extended to brands conventionally not aimed at one particular sex group. An example of this is the first toothpaste to be targeted at male consumers.

Brand sexual associations were essentially first used in the 1990s as part of a gendered approach to brand identity. Brand gender is founded on masculinity and femininity and thus incorporated into the brand-as-person metaphor.

Congruity between the consumer and brand gender positively impacts on responses to brands in terms of emotions, attitudes and behaviors. A manifestation of this is the tendency for individuals possessing “feminine gender identities” to more favorably evaluate brands with “feminine gendered personality traits”. Contradictory findings are evident though with respect to brand gender’s effect when the gender of brand extensions is different to that of the parent brand. Sex of the respondent influenced evaluation after the extension in some studies but this was not evident in others. Similar inconsistencies have emerged with regard to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Such incongruities should be at least partly attributable to interchangeable use “sex”, “gender” and “sexual orientation”. Some overlap is acknowledged but the terms are essentially different. Sex refers to biological differences between males and females, whereas gender is regarded as socially and/or psychologically constructed. With this approach, individuals are measured as having varying combinations of both masculine and feminine traits. As yet, no consensus on a definition of sexual orientation is evident. Some research streams consider sexuality as being similar to gender in being socially determined. Social norms and stereotypical representations of both men and women are influential for sexuality, sex-typed roles and perceptions of sexual orientation. Some scholars believe that sexual orientation can be predicted by gender.

A qualitative study was conducted to examine sexual images consumers attach to brands as a consequence of beliefs and experiences with them. The sample of 18 French subjects was diverse in terms of age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, family situation and socioeconomic status.

With trust and confidentiality crucial, subjects were interviewed in their homes. Initial questions referred to most recent purchases of symbolic and functional brands. Interviewees were then asked to describe these brands as people. The author details the different stages involved and methods used in helping respondents transform brands into living entities. Projective drawings were viewed as important and enabled distinctions between male and female traits to be made. The final phase involved a “pen-and-paper” exercise where subjects identified traits they would use to describe a brand for men and a brand for women. Each respondent on average cited 15 and 17 items, respectively.

The study confirms that consumers infer sexual associations from brands and that the brand:

  • Labeled as male or female uses the metaphor of its sex. A brand’s human sex can be a man, a woman, a man or woman or neither a man or woman;

  • Has its sexual orientation identified through the ascribed masculine and feminine behavioral sexual traits. The six brand sexual orientations possible are heterosexual man, gay man, heterosexual woman, lesbian, bisexual man or woman, an asexual man or woman. These orientations are defined by the presence or absence of masculinity and/or femininity; and

  • Is assigned masculine and feminine personality traits which determine its gender. Brands are masculine when most traits are masculine, feminine when most traits are feminine, androgynous if masculine and feminine traits are equally present and undifferentiated when it is ascribed few of either trait.

Brand sex is reflected by brand demographic characteristics, brand gender by brand personality characteristics and brand sexual orientation by brand behavioral characteristics. Data confirms the three constructs are linked yet autonomous. The existence and importance of various antecedents of brand sexual associations is also indicated. Antecedents are:

  • Who the brand is targeted at: When aimed at a particular sex, the sex of the brand would be perceived as the same;

  • Products offered: Brands are personified as a man or woman based on the sex which is targeted with the most products. Style is considered when distribution is more equal;

  • Style and design: Such as shape or color are used to ascertain masculine or feminine sexual associations;

  • Intrinsic product characteristics: This refers to physical attributes, often linked with the senses. Certain characteristics are typically associated with man; others with women;

  • Brand name and logo: Color, shape and the use of certain letters combine to generate masculine or feminine sexual associations;

  • Brand values: This is determined by social perceptions of what constitutes masculine and feminine values;

  • People representing the brand: Such as celebrities used in advertisements, managers or consumers. Associations from these key individuals are transferred to the brand. For instance, the creator of Jean Paul Gaultier is gay so one subject perceived the brand to be gay;

  • The brand’s product category: An example here is a respondent regarding sportswear as typically masculine and thus associating this gender with Nike. Brand sexual associations are inferred from the most typical category when the brands operates in more than one; and

  • Advertising: Interpretations of such as signs, symbols, shapes and colors influence brand sexual associations.

Azar notes that antecedents have differing levels of impact. The author likewise points out that consumers more readily create sexual associations when brand knowledge and familiarity is high.

Effective management of brand sexual associations is seen as a means of strengthening favorable attitudes toward a brand and positioning it competitively. Azar believes desired results can be achieved by careful manipulation of relevant antecedents. Considering informants often used personal experiences to assess a brand’s sex, gender and sexual orientation, awareness of how consumers relate to brands is needed.

Further study could use different samples and product categories not normally aimed at a particular sex. Investigating the relative influence of each antecedent and consumer perceptions of the sex, gender and sexual orientation of constructs is also recommended.

To read the full article enter 10.1108/JPBM-05-2014-0607 into your search engine.

(A précis of the article “Toward an understanding of brand sexual associations”. Supplied by Marketing Consultants for Emerald.)