When Birchbox added a box for men in 2012, it was viewed as a step toward making the brand more inclusive. Six years later, the New York City-based subscription box startup is going even further in the name of inclusion: It's ditching genders altogether.

The nine-year-old company announced in a recent blog post that it would rebrand its "BirchboxMan" box as "Birchbox Grooming," starting in June, which also happens to be Pride Month in the U.S. The effort is aimed at making the brand more inclusive to customers who are gender fluid or gender nonconforming. The Grooming box will contain genderless items like shaving creams, hair-care gear, and similar products. Birchbox's Beauty box, meanwhile, will continue to carry makeup, fragrance samples, and the like.

"At Birchbox, we're thinking about this in terms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age and disability, and how we can be more inclusive across our merchandising, marketing, content, and internally as an employer," says Amanda Tolleson, the company's chief customer officer. 

Birchbox, which was founded in 2010 by Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, is just the latest startup ditching genders in its branding and product packaging. Last summer, the New York City-based clothing brand Bonobos launched a campaign to redefine masculinity to be more inclusive on a variety of factors, including gender identity. And back in 2016, the NYC menstral underwear brand Thinx--famous for courting controversy with its ads--included a trans man model in a series of ads. Even giant companies like H&M have gotten on board. The fast-fashion retailer launched a genderless line that was made available at the start of this year.

"Gender inclusivity is very important, as is understanding small nuances to make people feel more comfortable in shopping experiences," says Christina Zervanos, head of PR at The Phluid Project, a gender-free retail space online and in New York City. "There's a market. While it may be foreign to you, [these] consumers deserve to feel understood."

And though it's notable that legacy companies are making the switch, plenty of startups are sprouting as gender neutral from the start. Take for example, NYC-based makeup brand Fluid and Seattle-based gender neutral underwear startup TomboyX. Also, Primary, an online childrens' clothing retailer in New York City, has pitched non-gendered clothing from the start, although it adopted "kids" and "baby" sections in lieu of "girls" and "boys" categories on its website a year or so after founding.

Of course, the effort may wind up turning some customers away. For starters, Birchbox's male customers might like the box of old and may not be keen on the changes. And while any possible customer losses may well be recovered by added customers, the internet is littered with horror stories of customer backlash. In 2016, for instance, customers boycotted Target when the company attempted to make its bathrooms non-gendered. Plus, companies could risk becoming a focal point for outrage. Business coach Joel Klien told Inc. last April that the risk may be too great for small businesses in particular, as they often don't have legal, PR, and financial resources to deal with backlash.  

On balance, Zervanos only sees the upside for Birchbox. In addition to the rebrand, she says, "It's also a reflection of [the company's] internal infrastructure." As noted in the company's blog post, the rebranding effort mirrors the company's own diversity goals. It all ties together, says Birchbox's Tolleson. "We believe it's important for all brands to focus on how they stay relevant in a modern world," she says, acknowledging that what works for Birchbox may not work for every company. "The answer will be different for different brands. It's dependent on your audience and your industry." 

Published on: May 30, 2019