The dubious rise of the Energy Man

AN advert on the Tube recently caught my eye. It was for an energy drink with two versions: a his and hers. His was called Wellman; her’s Wellwoman. The Boots logo on the bottom told me that this is a humdrum, mainstream product.

The ad was striking for one big reason: its extremely traditional idea of “man” and “woman”. His was blue, hers pink. I was surprised that in 2011, basic branding had not moved beyond this old, much-criticised colour scheme.

But the advert’s ideas about gender went deeper and further back in time than blue and pink. They had to do with energy: the masculine instrumental versus the female passive. In big bold lettering, Wellman’s catchline was: “High Performance Drink”. Wellwoman, by contrast, was described simply as “low calorie drink”, in a sickly pink. Wellman High Performance encouraged men to “maintain optimum performance” through a range of natural stimulants that are “specially for men with hectic lifestyles”. Wellwoman promised only to “help maintain health and vitality” – no optimum performance for us, nor hectic lifestyles. But Wellwoman’s biggest promise is delivered in the bold lettering at the end of the blurb: “Only 13 calories per can.” If we aren’t destined to perform optimally, at least we can be slim.

A few days later I walked into the sushi chain Itsu to once again be bowled over by an energy drink. Tucked in next to the fruit salad pots and salmon sashimi was a white can with the word “Pussy” scrawled across. I commented on this to my server, but he just shrugged – I got the feeling he’d had a few surprised women take their surprise out on him and didn’t want to go there.

Pussy, first launched in 2004 but only widely available since this October, has created a stir, as planned. Stick a word like this on a can and you’ve got your marketing strategy sorted – although to whom such a product is targeted is less clear. The “vision” of one Jonnie Shearer, who dreamt it up in his bedroom at 21, Pussy’s coolly shocking, crudely simplistic branding would suggest that it is geared towards men, indeed to a hyper-masculine market, albeit a less wholesome one than Wellman’s.

On the other hand, the tin is pink, black and white – a feminine look. It’s odd, though, to think Pussy would appeal to women – it seems more a joke at women’s expense, rather than a drink for us. Be this as it may, the branding has worked: whereas before, Pussy was only available in nightclubs, you can now find it in Tesco via a strange partnership with Cancer Research (the label is partially blacked out “in selected stores”), Selfridges and Itsu’s 35 shops. Better yet, you can now drink Pussy on Virgin trains.

I returned to my desk after the Pussy surprise to find a press release informing me of “the launch of the UK’s first lad’s granola”, soon to hit Tesco. An ex-businessman from Dorset called Barney Mauleverer and an ex-tank commander called Alex Matheson, had spotted a hole in the market for masculine cereal and gone hell for leather, calling it FUEL and decking its box with silhouettes of men in various poses of hyper-activity, power and strength.

Again, I was rudely confronted by the uncomfortable branding truism that when it comes to men, activity, ambition, independence and power are the chief associations, whereas for women in the same sector they’re mainly weight-loss, beauty and digestion troubles. The box rages with masculine energy and achievement: Fuel’s tagline is “One Life – Live It”. The font has a military-style chunkiness to it. The packet zings with phrases like “Pocket rocket fuel” (this above a rather modest suggestion that men put some granola in a sandwich bag to nibble on throughout the day). “Fuel your day” and “Feeling adventurous? Try this at home” are also writ large. If a cereal can rankle a woman, this one will do it.

But Mauleverer – who was spurred to action by men friends complaining that there was nothing sufficiently hunky or chunky for them in the cereal aisle – may have located a significant sensitivity. Ben, a sports writer, says: “A lad’s granola sounds preposterous, but maybe it does tap into something real. There isn’t much for men in the cereal aisle, and maybe men do feel a little emasculated by what’s there, and if I can be so bold, what’s going on in the world in general. The promise of action and power is deeply appealing, especially now.”

Tim, a banker, appreciates the heavily macho packaging and its promises of achievement: “Generally, cereals are for kids, women and old people. I don’t know any manly cereals. FUEL definitely sounds more manly.”

Mauleverer certainly doesn’t sound like a macho man on the phone; he’s got a soft voice and speaks thoughtfully. “We definitely don’t want to alienate females,” he says. But after having done market research, Mauleverer found that males between 17 and 44 seemed to be trading bowls of cereral for more on-the-go options. This is a drive to get them back, but also to appeal to office workers who dream of escape: “I have a number of friends stuck in high-pressure jobs, who would far rather go off to the Amazon, and FUEL is meant to speak to them,” he says.

My only gripe, then, is that nobody (bar certain tampon companies) thinks activity, physical escape, drive and individualism are traits worth marketing to women, even today. Kimberley Kriss, who works for Interbrand, a brand consultancy, traces the power of hyper-polarised gender marketing back to basics. “Growing up, what games do boys play? Cops and robbers, war, superhero, saving the world etc – it’s all very competitive, all about power. Whereas what do girls play? House, school, it’s all about helping people. Nobody’s dying, there’s no power struggle. Products like energy drinks or cereals capitalise on this, and gender marketing becomes very black and white. And brands know that know selling ambition and power to men and things like time-saving and health benefits to women works.”

However depressing the brandscape for women, it’s worth remembering that in tough economic times, marketing becomes conservative, almost behind-the-times and not necessarily representative. “There’s cyclical process at play,” says Kriss. “What’s old becomes new again.” That may be, but when it comes to ideas of gender – whether in workplaces or on drinks tins and granola boxes – we badly need new thinking to triumph.