In these times of mass customization, it seems unlikely that any consumer group could still be underserved, yet in many ways, the very largest one—women—still is. Besides constituting 51% of the global population, women make a majority of purchasing decisions in many categories. But for many planners, marketers and designers, they remain an elusive target market.
It’s not for lack of trying. Countless brands and sub-brands are focused on appealing to women, offering far more than the “shrink it and pink it” version of men’s products common in years past. Yet many are rejected, not because they aren’t different enough, but because they come across as poorly considered, disingenuous, or unaware of women’s distinct needs. The companies are perceived as “gender-washing”, much like the “green-washing” that has eco-conscious consumers up in arms.
HTC’s attempt at an Android phone for women is a good example. The shimmery purple smartphone, called the Rhyme, comes bundled with a set of purse-specific accessories. Its styling and functions attempt to address female-specific needs, but they also characterize women as less tech-savvy.
“What, are women not SMART enough for a regular phone?” responded one incredulous blogger. Another criticized it for pushing “…stereotypes painting women as ditzes who need a sparkling light to find their phone underneath tubes of lipstick.”
Asking people to own an item that identifies them with a gender characterization is not the way to loyalty and love. But neither is ignoring those differences. How do brands reconcile this tension? A few recent successes offer some possibilities.
1. Blur the Lines.
The film “Bridesmaids” starred six women who don’t talk exclusively about men, and aren’t always portrayed as attractive. In so doing, it broke the rule stating that men like comedies with dirty language and embarrassing losers, and women like romantic mishaps. This in-between space appealed to both women and men, grossing 290 million dollars to-date — a record for its franchise.
For brands, a similar philosophy can manifest as “radical neutrality.” By not considering a specific gender at all, but leading instead through a distinct lifestyle philosophy, brands like Ikea, Apple and Zipcar have found tremendous success. None of these companies could easily be defined as “for women” or “for men,” giving them lasting appeal.
2. Consider gender-specific contexts and perceptions.
Hotel group ITC recently expanded their “Eva Exclusively Women” service in India. It designs specific levels of its hotels to be safe and supportive for women travellers, particularly those from Muslim countries who might not be comfortable with male staff and neighbors. Instead of asking, “What do women like?” ITC considered how women’s perspectives affect their needs, encouraging women to travel independently, and adding significantly to their customer base.
By contrast, Altec Lansing’s “jewelry-like” Bliss Earbuds received reviews as negative as the HTC Rhyme’s. Instead of merely considering fit and visual, they might have considered how women act while wearing them. Women often have unique concerns about personal safety or socialization — a running partner of mine lets one earbud dangle when we run, for example. Such insights can inspire innovative solutions.
3. Remember that feminine tomorrow is different from today.
In 2007, Harley Davidson decided to reach out to women and bring in new riders. Unlike other companies which pushed less powerful bikes in hopes of seeming less intimidating, Harley focused on education. They began hosting “Garage Parties” for women to gather and learn about bikes. Harley built it, and women continue to come and learn.
4. Be bold.
In February 2010, Old Spice launched a bold advertising campaign, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” The main character speaks directly to women, making fun of men’s lack of “true” masculinity as well as women’s stereotypical romantic desires. By taking gender by the horns, it made both groups swoon: a product for men with a voice for all.
It’s an encouraging example of a future in which gender unites rather than divides us, and consumers’ level of gender identification is a matter of personal choice. It might feel scary to step beyond stereotypical gender territory, but it can inspire a new world of product and services: if Old Spice designed a product for women, what might that look like?
Molly Ackerman-Brimberg is a senior insights and trends strategist, responsible for leading many of Ziba’s consumer research efforts, using insights gained through observation and collaborative work to identify opportunities for innovation. She has helped create breakthrough strategies for clients such as Procter & Gamble, Costco, FedEx and TDK Life on Record, highlighting new approaches that open new markets for established brands. Molly is a graduate of design programs at Stanford and California College of the Arts.