I first floated wingman as a brand idea to our marketing team back in January 2015. OK, I admit it, we were at a long marketing team lunch so I was feeling brave. At that point, I wasn’t thinking about wingman’s gender — it was just about someone who’s got your back — but subconsciously I was probably influenced by:
The name – wingMAN
History – a wingman was male and only male
Hollywood – Top Gun’s male wingman, Goose (yes, I lived through the 80’s)
Society – most lead roles and main characters are male
AEC market – most key decision makers are male
Previous Total Synergy campaigns – mostly male characters
Once back in the office, we gave our designer the creative freedom to come up with a wingman concept. The first iteration of wingman landed in our inboxes as an awkward stock photo prototype (pictured). It had potential, but nobody loved it. His visual arrival as a man is what sparked our team’s first discussion around the term wingman and our wingman’s gender.
Interestingly, it was the guys who raised the question — ‘will he alienate the females in our market?’. Our gut instincts told us no, but given the importance of gender equality we continued to challenge male stereotypes.
We decided the term wingman could be applied in good faith to both men and women (recognizing that gender issues are slippery). We liked wingman better than using a new word, like wingwoman. Plus, we didn’t want to replace the word just because women had started to assume this role. Our conclusion was that wingmen can be male or female.
The next question was what gender should our wingman character be? Our designer went back to the drawing board and came up with some female wingmen. We really wanted our market to make an emotional connection with our wingman, even though it was just one representation. Our team liked the female stock photo concepts even less than the original. I also felt like we were trying to make wingman female just because there was a lack of female leads. Bland and tokenistic is not a creative direction we are willing to take.
Luckily for us, our designer is a skilled illustrator. He decided to draw wingman himself. As soon as we saw the illustrated character, we loved him. The entire team really felt a strong emotional connection with him – male and female.
So our wingman character is male because that’s how he naturally arose through our creative process. We understand gendering characters can be controversial, but it came down to audience identification. And now, we can’t imagine our brand without him. But don’t forget our wingman is simply one representation – a wingman, male or female, is simply someone who’s got your back. Maybe we’ll illustrate some more in the future.