BITE Focus

Masculinity in crisis

The stereotypes which surround masculinity have long been out of touch with the real lived experiences of men, as Fernando Desouches, Managing Director of New Macho at BBD Perfect Storm explored at BITE LIVE 2020.


From the Marlboro man in advertising to the Mondeo man in politics, stereotypes which surround masculinity have long been out of touch with the real lived experiences of men. These stereotypes are demeaning to the individuals and potentially distracting for brands, attempting to sell an ideal, an aspiration that has long been disconnected from the lived experiences of their audience.

Because if brands rely on outdated stereotypes of masculinity, they risk alienating the very consumers they are seeking to connect with. This was why New Macho was set up; to help brands grow through embracing a new narrative around masculinity. To identify what consumers actually want to see from the brands they buy from.

New Macho was set up by Fernando Desouches who is the group’s Managing Director. It was designed to be the male expertise division within BBD Perfect Storm. The core principle at the heart of the division is that, for too long, men have been performing their masculinity rather than living it. This reality means that many brands have been part of the problem, rather than the solution. This is where New Macho is determined to make a difference.

We cannot have men that are performing to either old stereotypes or new stereotypes…We cannot go from one box to another box.

Fernando Desouches

An accelerator for change

Desouches joined Nicola Kemp, Creativebrief’s Editorial Director for a conversation to address the crisis in masculinity as part of BITE LIVE 2020. He opened by highlighting that he feels coronavirus has been, “an accelerator and an enabler of changes that were already happening in the world.” These changes he believes, while partially stemming from the digital age, are also based on the “disruption of needs.” He explains: “consumers have new wants, new needs and new expectations and motivations.”

What has become more apparent, says Desouches, is that adaptability is key to survival: “What we are seeing is we need men that are capable to adapt. We cannot have men that are performing to either old stereotypes or new stereotypes…We cannot go from one box to another box.”

He believes that brands need to broaden their representation, moving away from typifying men and instead equipping them with the adaptation needed to, “face and forge the future we need,” as Desouches explains. The world in which we are living looks different as each day passes; reference points are lost as we face “unknown unknowns,” as Desouches puts it.

But he is hopeful, seeing this time as “an amazing moment for society, an amazing moment for brands where we are seeing a huge transformation in everything we do.” But this transformation has to be embraced at speed, under the pressures of time, with one eye looking, “into the future than into the past,” as Desouches spends his career doing.

Don’t replace one stereotype with another

Desouches’ career history saw him working at the Axe/Lynx brand during its transformation, as the team there uncovered the insight that men were performing who they were rather than being who they are. Kemp highlighted that this idea of performative masculinity is interesting in the context of the pressure facing men, and women, within this crisis.

Desouches acknowledges that it was this insight around performance, discovered in a survey conducted across ten countries with 3,500 men, that stood out to him. “Men are conditioned by society since they are very young to behave in a certain way,” he explains, whether that’s the idea of, don’t cry, man up. And this conditioning continues as boys become men. “We are seeing how much this is constraining society, men and women as well,” he adds.

“Why are men continuing that performance?” was the question Desouches wanted to explore through the New Macho division. So, they conducted another survey across the UK and US and discovered that, “the strong beliefs that are conditioning men…all of them were stronger in men than women.”

“I am convinced that the world needs more femininity,” says Desouches. But, he explains, there can be no balance between feminine and masculine unless the pressures heaped upon men are relaxed. Unless they have the freedom to live not perform.

Brands shouldn’t tell men how they need to behave.

Fernando Desouches

Setting new aspirational goals

Ultimately, Desouches believes it comes down to releasing the pressure by shifting behaviour, something he acknowledges is uniquely difficult to do. This changing of a belief system is what he says, “we define as a transformational change.” And this is where he thinks brands can come in: “because by brands setting aspirations and changing aspirations and making [men] more relaxed, can help men to reconnect with who they are.”

For years, the aspirations being sold by brands have been in accordance with years, centuries even of societal stereotypes. Physically fit, always in control, emotionless and distant. “All of these values were putting pressure on men who were trying to aspire to that,” say Desouches. But the reality is that, he adds, “if we only have that narrow view then it will be difficult for men to stop performing.”

Fundamentally, as Kemp highlights, who actually decides whether something is aspirational or not? She likens it to the women’s market in which women’s magazines were actually presenting a version of reality that wasn’t aspirational; it was alienating. “It is a suffocating version of what constitutes success and one that’s still very pervasive,” says Kemp. Because seemingly as aspirations have shifted societally, this hasn’t been reflected by brands.

“My hypotheses and the hypotheses of New Macho is the pressure men are facing from these standards of success are the same that women face with the standards of beauty,” says Desouches, agreeing with Kemp. “I think brands are being lazy,” Desouches adds as he highlights that data that makes it clear that men do not connect with the standards being offered by brands; 69% of the UK don’t feel represented by the brands here and 75% of US men don’t feel represented by brands. “So, there is something that is not working,” he adds.

What should brands do?

Fundamentally, Desouches believes there are several ways brands can help in this moment. And the first, he says, is that “brands can help men to understand the journey they are under. Because men are on a journey from being a performer to really being who they are.” He points out that this isn’t an immediate or easy process and so, where brands can help, he believes they should.

He points to an ad from Macallan whiskey called ‘Make the Call’ that he feels relayed that shift perfectly, “because they show how it’s the transformation and the pain of changing behaviours and changing beliefs. But [also how] they pay off as well.”

The other thing he thinks brands should be doing is moving away from a one-dimensional definition of success and opening it up to include other attributes, particularly that of self-awareness and of where men draw their happiness from. But he cautions that, “brands shouldn’t tell men how they need to behave.” He points out that this is where the Gillette ad, ‘The Best Men Can Be’, fell short. He explains that the brand, “tried to have a statement of masculinity and tell how men should behave or not. And that is not the role of brands. Brands can help men to navigate life.”

His last piece of advice to brands looking to play a part in overcoming this crisis is to be as representative in their marketing as the world that exists outside of the company’s four walls. This will in turn help the brand to avoid limiting its audience by stereotyping it. He explains: “It’s about men in all of the forms we have. Body shapes, life stage, different abilities, race, religion. Don’t make a statement. Show that and that will make men feel included and represented by brands.”

We are called now to redesign the world. We need to redesign…and focus on where the exponential opportunities are.

Fernando Desouches

The push for progress

Desouches is one to look at the bigger picture, explaining that he prefers to set his gaze on the future rather than the past. “We are [seeing] a huge disruption in consumer needs and wants and that is a huge opportunity for many brands, and we need to see that holistically,” he explains.

Indeed, it is an exciting time for the brands who have seized upon this opportunity as Desouches highlights. Uber moves more people around the world than anyone else but doesn’t own any cars; Airbnb rents more rooms than any hotel in the world; and Tesla is the world’s biggest car company and only owns 0.05% of the market.

“Those things are telling you that the people who are looking at the future and understand…all of the changes that are happening to consumers, are the winners,” he says. This is his goal with the work he is undertaking, to fix his sights on the insights from the future rather than focusing on data that relays information about the past.

His advice? “Don’t do it from your desk. Go for a walk and take distance. We are called now to redesign the world. We need to redesign…and focus on where the exponential opportunities are.” A call to brands and businesses alike to redefine the parameters in which masculinity has been captured for years and help men to live their lives, not perform them.


Fernando Desouches was speaking at BITE LIVE 2020. To watch the full conversation, visit the dedicated event page, Masculinity in crisis