Talk to Her

Despite the strides women have made over the years, marketers are just now waking up to the New Woman

It won’t come as a revelation to many that Harley-Davidson markets to women, the focus of several of the iconic motorcycle brand’s digital initiatives and promotional events. What might surprise them is that one of America’s most famous—and macho—brands has been advertising to women since the 1920s.

Among consumers profiled in its early ad campaigns are Avis and Effie Hotchkiss, a mother-and-daughter team who in 1915 biked from Brooklyn to the Pacific Coast and back, and 19-year-old Bessie Stringfield, who in the 1930s became the first black woman to make a cross-country motorcycle trip. Through those promotions, Harley-Davidson celebrated the new breed of independent, adventurous female.   

Since then, across generations, women have earned unprecedented control of their finances, their careers and their bodies. More women than men are graduating from college, more are buying their own homes, and more are in command of their own spending.

While that reality plays out in city highrises and suburban cul-de-sacs, rural areas and upscale gated communities, it’s too often not so apparent when it comes to marketing communications targeted to women.

When it comes to household purchases, marketers have long understood that it’s women who are the decision makers. Why is it, then, that in TV spots and magazine ads we tend to see the same old female stereotypes? The mom who dances around the kitchen with her new floor-cleaning system? The buxom barmaid serving up a cold one to some latter-day Marlboro Man type? All the tired portrayals of women as either sex kittens or matrons, depending on the particular product being sold?

That is not to say there’s not been progress in how marketers illustrate both the uniqueness and the evolution of women, and digital media have certainly expedited that. And nowhere can brands looking to strike lasting relationships with women consumers learn more than by looking at marketing to millennials, that generation of post-feminist consumers who are more independent and more tech and media savvy than their predecessors.

Last month, Unilever launched the first female product extension of its popular Axe line for young men. With the limited-edition fragrance, marketed in conjunction with the men’s product, the brand had already recognized the market potential of the female consumer already featured prominently in ads for Axe for men. That strategy clearly served to build affinity with females: Of Axe’s 2.6 million Facebook fans and Twitter followers in the U.S., nearly one-quarter are women.

“We made a strategic decision in recent years to involve women more closely in the creative to bring them even closer in on the joke,” says Barret Roberts, senior brand manager for Axe.

That said, there have been complaints that the brand’s racy ads—portraying animalistic, scantily clad young women chasing after the dude who uses Axe, what a tagline famously called “The Axe effect”—objectify women. And yet, spots for the new women’s fragrance turn the tables, casting grunting, predatory men in the wild-animal role.

“You can’t be a successful youth brand today if you’re not coed in your approach—this is a generation where guys and girls are friends and like to hang out in groups,” says Jonathan Bottomley, head of strategy at Axe’s agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London.

Axe’s young-adult target has been reared by a generation that’s more relaxed and less structured about relationships. This group of female consumers would no doubt tell Axe’s critics to relax and to simply accept sexual attraction as a fact of life. Given the media exposure of your typical millennial, she has an inate appreciation of transparency and a lack of spin.

Consider one of the most successful recent product launches for women, U by Kotex, designed to win back share after years of losses to rival tampon manufacturers. Parent Kimberly-Clark said its aim was to eliminate the shame and embarrassment surrounding personal-hygiene products and bring forth new honesty in discussing it. The product itself was designed with that sense of boldness, packaged in black boxes and neon wrappers. TV ads parodied the category’s marketing messages with spoofs of menstruating women dancing on the beach and in white spandex. “U by Kotex empowers women and young girls to challenge the euphemisms that hide the truth,” said Aida Flick, Kotex brand director.

“Women really liked U by Kotex because it was funny in using ad spoofs and the brand also did a great job at creating a forum to have teens and moms talk about their periods,” says Melissa Lavigne-Delville, vp, insights at Women at NBCU, part of NBCUniversal’s integrated media unit. The commercials were championed by Women at NBCU’s Brand Power Index.

This is certainly a group of female consumers who aren’t squeamish. Last summer, before Universal Pictures’ Bridesmaids opened, reviewers wondered what women moviegoers would think of the female protagonists’ swearing, farting, belching, vomiting—and worse. The sleeper quickly exceeded box office expectations and surpassed Sex and the City as the top R-rated female comedy of all time. It also became the top-grossing movie from filmmaker Judd Apatow, who pushed for a coed marketing strategy that included commercials airing not only during female programming but also during male-dominated events like the NBA playoffs.   

But unlike one of the leads in that film, women have become increasingly ambivalent about marriage, viewing it as an optional lifestyle and no longer an economic necessity. De Beers was quick to address this shift with its promotion of right-hand rings, urging its female customers: “Women of the world, raise your right hand.” It was a smart market tactic for an industry in which diamond engagement rings have been hawked as one of the ultimate accomplishments a woman can hope for. Now, women don’t need an engagement to put a ring on it.

More recently, ads from Lowe’s featured a single woman in her new home, admitting that she had felt intimidated about updating her bathroom before paying a visit to the home-supplies chain.

Chevy Malibu also employed a more contemporary and realistic female-targeted message with its “Dependable Friend” spot in which one young woman rescues another from a blind date. As the friends drive away, the one who just dumped the dude who described himself as a “professional student” cracks: “Single lane ahead. I’ll be in that lane.” 

“As women gain more financial independence, they no longer need to depend on men who have lost ground during the last recession, which was dubbed the ‘mancession’ because of the loss of blue-collar and manufacturing jobs,” says Ann Mack, director of trendspotting at the agency JWT. “You have pop culture imagery of men living in a prolonged adolescence, which is not very attractive, at the same time that motherhood has become untethered from marriage. This is a very attractive group of women for marketers to go after.”

Considering divorce rates and that wives statistically outlive their husbands (the average age of a widow in the U.S. is 56), many women who might not have planned to can expect to live alone at some point. TD Ameritrade recently launched Life 2.0, a site featuring financial-planning tools and information. Lee McAdoo, director of women’s initiatives at TD Ameritrade, underscores the need to customize investment education and advice for women. And little wonder, since 84 percent of women say they feel misunderstood by investment marketers, according to a study by Yankelovich Monitor & Greenfield. 

“Women think about investing differently than men who get that adrenaline rush with the opportunity to make great gains,” says McAdoo. “Women are less risk averse and better investors. It’s about investing for the people in their lives and the future. There’s so much jargon in this business. Women want streamlined content. If you meet the needs of women, you’ll exceed those of men.”

Attracting women through their life stages, using the most relevant media, is a priority for travel marketers such as the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, which runs multiple campaigns targeting those planning events including weddings, honeymoons, family vacations and diving trips.

For example, in marketing to brides, the department says it got the best response using island-wedding imagery in high-impact formats like interstitial Web pages appearing before or after expected content pages, as opposed to banner ads. Moms are most responsive to social media-based promotions. Meanwhile, travelers age 55 and over prefer communications like email and e-newsletters.

The goal is to get those consumers to not only plan next summer’s trip but to keep them coming back through life stages to come. “Once we get those names, we keep reengaging with them,” says Ayanna Victorin, advertising and marketing specialist with the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. “We know the date of their wedding and can go back to them and suggest they might want to return for an anniversary trip. We start with young women who might be planning a wedding and continue through to the grandmoms. Multifamily vacations are becoming very popular in the Caribbean.” Independent agency Chowder and IPG-owned ID Media handle digital and media duties, respectively, for the tourism authority.

As women fuel the growth of social media—just witness the sudden explosion of scrapbooking site Pinterest—marketers are getting smarter about using that media to reach female consumers beyond just the most readily available demographic stats.

“Social media is proving that it’s less about just gender and age—it’s more about passion and interests,” says Kim Ryneska, group planning director at BBDO in New York. “It allows women to define themselves on their own terms and is leveling the playing field with men.”

For Frito-Lay, speaking directly to a woman’s passions paid off. Last April, the company made the Guinness World Records for landing the most new Facebook fans in a 24-hour period: 1,571,161. The snack-food marketer had been losing share to smaller brands viewed as healthier options. So last year, it relaunched products like Lay’s, Tostitos and SunChips with all-natural ingredients. Frito-Lay had to convince women of the seed-to-shelf content of its products and its sustainability priorities. As part of the effort, the marketer initiated an integration with FarmVille creator Zynga to let social gamers harvest the vegetables that were the basis of those products, which were then taken to a solar-powered factory and distributed to nearby storefronts. 

“The reason it worked was because the FarmVille-integrated story line was authentic to the FarmVille experience, where players have the chance to harvest crops to help create Frito-Lay snacks and earn points,” says Frito-Lay spokesman Chris Kuechenmeister.

Tying a brand’s self-interest with consumer priorities has also made for a successful social strategy for Kellogg’s Special K cereal, which recently expanded its “What will you gain when you lose?” positioning.

“We know women are more successful [at losing weight] when they focus on the positive things that they have to gain when achieving a goal,” says Yuvraj Arora, senior director of ready-to-eat adult cereal at Kellogg. 

Harley-Davidson is also using social media to cultivate realistic female images in its communications.

A forthcoming marketing campaign was largely influenced by user input against a creative brief posted by the motorcycle company on Facebook.

“You see a lot of real women in our marketing,” says Amanda Lee, communications manager at Harley-Davidson. “A lot of what we do is not done in a vacuum. It has to be authentic to our target.”

Which may explain why there is still a disconnect between how many marketers view women, and women’s perceptions of themselves.

Kristi Faulkner, co-founder and president of the New York agency Womenkind, suggests that if most women feel advertisers don’t understand them, it could have something to do with the fact that creative departments at ad shops still happen to be dominated by men. 

“It’s very easy to put women’s data through a male filter and get it wrong,” says Faulkner, who has worked for agencies including BBDO, Hill Holliday and DDB. “How many women are there working in agency creative departments over the age of 40?”

Illustrations: Al Murphy

Click here to view more content from The Women's Issue.


Publish date: February 27, 2012 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT