Is it Really So Hard? Marketing to Women Right

To ask why marketing to women is hard is of course a rhetorical question. Because, as any woman knows, it’s not. But too often advertisers miss the mark in speaking directly and authentically to a female consumer. In particular, to the ones who hold the purse strings. We are executives, mothers, care-givers, entrepreneurs, homeowners and so on. And we exist in big numbers. According to the ‘Modern Money Matters’ study by Refinery29 and Chase, women are the primary breadwinner in 40% of US households  – that is 50.4 million households (as of 2017, total is 126 million).

Nearly 10 years ago, Harvard Business Review published a comprehensive article entitled ‘The Female Economy. The article, in just the first paragraph, declares that women control $28 trillion in worldwide consumer spending. But, in paragraph two, the piece illustrates how underserved we feel despite this economic gem of a fact. Specifically, women drive: 94% of home furnishings purchases, 91% of home buying decisions, 60% of automobiles purchases and 51% of consumer electronics. And yet how much of this category-specific advertising is marketing to women? Not enough. Adding to our dismay is the the fact that the HBR piece was written 10 years ago. And it’s hard to feel that much has changed since then.

Marketing to Women Gone Wrong – The Bad and The Ugly

Damned if You Do

There have been some epic tales of companies thinking they are cleverly marketing to women but failing spectacularly instead. Usually this entails forgoing a nuanced approach in favor of the stereotype route. Or maybe better said: straight to pink and off the rails. First case-in-point, the Dell launch of project ‘Della’ in 2009. A female-focused website and accompanying product line highlighted ‘cuteness’ over utility (and went downhill from there).

It’s worth reading this fantastic recap of the initiative. Included is the mention of a chirpy statement by Dell on its (now defunct) website saying about the product:

“Once you get beyond how cute they are, you’ll find that netbooks can do a lot more than check your e-mail.”

Or another classic tale is that of the Bic Cristal “For Her” pen. Launched in 2012, the ‘for her’ pen was met with overwhelming distain (but a good bit of hilarity a result). It would be unfortunate that you can still purchase these pens on Amazon if it weren’t for some of the hysterically funny reviews.

Super Unhelpful Features

To be honest it’s not just the marketing and packaging in pink; some products are actually developed with head-scratching sexist features. Thank you to Gizmodo Australia for this 2013 recap of tech companies going full on fem fail. One favorite is the ‘makeup mode’ setting on the Casio Exilim EX-Z330 which allows one to ‘smooth’ their skin in photographs.

Instead of pulling it back, the company has actually expanded the offering.  From the site:

‘The EX-ZR5100 represents a further evolution of the Make-up Mode, with settings for seven levels of Skin Smoothness. Users can also choose from seven types of Skin Tone: Natural, Natural Brightening, Natural Brightening Plus, Brightening, Brightening Plus, Pink, and Pink Plus. Face Brightness and Sculpt can also be set using seven levels, respectively.’

The irony is that we are indeed built differently and sometimes need products that are differentiated to support a female consumer. A 2010 research paper by Danish academics found that the design of technology products is geared toward men. We didn’t need research to tell us something we know as we fumble with our phones, but this fact hasn’t changed much since the research was published almost a decade ago.

The Subtle Fail

If we go back to that Harvard Business Review article and remind ourselves that women make the purchasing decision in 94% of home furnishings and 91% of home buying cases, for instance, you end up scratching your head. It’s not to say that a company shouldn’t give it a go in attracting a different demographic, but knowing those stats would give pause in many cases. Here are some examples:


Probably the most insidious and common are the advertising fails that just simply miss the mark. There are examples everywhere of products that should be targeted to a head-of-household demographic but instead go chasing a millennial. Casper mattresses is a great example. For instance, a quick search online will net you loads of praise for the mattresses brand advertising.

But a tired, stretched, woman looking for a high-quality, simple, money-back-guarantee type of mattress might not see this in these cutesy advertisements.

Business Insider goes as far as saying about Casper:

‘Sales are increasing in a once-sleepy category thanks to social media and cool events’

Now, sure millennials purchase mattresses too, but by focusing more on irreverence and ‘cute’ rather than the core features is a miss. Leaving women householders in the dust is a short-sighted move. Proof? Amazon has launched recently, via its in-house brand Rivet, a foam mattress in the price range of $449 to $624.99. Quite a bit less than Casper’s King mattress with a price tag of $1,195. You do the millennial math.

Food Delivery

Back to millennials – they order food. But so does just about every demographic. And if you are a parent, especially one in an urban metropolis, it’s probably your dirty little secret.

So that is what makes campaigns such as the one Seamless is running in New York City so perplexing. In fairness, the ‘irreverence’ has had criticism from many. But it’s short-sighted; not focused on marketing to women and it seems that UberEats knows this.

Why is This Happening

Men Are in Charge

The best advertisers know their customer intimately. And with a dearth of women in Chief Marketing Offer roles, you know how the story goes. An article by Campaign in 2017, dissecting a report from executive search firm Spencer Stuart and the results weren’t particularly pretty. Just 23% of the nation’s top 100 CMOs were women. And consider this nugget in the Campaign piece:

‘For example, even though a million more American women than men drive cars in the United States, not one of the top three car advertisers has yet placed a woman in the CMO role, and only one has ever hired a non-white CMO’

How many times does it need to be said? If women aren’t in the room, you aren’t going to nail advertising to women. And don’t take our word for it, see Michelle Obama’s comments at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s conference in 2017.

“Who are you marketing to?” Obama said. “Who do you think is going to use these apps? If women aren’t at the table, you’re saying you don’t really care about my dollar. You’re going to miss a lot of what I want because you don’t really know me.”

Tech Has Bred Cutesy Irreverence

Once upon a time, advertising was about real people and it was powerful and meaningful. Then along came the hipster techie set. Now of course, fun, smart-ass advertising can be like a breath of fresh air. But somehow much of consumer tech advertising seems to feel like it must be tongue-in-cheek or have some silly illustration (cue: examples above). But some get it right: Netflix has always gone right to top of its customer hierarchy and spoke to women and families.

How Marketing to Women is Done Right

So what to do? Well, it’s really not that hard, here are a few tips:

Avoid One Size Fits All Agency Approach

There is a tendency to put all of your brand eggs in one big basket. Whether you are a large brand that has conducted a lengthy RFP or a smaller start up who is going with a friend’s recommendation, forget the one-size-fits-all approach to choosing an agency. To conduct authentic campaigns you need experts who intimately understands the landscape (hint: women). If women are a target audience for you, then work on a campaign with a team of women who know the demographic. The approach works well with respect to function too; it’s better to find a digital agency and a PR agency that work well together but have core expertise rather than a firm with a laundry list of what they can do.

A/B Test Advertising

Test, test, test. Even if you are a small brand, you can effectively test messages on different audiences and determine an approach. There are several ways to conduct targeted marketing tests, including a variety of landing page services, that give you the flexibility of testing messages to audiences. You can also A/B test emails and parts of your website. Take the time to talk to your audience in an authentic voice, highlighting the key benefits of your product or service that differentiate you from the competition. Do this right and you will capture a bit of that trillion in consumer spending available to women around the world.

Conduct Focus Groups

Where have all the focus groups gone? Sometimes an over-reliance on focus groups was the achilles heel in advertising of old. And because of the ability of A/B testing online it has been further marginalized. But don’t give up on marketing to women by talking to you customers. If Dell or Bic had really, truly had authentic conversations with women, would they have failed so miserably with their ‘women-focused’ efforts. And don’t fall victim to putting out an idea solely to Facebook or the Twitter-verse. You will get your answers form assembling a group of potential customers. In person.

Avoid the Perceived Zeitgeist

Another possible heading for this section was ‘don’t be a sheep’. That sounded like the less gracious option, but it’s a valid point to consider. There is too much following other brands in tone and execution and thinking it will work for you too.  You aren’t them and they aren’t you. For example, there are so many fawning articles about Casper’s advertising you’d think stick figures and soft colors would work for your ads too. But the correlation between cutesy ads and business success is easy to communicate in print and less obvious when looking at the bottom line.

Even more a painful tact in marketing to women is the tendency to go right to the ‘girl power’ thing.  Talk about zeitgeist, everything is coming up pink and powerful and hand-holding womantastic. But that will and has already caused a backlash. Look, it could work for you and might be right. But the tendency to go this route can be both lazy and safe. But in ‘celebrating’ the inane in the name of girl power is to take us back to square one.

So do what’s best for your brand even if it goes against what the cool kids are doing these days.

Support Women-Owned Businesses

Whether you are a large multinational looking to acquire a new female-focused brand; or an investor looking for an opportunity. Or even just a consumer looking for a product that meet her needs. Look for those created by women. We create what we need. And conceive of new categories. Does it seem so far fetched to suggest that women know best what women want? Have we been so marginalized as creators, and as entrepreneurs, that it has to be suggested we innovate best for ourselves?

The bottom line is that marketing to women often misses the mark. It’s for a lot of reasons but none of them really good. To speak authentically is the way to capture some of the massive spending power for women today. To listen and, ultimately, to support women.