10/27/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2014

Marketing to Women: What to Do/What Not to Do... Without Appearing Too Contradictory

I find the marketing to women space completely fascinating and, I believe, challenging for marketers to wrap their heads around. To me there are two main factors that drive the current interest in marketing to women.

First, society now realizes the economic importance of women. Not only do the majority of women work and, in some instances, earn as much as men, but also women either support or veto around 85% of all purchase decisions.

Second, and a more recent trend, is the ability of organizations to capture and mine customer data ranging from demographic information such as gender, age, race, zip code, and income to behavioral and attitudinal data. Because organizations have data, especially demographic data, there is a tendency to compare, for example, how many of the organization's customers are women to competitors or the population at large. Discussion on markets and market segments then becomes heavily influenced by demographics (more on this soon).

These two factors together, I believe, explain why organizations want to market to women. But then the problems begin... how should organizations market to women?

My first recommendations involve identifying where your organization is on the "marketing to women spectrum." To do this:

1. Run the numbers and make sure your organization knows the importance of women as influencers, buyers, and users. In the case of some products, there might be other categories worth noting - e.g., 39% of all cars are registered to men, yet women hold 51% of all drivers' licenses and so buyer/owner/user profiles also need to be examined. Again, in the case of cars, the brand relationship continues post purchase - e.g., many cars are financed and cars also need to be serviced. Understanding the role of women during these additional touch points with the organization is also important.

2. Run the numbers [again] and look for differences based on gender. For example, 50% of women are dissatisfied with the car they buy. How many men are also dissatisfied with the car they buy? Are the reasons for their dissatisfaction the same? Another example: we know that women spend a smaller percentage of their income on cars than men. Why is this?

3. Run the numbers [again] and look for differences between women. One criticism of much of what I read about marketing to women is a tendency to treat all women as if they are the same (and all men as if they are the same). I referred to this in an earlier blog and suggested that we need to dig a lot deeper to find differences between women based on their different values, attitudes, opinions and lifestyles.

4. Armed with this data ask:
a. What role does gender play in explaining any aspect of purchase decision-making?
b. Based on your data, and external data that examines women in society today, what marketing to women goals does/should your organization have? For example, your organization might want to increase the number of women as customers from 40% to 50%, or your organization might want to increase the amount women spend on cars, or your organization might want to make women feel more comfortable when her male partner spends money on products and experiences [I'm guessing this might be the case with say motor sports].

So far so good. Steps 1-4 will force your organization to look at data to understand where it is at (and where it wants to be) on the "marketing to women spectrum". Step 3 is especially important because it encourages your organization to not only look for differences between men and women but also look for differences between women.

Now Forget About Gender For a Minute... and Focus on the Principles of Market Segmentation. When we form market segments that focus entirely on gender, we are forgetting the principles of market segmentation. By definition, a market segment is a group of people who have the same need and who "hire" a product to satisfy that need. The unit of analysis, therefore, should be the buyer motivation, not the customers themselves.

In the context of marketing to women, we might find that both men and women want, say, a car with a third row of seats to transport children to and from activities in the weekend, both men and women want the car that transports children to be safe, both men and women who commute long distances want a car that is fuel efficient, both men and women who want to appear successful want a car that reflects their success. But we might find that women (and smaller men) prefer cars that are smaller and more maneuverable.

The point is that gender might be important in explaining segment membership but starting with gender is simply bad practice.

And Now Back to Gender... and User Imagery: So far, your organization has run the numbers, identified where it is and where it wants to be on the "marketing to women spectrum," segmented the market based on customer needs, developed value propositions, and understood the role of gender in explaining customer needs and brand preferences. Now it is time to put together a marketing campaign to reach the target market.

The development and implementation of a marketing campaign is one area where I see a number of "marketing to women traps". One of the first decisions marketers make is how to represent a target customer. We refer to this as user imagery. For example, if I am marketing a breakfast cereal, do I show a woman preparing breakfast for her children? A man preparing breakfast for his children? Children preparing their own breakfast? Or the children eating cereal? Let's imagine I select a stereotypical woman, a stay at home mom who is gentle, kind and nurturing. By doing this, the organization:

1. Alienates Men

2. Alienates Other Women by engaging in Gender Washing. This means the organization assumes that all women are the same. In the example above, the organization has also reverted to the use of stereotypes to portray women. For example, if you show a woman at home looking after her children, you run the risk of alienating women who also work full time or women who do not have children. Similarly, if you show a woman who is gentle, kind and nurturing, you run the risk of alienating women who do not see themselves in this way.

3. Ignores The "Women of Today": Women multi-task but they also multi-role. For example, many women identify with the traditional roles of partner and parent and more than half of all women are now in paid employment. Research shows that women move between these roles in a very ambiguous and fluid way. This raises the question of "Who am I?" when you market to me. I addressed this in an earlier blog about "Just in Time Marketing."

4. Overlooks Gender Convergence or the blurring of gender roles: both men and women increasingly take on non-traditional roles. I refer to this in a blog called "The Changing Face of Women."

Gender Is Likely Important When Implementing Marketing Tactics. Now it is time to decide how to reach the target market. It might be that all people in the target market are women or perhaps only some of the target market are women. Either way, the organization does need to pay attention to how to reach her - this is where much of the research on gender differences might help. For example, we know that more women are more likely to use social media sites, post comments on blogs, share stories, place a high value on relationships, multi task, and verbalize (I summarize a lot of this research in my latest book called "Why Marketing to Women Doesn't Work"). Much of this research focuses on the "average" woman (recall my earlier discussion on the differences between women), and the research assumes that men and women are different. There is a small but growing body of literature on gender convergence (see above). More specifically, as societies move from the masculine to the feminine both men and women adopt behaviors that are seen as more feminine. I touched on these phenomena recently in blog on the knowledge customer and in another blog on the female and male brain.

My overarching conclusion then is if we do a better job of marketing to women, and in particular adopt marketing tactics that are seen as female friendly, then marketing practice will improve overall.