The Little Brand Book on Marketing to Women

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Women at pharmacy stores are a rare sight — I have come across only one in the whole of 25 years of my life. I only feel the need to converse with them once every month, which happens to be a period of hell for every woman. For male Indian pharmacists selling sanitary pads, this might happen to be a period of grave confusion.

Which brand, Madam? Sasta ya mehenga? There are ten products of the same brand, do you want the blue one or the orange one? You said 30 rupees, but you meant the 42 rupees one right?


The real problem occurs when the brand you want to buy runs out of stock, or you happen to chance on a new product on the shelf. How does one consult someone who has never tried or ever felt the need to use sanitary pads?

I blindly gamble my money only to discover that the product is a misfit for my needs.

In marketing, we call it bad user experience.

I wonder how many women undergo bad experiences with products or services they need the most.

Women are no more sub-standard customers

With #Metoo campaigns sparking new debates on treating women equally different walks of life, brands too have started to realise the importance of marketing to women. This innocuous intention, however, may have no impact if women aren’t part of the process of product design and communication.

No matter how much men try to empathise with women’s needs objectively, the outcome has been broadly stereotypical.

Products marketed to women have mostly been related to beauty and activities around household chores. If any attempt beyond this has been made, it is about how women bravely (with a smile on their faces) multitask all of the stereotypical activities with professional life in the corporate world.

Tampon commercial, detergent commercial, maxi pad commercial, Windex commercial — you’d think all women do is clean and bleed.
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

It’s one thing to remark on the achievement and boldness of women, and another to understand their daily needs and cater your product to them accordingly, irrespective of the segment.

Source: Google/Ipsos Connect, YouTube Cross Screen Survey, July 2016, US, (n=2,004 consumers 8–54 who watch videos at least once a month)

Source: Google/Ipsos Connect, YouTube Cross Screen Survey, July 2016, US, (n=2,004 consumers 8–54 who watch videos at least once a month)

It’s time we start catering to women’s needs in all segments and seriously understand their concerns, which is possible with the female presence in the building of the brand because women, too, need relatable moments and experiences.

How many, for instance, automotive advertisements communicate to women about the utility their vehicle could provide? Apart from the two-wheeler scooters marketed to “girls” as “why should boys have all the fun?,” I haven’t seen anything that doesn’t pit against men’s needs and talks about women’s needs. The most they may highlight is the use of a bright “feminine” colour for a change.

Car commercials, on the other hand, always market its technical features to the male audience as if it were a sports car, focussed on speed as the main feature.

Source: Google/TNS, Moms Audience Study, among 1,500 women ages 18 to 54 who watch videos online and have kids under the age of 18, April 15

Source: Google/TNS, Moms Audience Study, among 1,500 women ages 18 to 54 who watch videos online and have kids under the age of 18, April 15

Why not communicate to working women about the convenience of driving to work and back home safely, no matter how late it may be; or a mother who could drive herself or family members while getting some work done?

The hypocrisy goes same for insurance company advertisements — men are assumed to be the bread winners, while women as wives dependent on men. One look at the insurance advertisement shows how sexism is deeply entrenched.

Despite the increasing emphasis on policies for family, advertisements fail to acknowledge that women, too, can contribute in “planning the future”. There have been few exceptions, for instance, a daughter buys a car for her father. Here’s a recent advertisement of HDFC Life that goes far to highlight women empowerment, albeit, with heavy dependence on her father first, and later her husband.

Is it possible that because the data didn’t throw up good numbers on women, the communication is targeted towards men, who would stereotypically be considered the breadwinner of the household, and thus the ultimate decision maker on the purchase of the service or product?

A marketing head of Max Bupa admitted this to some extent in a 2015 afaqs article:

Our research shows that there are as many female owners of health insurance as men, although it is typically the male, the chief wage earner, who still makes the purchase decision. We decided to target each family member as we don’t want to insure the bread winner alone.

Data versus Trends: Are we analysing it right?

Every strategic decision is backed by data. But it’s the interpretation that matters more than the numbers.

A quick look at the online lingerie shopping in India throws interesting insights: In 2015, men visited online lingerie stores more frequently than women, although 80% of buyers were women in 2014. It could mean many things — men must be either gifting lingerie, or their significant female folk must be buying from their bank details. Or as an assistant vice-president of retail and consumer products at Technopak Advisors quoted to Economic Times in 2014, “Men buy lingerie as a gift frequently and they won’t feel awkward about buying online. Webstores allow buyers — men or women — to discover options.”

On a closer look, it’s worth looking at how lingerie brands communicate to women. You will see the word “sexy” before the most necessary feature called “comfort”. Perhaps, this communication appeals to men more?

Here’s a more definite case than a mere assumption.

Earlier this year in February, the Super Bowl fan base saw a rise of the female following.

Source: AdWeek, "NFL Scores a Touchdown with Female Fans," August 24, 2014

Source: AdWeek, “NFL Scores a Touchdown with Female Fans,” August 24, 2014

The most awaited annual championship game has often considered its audience to be gritty, action-obsessed manly fans. Out of 108 million-plus watchers, 49% constituted women, a 4% rise from that of 2017.

What was more remarkable? They were closely consuming commercials on the break — over 27% more likely than men to be paying attention. It proved that women, too, make buying decisions for the household.

Unfortunately, the advertisements were aimed at male viewers and even depicted vast disparity in gender representation.

What can Brands do?

Marketing to women isn’t a new topic and has been covered much in depth by experts. Here are some pointers that have reverberated across the industry (and are worth iterating)

Don’t just talk feminism, practice it

Gone are the days of sharing pride over hiring women and offering them opportunities — it doesn’t make you better than others. Be humble about it and show it’s anything but normal at your workplace.

Source: 3% Conference, "Female CDs on the Rise," 2014. YouTube Date, U.S., 2013–2015

Source: 3% Conference, “Female CDs on the Rise,” 2014. YouTube Date, U.S., 2013–2015

Go beneath the surface to understand why women are good for business. Gender equality in the workplace has a positive impact on women, and it also significantly impacts how economies and countries grow.

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.
Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Branding oneself as a feminist organisation doesn’t necessarily mean that they practice it. Cases of this have been plenty in India, starting with digital media platforms whose success comes from creating viral feminist contents, such as sexual harassment at The Viral Fever and ScoopWhoop.

Interestingly, feminism on the internet has been criticised as a “fun” “viral” “elitist” movement that is only limited to the urban youth, since the female presence on the internet is still not mature.

For the very reason, brands should be cautious in the way they recruit or even communicate on the internet.

Ditch the flowers and pink pastels, build relationships

The first step to serving women better is by seeing them as your customers, most importantly, as individuals. Get to know all their needs and not just in ways in which they differ to men.

When marketing to women, organisations must first consider the task a woman wants to get done.
― Jenny Darroch’s “Why marketing to women doesn’t work”

Empathise with their needs through customer journey insights and think about how to be there and be useful in everyday moments. The grave misunderstandings for sanitary pad buyers like me could be one example of solving bad user experience.

Avoid negative campaigns — give women positive reasons to buy.

Fear is one of the easiest ways to get someone to buy your product. But hitting insecurities where they hurt the most also means bullying your customers and disrespecting their needs.

If your product provides the solution, the brand builds a relation, and a negative one certainly isn’t beneficial for a long term.

Google Consumer Survery, U.S., Feb 2016, n=1,500 women ages 18–34

Google Consumer Survery, U.S., Feb 2016, n=1,500 women ages 18–34

It’s not always about the gender

Demographics (age, gender, income) is dead, psychographics, also known as intent-based (such as what they watch, search, visit) marketing is in. The latter helps marketers not get caught in the gender-web.

With needs emerging on the digital space where consumers aren’t afraid to share their experiences, review or ask questions they wouldn’t ask in person, it’s vital to be open to all & develop niche based on responses recorded. This is where intent-based targeting allows relevant and customised creative messaging.

All of this would work well with a balance of genders in your team to understand your audience’s needs at every stage of design and communication strategy.

Remember: Customisation is the ultimate key these days to create customer loyalty!

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