November 11, 2021
Traditional male-centric brand messaging is often reductive, failing to capture the multifaceted nature of masculine identities. This complicated topic has painted an unfair image of men in recent years, most notably men in the Heartland.
So, we asked ourselves: What is the current state of masculinity in the U.S., and does it vary by location?
Our research arm, BL INTEL, conducted primary research that analyzed 1,000 responses from urban and non-urban men and women with the goal of understanding where the idea of masculinity stands today. For this study, we defined our urban audiences as those who live in cities and suburbs with over a million people; non-urban people were defined as those living anywhere with less than a million residents.
Toxic masculinity often makes headlines, and the stereotype involves trucks, guns, and an outdated idea of a “macho man.” While this idea trends negative and the country usually points its finger at Middle America as the source, we found it’s just not that simple.
The following unpacks our research with insights for brands that may be subscribing to an all-too-simplified story about what makes men tick. As you’ll see, the definition of toxic masculinity is not as simplistic as it may seem.
Compared to men in major cities, non-urban men feel substantially less pressure to appear outwardly “manly.” Non-urban men, like those in Middle America, are 39% less likely to say that appearing masculine is important.
Urban men feel greater pressure to fit the mold of a stereotypical “American man,” and that pressure is so great that it has a negative impact on their life, according to our research. Urban men are 36% more likely to say their local area places pressure on men in a negative way.
This finding flips the idea that men in Middle America seek visible ways to prove their masculinity and challenges the simplistic idea that non-urban men subscribe to less progressive ways of thinking. Keeping this in mind, brands should be flexible and realize one size does not fit all. Imagery and language that may appeal to Middle American men may not resonate with urban men, and vice versa. Advertisers need to tailor brand messaging based on their target audience, creating varied and nuanced communications that can appeal to different core audiences.
The majority of our research illustrated stark differences between urban and non-urban men, but it found similarities when it comes to positive traits. Regardless of geographic location, the traits valued most in a man rang true across both groups: “honest/moral,” “loyal/dependable” and “hard-working/good work ethic” were selected by both groups, in that order. Interestingly enough, when we asked women the same question, their answers matched those of their male counterparts.
The outward expression of these traits, however, varied between groups. Men in urban locations were more likely to place importance on traits that emphasize status and physical appearance, such as “attractive,” “professional,” “intelligent” and “ambitious.” Middle American men put more focus on value-focused traits like “hard-working,” “strong” and “handy.”
For brands trying to reach non-urban male groups, focusing on longstanding values and wholesome appeal will play stronger than messaging that relies on overtly masculine tropes or aspirational ideals.
We wondered: has the classic definition of masculinity changed?
Without doubt. Not only is the perception wide-ranging, but it is ever-evolving, and the past few years have forced immense change on the massive segment of cis men.
But our research showed the descriptors of classic “masculine” brands remain constant, and both urban and non-urban groups describe masculine brands as: “rugged,” “traditional,” “practical” and “stern” at similar rates.
Urban audiences tend to use status-driven descriptors at a higher rate than those in Middle America. Urban men use more descriptors like “profit-oriented,” “complex” and “innovative” to describe brands that are perceived as masculine.
The definition of masculinity will continue to take new shape, especially in our ever-expanding digital world. Brands can help to break the outdated misconception of a singular “masculine” identity by better recognizing the range of what defines manhood across the country.
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