Toxic masculinity is bad for everybody – particularly men. It’s also not great for your marketing. If you’re defining your buyer personas using unfair stereotypes, you’re probably not really understanding what makes your customers tick. It’s a really common problem in the world of B2B marketing and something that’s been bothering us a while here at Cameo Digital.
In this post, I want to give some examples of where stereotypes associated with toxic masculinity might creep into your marketing, and how to remove them and start seeing your personas (of all genders) as fully-rounded people instead.
What is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity is the collection of stereotypes defining how a “real man” should behave, over and above just identifying as one. For example, there are perceptions that men are relentlessly rational, that they should never feel emotion (except maybe anger), or that they don’t need empathy or human connection. Anybody who doesn’t fit within this limited view of how a man should behave is considered, weak, lesser, or even feminine!
There’s a growing level of understanding in society and the workplace that these sorts of tropes are actually dangerous and that requiring men to be unfeeling robots is not only extremely unhealthy but a big contributor towards higher male suicide rates.
It’s encouraging to see that the digital and creative spaces tend to be pretty open to challenging these damaging “manly man” stereotypes. We’re happy to talk about how it’s okay to be insecure, or to make mistakes, or to feel your feelings rather than pushing them down. Most of us are even able to acknowledge that this isn’t something that only applies to women and that a man who feels imposter syndrome or who needs a mental health day isn’t being “unmanly”.
The trope of “the businessman”
It’s been nagging at me for a while that although as marketers we’re getting better at challenging behavioural stereotypes like these in our own industry, we don’t always apply the same thinking to our customers.
Even as persona marketing helps us take a step back and get a more rounded understanding of the people we’re talking to, there’s a tendency to stereotype B2B buyers – particularly if they’re male personas, and particularly if they’re at C-Level – as “businessmen”, with behaviours typical of the stereotypes that make toxic masculinity so damaging.
It seems like even though we’re getting better at spotting negative stereotypes of “men” when they’re our employees or friends, we still struggle when they’re “businessmen” i.e. potential buyers or clients.
I’ve had a few discussions along these lines recently. That CFO? He only cares about your day rate, and has precisely zero personality. That Head of Marketing? No matter how much he likes working with you, if you can’t measure your ROI to seven decimal places, he’ll throw you to the kerb. The CEO? You’d better hope you never put a foot wrong, because he once fired somebody for missing an apostrophe on a Post-It Note.
Interestingly, I don’t see anywhere near the same level of stereotyping when talking to clients about a female persona. Women in B2B are allowed to care about things other than money and to be swayed by things like communication, trust and a positive working relationship. They’re also much more frequently attributed feelings like insecurity or lack of confidence, in a way that male personas aren’t.
That being said, I have seen the “businessman” stereotype applied to women in business in much the same way as men, and this can just as easily lead you down the wrong path when understanding how best to speak to your personas.
Are your B2B marketing personas toxic? Four things to check.
Boys will be boys, and buyers will be buyers. But shouldn’t we expect a little more of our male personas?
Toxic masculinity stereotypes can put you on the wrong path when it comes to understanding what makes your buyers tick, and that’s bound to feed into your marketing activities.
Here are a few “businessman” tropes that might be limiting your understanding of your personas, male or female.
Are you relying too much on any of these?
Toxic Stereotype #1: Businessmen only care about ROI.
B2B buyers are relentlessly logical. They make decisions on hard-and-fast metrics, and only care about results.
Sure, the financials are important. But B2B buyers are human beings. They’re also all B2C buyers in their own lives, and I challenge you to find a single individual on this planet who’s never made an irrational purchase decision.
While there are some purchasing processes which literally are a point-by-point scoring system, they’re still unlikely to be 100% rational. People very rarely buy based on a carefully-considered list of factors weighted to determine the best value for money – even if they swear blind that they do.
Of course your buyers care about how much they’re spending, and what they’ll get in return. But, what else?
The thing that really sets your business apart is your ability to understand the less tangible qualities that appeal to your buyers. Those are the things they’ll make their decision on, before using numbers to justify that decision.
Don’t assume your buyers are walking calculators, even the (middle-aged, male) FD. Everybody uses both rational and irrational factors to make decisions. If that’s not true, how does FIFA sell so many copies despite being pretty much identical to last year’s game?
Toxic Stereotype #2: Businessmen don’t tolerate disrespect.
Senior businesspeople have their opinions and that’s that. You should never challenge them or make mistakes, or you’ll make them angry.
This is a common trope for CEO’s or other top dog personas. The idea that the CEO is unchallengeable, and that the only way to impress them is to give them exactly what they’re expecting.
Now this isn’t to say that first impressions or good manners don’t matter, or to apologise for the minority of clients who genuinely are unpleasant and abusive. However, assuming that somebody is just an ogre, and that your only job is to avoid upsetting them so you can get on with your work with their team, can cause you to underestimate senior personas.
It’s vital to try and get a deeper impression of your buyer than “everything must be perfect or he’ll kick off” – sure, he might be a stickler with some entrenched opinions, but his range of internal emotions will not be limited to “neutral” or “furious”.
When developing this persona, try to get past any angry responses and figure out what’s really important to him.
What’s he so worried about that makes him feel he has to respond that way and is there something you can do to help with that? You might find that it’s possible to win his support not because you only show him things he already understands, but because you’re able to seamlessly explain technical concepts for him in a way that didn’t make him feel embarrassed in front of his team.
Assuming your buyer only has two modes – neutral and angry – discourages you from trying more creative, interesting approaches. Try not to stereotype your buyers as emotionally shallow, and don’t assume that as long as they don’t get angry, you’ve won.
Toxic Stereotype #3: Businessmen treat the pitch process as direct competition.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and the competition is the enemy. You need to mirror their tactics and then go one better, because your buyers will compare you directly against them, point-by-point.
Again, there are plenty of professionals out there who claim (and probably genuinely believe) that they choose suppliers by carefully listing up all the features they want, then using a point-by-point comparison and scoring system to find the option that ticks the most boxes.
Quite apart from the fact that they almost certainly don’t make decisions based like this (even if they do fill in the ticky-boxes), assuming your buyers’ thought processes are that blinkered is dangerous territory as a marketer.
If you start from the assumption that you need to match or beat every one of your competitor’s features, you’re acccepting that your competitor’s approach is best. You’re also assuming that your buyer isn’t capable of considering possibilities outside of that list. Instead of writing off your buyer’s ability to consider new ideas and approaches, is it not better to properly understand their motivations for needing such a structured process?
Sometimes the best way to beat the competition is to find your own space entirely. Instead of working to the mark scheme, look at what your buyers are really interested in, what’s driven them to draw up their feature-list, and how you can get beyond that to appeal to your buyers on a deeper level.
Toxic Stereotype #4: If I do everything right, they’ll buy from me. If they don’t, I must be wrong.
Businessmen are logical, and every decision they make is fully reasoned. If they don’t choose me, I’ve clearly done something wrong, and I need to change.
This trope isn’t as much one which affects our buyers as our own wellbeing as marketers. The stereotype of the businessman as relentlessly logical can lead us to question our own abilities if those businessmen don’t choose us.
If you stereotype your persona as somebody who only ever makes decisions based on data and reason, that only leaves you one answer if they choose not to work with you – you must be at fault. This can lead you to rip up your approach, believing you’re the one who’s wrong when in fact, all that happened is that the person you’ve been pitching to made an ordinary, human, irrational decision, not some Spock-level value calculation.
It’s even worse when requesting feedback, because your buyer is probably also fully convinced that they’re rational, and will make up some feedback to prove to themselves that the based their decision in logic, even if this wasn’t the case.
It’s vital to understand that not all feedback needs to be acted upon, because not all decisions are the right ones – if you genuinely believe your prospect has made a bad decision, they just might have done.
If you don’t win, remember that this isn’t always a reflection on you. Buyers are irrational and sometimes they’ll make a decision on factors you have no control over. If this happens, don’t automatically question the very foundations of your being – you may well not be doing anything wrong.
Buyers aren’t “businessmen” – even if they’re men in business.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that it can be easy to underestimate your buyers (or sometimes, overestimate them!). Whether male or female, everybody is just a human being doing a job – there is no magical “businessman” status which turns people from thinking, feeling, confused and scatty human beings into featureless ROI-calculating automatons.
Treat your buyers like people.
Try to understand what they’re scared of or insecure about, what they hope for and what they need from you. Also, understand that they’re probably just as caught up in the toxic “businessman” trope as everybody else (particularly if they’re an older man) and that this could well make it difficult for them to acknowledge the emotional components of their own decision making.
When your buyers themselves feel they have to live up to the impossible standards set out by toxic masculinity, this could mean you have to work around that. You might still need to go through the motions of tick-boxes and ROI projections to help them feel comfortable in their choice, even if it’s just to let them cling to the notion that they chose you for “businessman” reasons.
If your personas are feeling a bit… impersonal, we might be able to help. Contact us for a chat.