What Women Want

For years, the reigning model for targeting female consumers has been: Treat them as an alien species; exploit their relational sides; manipulate their emotional tendencies; play on their ethical pretensions.

It’s never put quite like that. You hear instead about “emotional connections” and “brand bonding.” And the promoters of this “difference” model have typically been women themselves. But the problem with this model is not just that it’s condescending. It’s that it won’t work.

It’s certainly true that women are different from men. And, 40 years into feminism, it’s probably safe to say that most of the differences that remain are rooted in biology (and reinforced by culture). For instance, women are still more relational than men: The female hormone oxytocin facilitates bonding with children; estrogen facilitates bonding with everyone else. Women are also no doubt more emotional, thanks to the lovely interplay between estrogen and progesterone at different times of the month.

But the marketing assumptions drawn from these differences don’t make sense. First, they ignore the fact that just because women are different from men doesn’t mean they are all alike. Women run along a hormonal continuum, with most grouped near the outer ends—high estrogen and low estrogen. Low-estrogen women tend to be more ambitious and independent; they are proud to be women, but want to be thought of as humans first. These women—at least half of all women—don’t want to be appealed to on an emotional or relational basis.

Also, this model plays to women’s weaknesses, not their strengths. Even most high-estrogen women today understand that they can be overly emotional, care more about others than about themselves, worry too much about the everyday. Ads that play on these tendencies risk arousing, at the very least, resentment.

Third, this model assumes that all women have the same views on politics or ethics. While women do tend to vote more Democratic than Republican, they hardly think alike. Assuming that all women have the same opinions is only slightly less condescending than assuming that women have no opinions.

Finally, the model exaggerates women’s practicality. Sure, women are practical; they have to be. But women also respond to beauty and fantasy. Indeed, what many women really want are aspirational role models—images not of where women are but where they want to go.

And where do they want to go? Well, it seems that all women, regardless of estrogen or income levels, want to be beautiful yet smart, strong yet flirty, confident yet coy, passionate yet in control of every aspect of their lives: a combination of the best of traditional femininity and the best of traditional masculinity.

Right now, they are just getting characters that resemble women at their worst. Yes, Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and Carrie Bradshaw resonate with women. But they do so because they represent our weakest, most neurotic selves.

If you want to attract all women, you need to focus on their indivi duality (not their hormones), their strengths (not their weaknesses) and their futures (not their pasts).