The #MeToo movement is re-writing the rules over how women should be treated by men. By giving a voice to female victims of sexual harassment and assault, #MeToo is changing gender relationships. But does this empowering movement put brands seeking to ramp up gender-specific marketing on thin ice?

Diageo may soon find out with its launch of a new Jane Walker extension of its famous Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch whisky in the US. This limited-time offering for the month of March replaces the brand’s signature top-hatted, tuxedo-wearing man with a shapely, long-haired woman wearing the same outfit.

The launch coincides with celebrations of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. Diageo’s Johnnie Walker brand has pledged to donate $1 for every Jane Walker edition bottle sold to organizations that support women’s causes, up to a total of $250,000.

The rationale for the launch is simple; women are drinking more whiskey these days and Diageo wants a bigger piece of the pie. According to Nielsen figures reported by The Wall Street Journal, the percentage of US whiskey drinkers that are female has expanded from 28.2% of the market in 2010 to 29.6% of the market in 2016. But men remain the heaviest whiskey drinkers. According to a 2015 GlobalData survey, American men are three-times as likely to consume whiskey ‘several times a week’ than women.

The special-edition, 750ml bottle of Jane Walker will carry a suggested retail of $34 in the US, roughly what Diageo commands for a regular bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. The Scotch whisky inside Jane Walker bottles is the same as that inside Johnnie Walker Black Label bottles despite the different look and branding.

Diageo could be treating this limited-time launch as a trial balloon for a full-time version of Johnnie Walker Black Label for women. The company isn’t saying if this is the case, but the debut of Jane Walker leaves that door open.

The launch also leaves Diageo exposed to criticism that it is patronising, rather than empowering, women. If the goal of #MeToo is to empower women to be treated with the respect same as men, wouldn’t a women-only brand extension send the opposite message?

A risky path to tread?

Gender-specific marketing is becoming a dicey subject for FMCG companies. Just ask PepsiCo. The mere suggestion that a women’s version of its popular Doritos chips may be in the offing recently caused a social media uproar.

In a recent interview with Freakonomics Radio, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi implied that there could be potential for a quieter, less crunchy version of Doritos for those who ‘don’t like to crunch too loudly in public.’ Nooyi implied that women were more likely to value these snack properties than men.

Nooyi elaborated on how snacks for women could be different: “For women, low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavour stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”
The consumer uproar caused by these comments forced PepsiCo to respond, squelching the ‘lady Doritos’ rumours by saying: “We already have Doritos for women – they’re called Doritos, and they’re enjoyed by millions of people every day.”

Will Diageo’s Jane Walker whisky face a similar frosty reception? Diageo’s timing is odd given blurring gender boundaries across many categories. One example is cosmetics where a new generation of YouTube stars has made it fashionable for men to glam up.
GlobalData research finds muted enthusiasm for gender-based appeals in food and beverage.

GlobalData’s Q4 2017 global consumer survey revealed that products advertised for a person’s gender were about one-fifth as appealing as products designed for a person’s dietary requirements. Appeals to gender were seen as less compelling than those based on ethical or religious beliefs, hobbies or social activities, or even age.
Women aged 25-44 had about half the enthusiasm for gender-based advertising as men the same age, a warning sign to FMCG marketers thinking about gender-specific innovation.

Diageo may have been wise to avoid ‘going pink’ with Johnnie Walker, a cloying approach that now defines the month of October in the US as brands jump on the bandwagon to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But the spirits maker may also have its hands full convincing the #MeToo generation that Jane Walker isn’t a patronising reach out to women or a less potent version of Johnnie Walker for women who can’t handle the real thing.

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