Marketing to Women: Who's Doing It Right and Who's Not

Photo: ranplett

Women are juggling conflicting priorities (work, home, family, and themselves) on a daily basis and struggling to negotiate the many demands on their time — they could use any help they can get, and yes, they would be willing to spend money for it. However, few companies have responded to women’s needs, even if this could mean more sales and access to an increasingly influential market.

Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre are partners in the Boston Consulting Group and coauthors of Women Want More, the book resulting from the 2008 study conducted by BCG which aimed to create an understanding of what women want. The results of the 120-question survey, distributed to over 12,000 women around the world, led to this conclusion: Despite the considerable market and social powers that women have achieved in the past century, they still feel undervalued and underserved by the marketplace.

Consider this: BCG’s survey found that women make the decision in the purchases of:

  • 94% of home furnishings
  • 92% of vacations
  • 91% of homes
  • 60% of automobiles
  • 51% of consumer electronics

Despite the substantial purchasing power of women, many companies simply don’t market to women, and even the few that do may be way off base. In their article The Female Economy (Harvard Business Review, September 2009), Silverstein and Sayre describe some marketing strategies that completely missed the mark with women — and some that actually worked.

Don’t Just “Make It Pink”

In May 2009, Dell launched its “Della” website in an effort to market specifically to women. It was slick, it was colorful, and it had tips for counting calories and finding recipes — in the “Tech Tips” section, no less. All in all, Della didn’t offer its visitors any substantive tools or advice — at least, none that pertained to laptops and technology. Unsurprisingly, women found the website disconcerting and condescending: Is this what Dell thinks its female customers look for when they shop for a laptop?

Dell responded quickly to the uproar. Within weeks of the launch, it had changed the site’s name and focus. But really, if companies want to sell their products and services to women, they need to do more than make things feminine. They have to understand what women want and need, then tailor their goods in a way that isn’t condescending or patronizing towards female consumers. And it helps to not fall back on those troublesome stereotypes.

Know Your Women’s Market

It’s likely that there are women who would have appreciated Della. Thing is, the majority of Dell’s female customers wasn’t satisfied with the limited offerings — and that’s a problem. Dell’s apparent target was too broad; its customers felt they were being generalized and stereotyped while their specific needs were not addressed. Perhaps Dell could have served women better if they knew which women they wanted to market to.

Take Whole Foods and Tesco, for example. Both grocery chains were favorites among the women that BCG surveyed although they appeal to different types of women. Whole Foods offers high-quality meats and produce and a knowledgeable staff for the demanding “fast-trackers” — the economic and educational elite who are willing to pay extra for quality. Tesco stores allow time-strapped “pressure cookers” — women who are married with children and often feel ignored and stereotyped — to conveniently buy a wide range of household goods at one place.

Besides the fast-trackers and the pressure cookers, Silverstein and Sayre identify four other key female consumer segments: the relationship-focused, the fulfilled empty nesters, the women managing on her own, and the ones trying the make ends meet. More likely than not, a woman can identify with different types at different stages of her life. While such segmentation has its limitations, it helps companies zone in on who they want to target and, with thorough research, deliver what she’s looking for.

Treat Her Well

She is a customer. She’ll do business with you if you treat her with respect and consideration, but she can walk away in an instant if you act like you don’t care to have her business. Women got that impression from Express stores — mainly because of their inconsistent sizing system. Four garments marked “size 8” may actually range from sizes 6 to 12. Express customers became frustrated with what should have been a pleasant experience. In contrast, Banana Republic attempted to solve the problem of fit and was generally successful — especially for pants. Its sizes were consistent across the board and offered a variety of cuts to suit different shapes. Banana Republic made it easy for women to find clothing in a size that fits.

The respondents of BCG’s survey were also dissatisfied with the performance of the healthcare industry. They were especially irritated by the amount of time they had to spend waiting for doctors and lab reports. Scheduling and keeping appointments for themselves and their families also ate up their time. And that’s added to the fact that women generally pay substantially more than man do for health insurance.

As frustrating as the apparel and healthcare industries can be, financial services seems to be the industry least sympathetic to women. Financial companies continually disappoint women by the level and quality of service they provide. BCG’s survey respondents cited lack of respect, poor advice, contradictory policies, and seemingly endless red tape that left them exhausted and annoyed. This is not how you want to treat customers with money to invest — and women do have money. By 2020, private wealth in the United States is expected to grow from about $14 trillion today to $22 trillion. 50% of it will be in the hands of women.

As the customer, women shouldn’t have to settle for poorly conceived products and services that don’t meet their needs. They shouldn’t have to accept marketing narratives that promote female stereotypes, either. Yes, women are different from men, but they are also and different from each other. They have different needs. And if companies hope to succeed in the near future and beyond, they’ll need to make sure they can deliver what their female customers want.

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