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Gender equality? Not in business branding

Ruby Receptionist employees on Secretary's Day. Ruby Receptionist employees on Secretary's Day.
Ruby Receptionist employees on Secretary's Day. Ruby Secretaries

Just past the lobby of Portland, Ore.-based Ruby Receptionists, a virtual phone answering service, there’s a short hallway dotted with handcrafted butterflies of all colors and sizes. Jill Nelson, the company’s founder and CEO, says these paper-crafted arthropods represent each member of the 190-person staff, and every one has their makers’ professional hopes and dreams written on its wings. It is, she admits, a little girly.

The company’s corporate brand also has feminine flair—a calculated risk that has paid off in droves. Founded in 2003 as Work Source, Inc., the company caught a second wind with a 2005 rebranding. Weeks after the Ruby Receptionists moniker debuted, their month-over-month customer acquisitions numbers doubled, and the firm has grown at a steady clip ever since. Last year they pulled in $11.3 million in revenue, more than double its 2011 haul.

But in a modern era, when receptionists, stewardesses, and maids have given way to administrate assistants, flight attendants, and house cleaners, is it smart to give gender-neutral services outdated—and arguably sexist—branding?

Absolutely, says brand strategist Catherine Kaputa, author of several books including Women Who Brand. “Men don’t leave their aptitudes at home when they go to work, and neither should women,” she says. “You always want to capitalize on what your strengths and interests are—and that’s what brands try to do.”

For example, Kaputa points to the many studies that have measured women’s strengths in empathy, emotional intelligence, verbal dexterity, listening and relationship building. As it turns out, she says, “good receptionists have female traits.”

Nelson learned this first-hand as she watched her teams forge relationships with clients and their customers, even though they were only connected by a phone line. It was the kind of service that harkened back to receptionists of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, which inspired the new company name.

Of course this kind of branding is not new, though typically it’s used to market to a particular demographic. For instance, Axe brand (UN) hygiene products chase after young men, while Secret is a deodorant that’s clearly aimed at women.

But in the case of services with no clear target audience, brands are now erring on the side of women. Doubt it? Just ask Siri (APPL), Google Now (GOOG), Cortana (MSFT), or even Samsung’s (KRX) S Voice. These virtual computerized assistants are all female (by default), and considering the amount of painstaking deliberation that goes into every detail of these smartphones’ development, its doubtful they came to these voices casually.

Instead, the voices echo a trend of companies softening their branding. Connie Birdsall, creative director with New York City-based branding firm Lippincott, says her firm has been moving companies from institutional-looking identities to more human, approachable, and empathetic branding for years. In 2010, she transitioned Meredith Corporation away from a long-held, masculine, hard-edged logo toward a lighter, colorful new look and feel. Ironically, though the company operates a collection of women’s interest magazines, it was named after its founder, Edwin T. Meredith.

“The types of things that we would be doing to modernize these male icons, if you will, is to soften and humanize their presentation,” says Birdsall. That includes lightening typefaces, employing more colors, and using symbols that people can relate to, rather than things that are abstract or cold.

Likewise, Birdsall’s process also describes the change Ruby Receptionists experienced in shedding its former, more formal skin. And in addition to an improved bottom line, the new identity helped the company define its distinct culture and ways of conducting business. For instance, a tour of their headquarters only turned up a handful of male workers, though Nelson says their receptionists are 20 percent men — the reason, she says, is many more women apply to work there.

Perhaps that is because their operations have long taken a decidedly female tone, from their proprietary spelling alphabet (A as in Absolutely, G as in Giggle, K as in Kitten) to their practice of sending care packages with herbal tea to clients who are under the weather.

But this way of business was already in place before the more personable name. “Ruby just really translated that into a brand,” says Nelson. “It communicated what we were about so beautifully.”