10/08/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Marketing to Women, or Should I Say Marketing to People With a Female (or Male) Brain?

I wrote about marketing to women and feminism in a recent post called "Avoid Gender Washing: Making Sense of Marketing to Women by Understanding the Three Waves of Feminism." In that post, I argued that marketing moves between the second wave of feminism (i.e., differences between men and women) and the third wave of feminism (i.e., differences between women). Research on differences can range from demographic differences such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation to different needs women have for which products and services might be a solution.

In this post, I am going to address the gender angle somewhat differently by considering the "male" vs. "female" brain. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University (yes, he is related to Sacha Baron Cohen; they're cousins) has done considerable groundbreaking work on the brain, especially in relation to autism.

Using Baron-Cohen's ideas, I want you to imagine a continuum, anchored at one end by an extreme "male" brain and at the other end by an extreme "female" brain. An extreme "male" brain has hyperdeveloped systematizing, whereas an extreme "female" brain has hyperdeveloped empathizing. In between these two extremes is a "male" brain where systematizing is developed more than empathizing, and a "female" brain where empathizing is developed more than systematizing. And in the middle is a "balanced" brain where both characteristics are equal.

Baron-Cohen's ideas are clearly articulated. He defines empathizing and systematizing and then references a range of studies to provide evidence of both. Empathizing, the predominant feature of a "female"-superior brain, is characterized by the following behaviors:

  1. Shares and takes turns.
  2. Engages in less rough-and-tumble play.
  3. Responds empathetically to the distress of others.
  4. Is better able to infer what others are thinking or feeling.
  5. Is more sensitive to facial expressions.
  6. Values altruistic and reciprocal relationships more than those based around power, politics and competition.
  7. Is less likely to exhibit disorderly conduct.
  8. Is less aggressive.
  9. Is less likely to murder.
  10. Is less likely to form hierarchies of dominance, because such hierarchies put one person in as a leader.
  11. Talks using a language style that is more cooperative, reciprocal and collaborative. Disagreement is more likely to occur in the form of a question than an assertion.
  12. Talks more about feelings and emotion than about objects and activities.
  13. Is more likely to hold infants in a face-to-face position and follow through children's chosen topic of play rather than impose their own topic.
  14. Looks longer at faces.
  15. Has better language ability overall.

Systematizing, which characterizes "male"-superior brains, represents a more inductive process -- one of watching, gathering data, considering differences, looking for patterns and then generating rules about how the system works. People who systematize seek to understand and predict the "law-governed inanimate universe"; people who empathize seek to understand and predict the social world.

Other research on brain and behavior considers physiological differences to examine sex differences. A number of studies, for example, have used brain scans as evidence. One study led by Professor Haier at UC Irvine found that women tend to have more white matter, whereas men tend to have more gray matter. White matter represents neural networking, whereas gray matter represents information processing.

Professors Gur, Gur and Verma from the University of Pennsylvania found that men, on average, have stronger connections between the fronts and backs of their brains. This means that men are often better at learning and performing a single task, such as bike riding, and will respond more quickly to what they see. Women, on average, have stronger connections between the left and right sides of their brains and therefore tend to have a superior memory and better social-cognition skills and are better at multitasking.

When I read others' recommendations on how to market to women, what the recommendations really address is how to market to people with a "female" brain. Implicit, then, is an assumption that all women have "female"-superior brains and therefore excel in empathizing (or that all women have significantly more gray matter or notably stronger connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain).

What these recommendations fail to consider is that some women might engage in equal amounts of empathizing and systematizing, just as some women might excel at systematizing rather than empathizing. The same is true of men in that as some men might excel in empathizing and not in systematizing.

My first recommendation for marketing to women is to determine where your female audience sits on the emphasizing-vs.-systematizing spectrum. Put another way, how dominant is the "female" brain among your target market?

A second recommendation is to take into account the behaviors that a woman might learn as she adapts to the many roles she undertakes. Baron-Cohen writes extensively about how to teach autistic people to empathize. As a professional woman, while I might enjoy caring for others or prefer relationships among my friends that are reciprocal (indicators of empathizing behavior), when I am at work I might read legal documents very carefully or pay close attention to the stock market (indicators of systematizing behavior). As marketers we need to pay attention to the many roles that women take on (e.g., partner, parent, paid employee). As women continue to make strides in education, more women will take on positions of leadership within organizations, and, I argue, women will learn to adapt to a range of situations and environments.

The research by Baron-Cohen, Haier et al., and Gur et al., is important in that it helps us understand how to more effectively market and sell to women. But at the same time, we need to be careful and not assume that all women in all circumstances (or men, for that matter) behave similarly.