BITE Focus

Breaking Strong: Why now is the time for brands to redefine masculinity

Stereotypes in the media and online are fanning the flames of the UK mental health crisis for men under 35 according to new research from UM.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“Please consider using the power of your brand to tell a different story about masculinity.” Presenting the findings of the latest UK by UM research on male stereotypes, the MANdate, in partnership with JOE Media and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), Michael Brown, Group Partner for Insight & Cross-Culture at UM London, shone a light on the real-world harm that the stereotypes surrounding masculinity are causing.

The research revealed that 67% of UK men agree that brands have an important part to play in defining how men should act in society. The event highlighted the fact that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and stereotypes are contributing to a culture of silence in which men feel they cannot ask for help.

Simon Gunning, CEO of CALM, explained: “On average, 13 men take their own life every day in the UK. That is unacceptable. The reasons for suicide are many and complex but it is clear that much more must be done to really understand people’s needs and provide the support and accessible services for those who are struggling.”

Pointing to the research, Gunning warned that despite making significant strides over the past couple of years, there is still a long way to go in removing the stigma surrounding male mental health. Particularly for younger men who are a group known to be at heightened risk. He explained: “It's a decades old issue and it's time we tackle this as a society by giving men permission to seek help. The media must look beyond unhelpful gender norms such as ‘strong’ equating to silent. Simply allowing men to show vulnerability will go a long way to improve the situation.”

Alastair Griffin, Director of Planning at JOE Media, added: “Narrow stereotyping has a hugely negative impact, and the onus is on both brands and publishers to ensure they are working to counter the problem.”

I hope that brands understand that they shouldn’t just reflect society but be pointing to where we need to go.

Simon Gunning

The suffocating impact of performative masculinity

Marvin Sordell, ex-footballer, producer and mental health advocate, explained why it is vital to break free from the stigma which still surrounds performative masculinity. Sharing his own experience as a young Black man who grew up on a council estate in a single parent household, he explained: “Stereotypes aren’t something that are new to me.”

He noted that both in his life and football career, one of his biggest battles was being in an environment in which “people expect you to be tough.” Pointing to a lack of role models, he noted the narrow lens through which being a man is portrayed and understood. Suffering from depression and being on his own mental health journey writing poetry has been key to his own self-expression. “It’s our honesty within ourselves and giving that to the world that makes us strong,” he continued.

Sordell believes that opening up and sharing that very broad range of emotions can really expand on what it means to be a man and help change the narrative. It’s a shift which has the potential to redefine strength and end performative masculinity.

“We need to open their minds and show them they can be themselves and they don’t have to conform to stereotypes,” explains Sordell. He continued: “Masculinity is a performance. Every day you have to be this strong person; a man has to be strong, be a big character. But we need to ask who made those rules.”

Pointing to the mental pressure of the pandemic, he urged the audience to be conscious and careful of negative stereotypes and reimagine what strength really stands for. As Sordell noted: “It is a title that is placed upon us with expectations. Masculinity is much more broad than being a strong person or a tough person.”

Change the narrative

The author and journalist Poorna Bell urged the advertising industry to shift the narrative and challenge one dimensional and stereotyped narratives. She explained: “When it comes to advertising what I want to see is a real complexity of thought. It's about more than just showing a man doing the washing up. I think we have moved on and we need to embrace that intersectionality.”

Sharing her own experience of her husband Rob taking his own life, Bell noted that the whole concept of strength is really problematic. She explained: “So much is sacrificed at this altar of strong from your ability to cry, to protecting your own mental health.”

Essentially, she believes this contributes to a “numbing out” of who and what a human being really is, a one-dimensional view which then becomes a proxy for what masculinity should be. “This is a conversation that we need to be having. It is already light years ahead from five to six years ago but there is still more to do,” she added.

Brands need to do more than just reflect stereotypes

Enyi Nwosu, Chief Strategy Officer at UM UK, noted that the media has the power to make a huge difference when it comes to addressing negative stereotypes. It’s a change that he believes begins with giving access to a much wider range of people and role models. This diversity of approach has been spearheaded by Teen Vogue, something which Nwosu underlined is not just a shift for social media brands, but for the entire media ecosystem.

“Men don’t feel well represented. My belief is that we still have too many one-dimensional views of men. We are complex and multi-dimensional,” he explained. Pointing to the research he noted that men want to be seen as more compassionate and brands need to be much more cognisant of how men are depicted. “It's not about leadership and strength, it’s about being a competent father. We need to be much more outward facing in how we communicate and the role models that we show,” he added.

Nwosu urged the audience to challenge the conflation of stoicism and strength and recognise that the concept of masculinity relied on in the past will be challenged and changed in the future.

Brands for change

Amarilis Whitty, PR Director for EMEA at Mattel, shared the positive response the brand received from consumers when they depicted boys playing with dolls in their marketing materials. “We had mums getting in touch saying thank you for making this OK. I would love to see more brands embracing this area and doing more,” she added.

Mattel has undertaken research with Cardiff University to show the ways in which doll play helps children improve their social skills. She explained: “That piece of work has really led us to want to continue to expand on the importance of playing with dolls to express their social skills which is something really powerful. Imagine if we could all show emotion from an early age.”

Whitty is clear on the role for brands in breaking stereotypes. She explained: “We all have a responsibility and the opportunity to be a force for good. We have the honour and privilege of entering children’s lives.”

According to Whitty, diversity is a key part both of the brand positioning and the product offering. This progressive approach is also clearly good for business; Barbie in a wheelchair is one of the bestselling Barbies in the UK.

“If you are able to offer diversity and consumers identify with it, it is very powerful,” she explained noting that, “that element of un-stereotyping and inclusion is really important. We continue to challenge ourselves and push those barriers as the world progresses.”

CALM’s Gunning highlighted that there are many expectations surrounding masculinity, expectations and assumptions that no one signed up for. “I hope that brands understand that they shouldn’t just reflect society, but be pointing to where we need to go,” he said.

We wouldn't be having this mental health conversation without this pandemic, and brands can play a positive role in that.

Amarilis Whitty

An honest conversation about culture

In the midst of the growing mental health crisis, the ‘second pandemic’ shadowing the coronavirus crisis, the event underlined the role for leadership in stepping up and creating change.

Rachel Forde, CEO of UM London, outlined that “there has never been a more pressing moment to support our staff and consider how we can make a positive impact.”

CALM’s Gunning pointed to the role of leadership in walking the walk when it comes to mental health. Highlighting the progressive leadership of Xav Rees, CEO of Havas London, he noted that it is vital to lead with openness and honesty, particularly when it comes to talking about mental health. “I’ve worked in agencies where it's written into the wall in metal, but it's really easy to talk about stuff, to put it in a PowerPoint presentation. But you change culture by leading with demonstrable change,” he explains. He said that setting that tone at the top and following through with action is vital.

Mattel’s Whitty added that the pandemic is sparking a new conversation about mental health across businesses. She explained: “We wouldn't be having this mental health conversation without this pandemic, and brands can play a positive role in that.”

At a time when it is increasingly clear that stereotypes are just as suffocating for businesses as broader society, the need for brands to step-up and change the narrative couldn’t be clearer.