• March 17, 2011
  • By Koa Beck, Editorial Assistant, CRM magazine

The Feminine Marketing Mystique

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How well does your organization market to women? If your company is like most, the answer is disappointing, as experts agree that many organizations fall woefully short. Considering women make 85 percent of all household purchases, a massive revenue opportunity is being lost.

Naturally, there’s good reason to address this marketing problem, but before attempting a solution, marketers must understand how bad the situation truly is. “All the research says that women are not happy with the vast majority of marketing and advertising aimed at them,” says Holly Buchanan, coauthor of The Soccer Mom Myth – Today’s Female Consumer: Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

According to She-conomy.com, 59 percent of women feel misunderstood by food marketers; 66 percent feel misunderstood by health care marketers; 74 percent feel misunderstood by automotive marketers; and 84 percent feel misunderstood by investment marketers. In a separate survey, also by She-conomy.com, 91 percent of women said that they don’t think advertisers understand them.

What’s causing this disconnect between marketers and female consumers? According to experts, it’s not because of a lack of technological capabilities; the problem stems from a limited understanding of this powerful and influential cohort. If your organization needs to better connect with female consumers, read on for some expert advice.

Don’t Generalize

Tami Anderson, accounting director at Grow Marketing, previously held the same position at Athleta and was confronted with women’s distaste for advertising firsthand, both as a professional and as a female consumer. Faced with the “revolutionary” task of speaking to women directly about sports and athletics, Anderson and her colleagues identified the problem immediately: Other companies had segmented active women into strict categories, making sweeping generalizations about their activity level and lifestyle based simply on age. By dropping their consumers into limiting “buckets,” most companies were, in fact, not speaking to women at all.

“We really thought it was important to look at it from that mind-set versus age because age was not really dictating activity,” Anderson says. “You can make a lot of mistakes in talking down to women by assuming, let’s say, that women that are 25 to 45 are mothers, or that a woman who is 60 couldn’t be an amazing mountain biker, or that a woman who is 25 has a high activity level.”

“Bucket marketing” to women permeates companies, most of which are missing the mark regarding the complexity and nuance of women clientele.

“The biggest mistake companies make is to say all women think like this. All women want this. All women will respond to this message,” observes Buchanan. “Inevitably when [companies] think ‘woman,’ they think ‘mom.’”

Anderson recalls an experience in a focus group in which women were presented with ads from Athleta’s catalogue and magazines. Contrary to what one might assume, the women did not respond positively to the ads that depicted children. The women admitted that seeing children in the ad immediately made them consider responsibility—packing the backpack, preparing their own kids for an activity, etc. Those same women responded more positively to a woman running alone with a dog, a picture that depicted freedom, escape, and independence.

“It wasn’t a mother or family space,” Anderson explains. “It was a sports space. It solidified for a lot of us that this is her sacred space, and we need to keep it separate from family for her.”

Anderson says that identifying this critical nuance, continuing to check in with that customer, evolving your thinking as a brand, and highlighting those aspects of a woman’s life are crucial when considering what will elicit a positive response. Assuming that a mother would instantly identify with a depiction of a woman and children speaks to a simplistic outlook. A woman, whether she has children or not, may not want to be studied or accessed strictly through a maternal lens.

“It does become stereotypical, and it doesn’t leave enough space for a woman to raise her hand and identify in her complexity,” says Anderson.

Consider Aesthetics

When appealing to women shoppers, as opposed to their male counterparts, particular common notions do prove to be true, but not without a caveat. The assumption that women care more about aesthetics and the design of a product is absolutely true; a study by BlogHer and Create with Context, titled “Women, the Web, and Their Wallets,” found that 93 percent of participants wanted technology products to be beautiful.

However, 63 percent of those women said that the beauty of a product did not override the product benefits, debunking the idea that if a remote control is dipped in pink, a woman won’t bother to compare the features to those of another device.

Buchanan also found while researching her book that Web site layout matters a lot to women when browsing, because men and women have very different design aesthetics. On her blog, Buchanan writes, “Men’s brains are very compartmentalized. Women’s brains take a more holistic look at their environment.” For that reason, Buchanan recommends that companies use open space and avoid compartmentalizing certain sections or messages. She also advocates using informal language to sound more conversational, bright colors, fonts that appear like handwriting, and curves instead of harsh lines.

Ilana Westerman, principal at Create with Context, and Elisa Camahort Page, cofounder and COO of BlogHer, uncovered similar attitudes in their study. Many women shopped online with a fluidity to their decisions, again reflecting that holistic outlook toward purchasing, the coauthors found. Westerman and Page determined that most woman shoppers have a multitude of concerns regarding aesthetics in multiple scenarios (i.e., how will this look in my home?), design, value, and innovation to which many e-commerce Web sites do not cater. Most present products in fixed categories pertaining to features or price, usually along a rigid sidebar, do not take into account the other priorities that many female shoppers have.

Web sites that seem to do the best with attracting and retaining female shoppers, such as Anthropologie.com, do so by creating narratives with their products. Upon clicking on a dress on Anthropologie.com, the consumer sees the product on a model, which gives women an idea of fit, but also a scenic background, a day and a night look, as well as many potential accessories. All of those elements create a story for women and a context for the product.

That tactic is further evidenced in Web sites, such as Pier 1 Imports, that depict a table or a shelf in a furnished room, rather than standing alone against a white background. Crate&Barrel offers a “Room Ideas” section of its site, with all products available in the larger visual context of a kitchen, living room, or a bedroom. Target.com and Overstock.com also display furniture, lamps, and other home purchases in photographs that present an actual room, giving customers a better idea of scale, size, and simply how the product may look beside alternative colors or styles.

Peer Opinions Weigh Heavily

Buchanan notes that women tend to have a “longer checklist” of important factors when shopping, which explains why Web sites with a healthy selection of reviews fare better among women shoppers. “The copy in the review is talking about things further down the checklist that the actual product review does not cover,” Buchanan points out.

A predilection for peer-to-peer recommendations on products and purchasing goes beyond the company Web site for many women consumers. Westerman and Page also determined in their study that 35 percent of women trust a product review from a blogger more than a user-generated review on a company Web site. Falling shortly behind was a status update from a friend via social media.

According to Quandcast, about 23 million American women are weekly readers of or contributors to blogs, while 16.8 million maintain a consistent presence on message boards and forums.

Coolmompicks.com ranks as one of the most popular sites for mothers combing the Internet for product reviews, recipes, craft ideas, and pretty much anything in between. Operated by Web-savvy mothers, the online magazine consists of a series of informal posts about suggested books, toys, clothes (for mom or child), and activities. The “about” tab conveys relatability, familiarity, and approachability with the very first line: “We’re just a few moms that track down cool stuff so you can stay busy being fabulous.”

Elle Fowler, who is known online as allthatglitters21, has become a national curator for American girls looking to understand makeup techniques using the Internet. Fowler, 22, began creating makeup tutorial videos on YouTube in 2008, walking her young viewers through what products she uses, why she has chosen them, and the best ways to achieve certain looks. Always facing the camera and visibly applying makeup to herself, she narrates the experience to her viewers, inviting them to know her in the process, and giving tangible tips while she teaches.

Fowler’s videos, which draw an average of half a million views, offer hair flat-ironing techniques, her latest makeup purchases, and books she plans to read. Despite Fowler’s popularity, she writes in her YouTube bio that she is not a professional makeup artist, nor does she have any professional training. Fowler is a senior in college pursuing a degree in communications and law.

“This channel is not meant to be anything other than a frivolous place to share beauty secrets and great products,” she writes on her YouTube channel. Although Fowler is clear on the fact that she is not a professional, her videos resonate with her peers—a trend that does not surprise Buchanan.

“Men tend to put more stock in experts...women want to hear from other women like them,” Buchanan says.

Some of the top Web sites that appeal to women have recognized the power of peer-to-peer by making reviews or consumer opinion a predominant part of their site layout.

OWN.com, Oprah Winfrey’s Web site dedicated to the Oprah Winfrey Network, displays a prominent “What Do You Think?” tab alongside “Shows,” “Schedule,” and “Videos,” inviting women to post comments about the network and shows. Mighty Tea Leaf’s Web designer has followed the same tactic, placing a “customer reviews” tab at the top of the home page. (Shoppers also are invited to shop via the “mood” tab, which lists a dropdown menu of moods, such as “wake up,” “energize,” and “happy.”)

Sephora.com has a “beauty advice” speech bubble at the top of its Web site encouraging shoppers to “Get Advice. Give Advice. Join the conversation.” Online consumers are presented with a list of unanswered questions by fellow shoppers, as well as a prominent box to ask their own. The “conversation boards” display other topics for online discussion, such as “Hair,” “Skincare,” and “Fragrance,” along with “Bright Ideas” and “The Lounge.”

Many Web sites that excel in appealing to female consumers also have robust social media displays. Right under OWN’s moving media narratives of show snippets, viewers are encouraged to “Get Social with OWN!” beside a Facebook and Twitter icon. Sephora places its “beauty talk” icon directly beside the standard Facebook and Twitter graphics, and Crate&Barrel’s “Let’s Get Social” menu lists social media options along with “write a review.”

In addition to being more avid readers and writers of product reviews, women are active in social media. According to Quantcast, 42 million American women (about 53 percent of the adult female population) take part weekly in social media. Younger women, Millennials between 18 and 26 years old, represent a large piece of that pie: About 76 percent regularly engage in social media. However, following closely behind are Generation Xers (aged 27–43) at 62 percent, and Baby Boomers (aged 44–62) at 46 percent. Even 30 percent of women aged 63–77 use social media at least twice a week.

According to polls, the top five reasons women use social media are: staying up to date with family and friends, for fun and entertainment, to find like-minded people, to share advice, and to get information. Sites like OWN and Sephora have tapped into all five, encouraging viewers and consumers to chat with one another, swap advice, and connect over social media, all while enjoying products and shows that they already love.

Understand Your Audience

Allowing female customers to connect over those various media illustrates an attention to complexity, acknowledging that a company’s female consumers do not share the same interests, the same problems, or the same answers. Although some companies have chosen to directly address a specific type of woman based on her role as a mother, a career woman, or a daughter, Buchanan warns that this effort to “talk to women” will backfire.

“Women don’t like to be stereotyped,” Buchanan says, echoing Anderson. “They don’t like being put into a certain bucket.” Buchanan recommends constructing Web site narratives intended to appeal to different types of women while allowing the audience to self-select. As an example, she suggests hypothetical work she might do for a financial services company, in which two links are constructed for very different types of women without ever directly identifying them.

“You have a woman who is type A, efficient, and here is the type of copy that will work for her: the four secrets of having the career of your dreams because it’s about achieving goals,” Buchanan explains. “The other type of woman is very methodical and is much more deliberate in decision making—very much a caretaker. She wants to know, ‘How do I avoid risk and prevent problems?’ For her, I would have the four biggest mistakes in retirement planning and how to avoid them.”

Both avenues suggested by Buchanan access a woman’s lifestyle, thinking, and choices without choosing to understand her based on her “bucket.”

“The ideal is to not go to a site and think about it as ‘women-friendly.’ The ideal is just to have a great shopping experience,” Anderson says. “I think a Web site is successful when it doesn’t feel like they are trying to make it women-specific.”

Keeping that in mind, there are three practices that Adam Metz, director of social business at the Pedowitz Group, advises when trying to gain more women readership on the Web: Show multiple use cases, be visual with video, and be anecdotal. Although some Web sites have proved this strategy to be very successful, Buchanan notes that many are still lagging behind, relying on older strategies and tired approaches of a mom in a minivan admiring her children in the back as she checks the radio.

“I applaud their message,” Buchanan says, “but you can’t just take a commercial, throw a mom and kids in it, and say ‘Now, it’s going to appeal to women.’”

Editorial Assistant Koa Beck can be reached at kbeck@destinationCRM.com.

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