The truth about marketing to women

Contributor - Robert Craven

A group of diverse women

Women make the majority of buying decisions but businesses often miss the mark when they're advertising to women. Rachel Miller looks at some of the key do's and don'ts for successful marketing to women

Consumer research consistently shows that women make more buying decisions than men. According to Marti Barletta, author of Marketing to Women, women influence at least 80% of all household spending; they make 75% of decisions about buying new homes and 81% of the decisions about groceries.

And yet, while things are improving, women report that marketing and advertising continues to miss the mark - drawing on stereotypes, objectifying them and talking down to them. YouGov research conducted in 2020 found that half of women (48%) said that female representation in advertising had become more positive over the preceding five years, compared with 8% who said it had deteriorated. However, 48% said ads had been objectifying them to either the same extent or greater.

YouGov also reports that British women have seen an uptick in representation of females from ethnic minority backgrounds in advertising: nearly two-thirds (65%) say they've noticed an increase over the past five years. However, change is happening slowly, with 42% saying they've seen "a little more" representation, versus 22% saying they've seen "much more".

YouGov concludes: "If brands want to move away from common stereotypes and promote a more positive image of women, they still have work to do."

So how should you market your products or services to women? There is no simple answer, of course. It depends on the nature of your offer and the specific market you are targeting. Even so, there's no excuse for sexism, stereotypes and objectification of women in marketing. Here are some do's and don'ts that every business owner needs to be aware of.

Don't use stereotypes when advertising to women

Stereotypes in advertising are a lazy and potentially offensive way to portray specific consumer types - from the busy mum doing household chores to the grey-haired retiree pottering in the garden. These stereotypes invariably backfire because they alienate the very people they are trying to reach. They reduce people to a cliché instead of showing an individual - albeit one who may have similar needs and wants to others in their demographic group.

Avoiding stereotypes is as much about the diversity of the types of women you feature in your marketing as it is about the roles they play. Representation and inclusion matters. It's also about understanding that distinguishing between "male" or "female" products is counter-productive. Research from the United States shows that female consumers buy over 50% of so-called "male" products, including cars, home improvement products and electronics.

Do focus on diversity and inclusion

When it comes to targeting female consumers, businesses need to remember that "being a woman" is just one of many identities for any woman. Effective marketing is about embracing all of those who identify as women - including women from all backgrounds, ethnicities, of all shapes and sizes, ages and sexualities. There is diversity in every demographic group, no matter how niche; understanding that is a vital aspect of marketing to female customers.

Don't pay lip service to equality

Consumers can see through businesses that see gender politics simply as an advertising strategy or a box-ticking exercise. Your commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion needs to be evident in your business, not just in your advertising campaigns. Writing in the 2020 Mintel UK Marketing to Women market report, analyst George Zaborowski said: "As more brands play into themes about female empowerment, women are starting to question how genuine brands are being and if they are truly walking the walk when it comes to equality measures in their own organisation."

Do consult women when planning your marketing

Unconscious bias can adversely affect your marketing messages and advertising slogans. It's not just what you're saying but how you're saying it. Could your messages come across as patronising, smug or insincere? Are you sending a negative message, such as suggesting that women need to meet an arbitrary ideal? Whatever your own gender, it's worth asking a diverse group of women if you are hitting the mark with your marketing to women - or missing it completely.

Do understand how women build relationships

While we should be careful about any stereotype, research consistently suggests that women consumers operate differently from men. Marti Barletta writes: "Men and women don't communicate in the same way, and they don't buy for the same reasons … He simply wants the transaction to take place. She's interested in creating a relationship. Every place women go, they make connections."

"We believe you should market differently to women," say Annie Brooks and Hela Wozniak-Kay, co-founders of the women's business club, Sister Snog. "Our business is focused exclusively on businesswomen, and our marketing is tailored accordingly.

"What's different about our approach to networking for women is that there's nothing forced about it. In fact, we prefer the term 'connecting' - it's about building relationships … Nothing is prescriptive, everything is intuitive. It's about collaboration, not competition."

Don't target all women with the same message

Trying to address all women with one message won't work. It's best to focus on a specific demographic and make sure your marketing speaks to this niche group. "It's far too generic to split the whole population into two groups," says Elaine Clark, managing director of Cheap Accounting. "Different women have different needs and wants.

"They are all in different situations, depending on age, whether they have families, and so on. If you focus on one type of woman, you risk alienating large sections of the female population, and the male population as well.

"For many products and services, gender doesn't even come into it. You actually need to go deeper to find out what motivates your target market. Issues such as age and income are often far more important."

Do understand what drives female consumers to buy

Trust is a key factor that influences the buying decisions of many women. Word of mouth recommendations, reviews, product information and social media all play their part in helping women to gather knowledge ahead of a purchasing decision.

A study by Bustle found that 81% of female millennials said social media (especially Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest) was the best way for brands to reach them. In fact, female consumers are increasingly using social media as a place to browse and buy and influencers are playing a key role in selling to women.

Of course, social media can be a minefield if brands get their messaging wrong; that's why it is more important than ever that businesses make sure they understand who their female customers are, how they see themselves, what their needs and wants are, how they buy and which marketing messages resonate with them.

In summary

One thing’s for sure, whatever you are selling, women are likely to be a crucial target market for your business. Never make assumptions - always test your messages with a diverse group of women. And whatever you do, don’t just slap the colour pink all over your packaging and marketing materials and expect women to buy.

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Robert Craven

Robert is a man who has been there and done it, having set up his first business at the age of 21. Having run restaurants, sound recording studios and training companies, he went on to become Director of Entrepreneurial Business at Warwick Business School.

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