Think Tank: Marketing to women - The gender factor

Women are the largest consumers by far, so why is it that direct mail is so male-biased? This month's Think Tank finds out if marketers are missing a trick.

In the United States, women are the economic powerhouses. Studies show they are directly involved in 85 per cent of purchases and influence 95 per cent of all products and services sold. And the transactions they make aren't for traditional female products either. Women consume 60 per cent of cars, 51 per cent of consumer electronics, 80 per cent of health care products and 92 per cent of holidays.

In the UK, the trend isn't far behind. So why does the UK direct mail industry appear so male-orientated? Financial services and car mailers both use copy and imagery in an overtly male manner, and yet at a recent US Women's Small Business Expo, nine out of ten women didn't feel companies and advertisers spoke specifically to them. Surely, in the face of increasing pressure to maintain response, marketers must be missing a trick?

But if we were expecting a crescendo of demands for more gender-specific mail, this was a more complex debate than that. "As soon as you hear the phrase 'marketing to women' the danger is you use this to drive your insight and then you start talking rubbish," announces John Frood, strategic planning director at Zalpha. "Gender is just one part of a hierarchy of considerations."

A general nod of agreement signalled what could have been a very short Think Tank indeed, but if one thing crystallised this debate, it was the acceptance that women are different consumers to men, but that there was insecurity about whether this should be made a virtue of.

"We've recently carried out research looking at gender and motivations governing consumer behaviour as part of our REALmotivations product," says Suzanne Soper, executive director at Wegener. "We see that 58 per cent of men compared to 38 per cent of women put the pursuit of pleasure as being the most important thing for them, and that 33 per cent of women buy for functionality rather than looks while it's 40 per cent for men." One of the most striking factors, it suggested, is that men and women have different channel preferences. Men prefer the internet and telephone, while women prefer SMS and direct mail - another reason why mail should take account of gender.

Channel bias

"I think this raises two difficult issues," argues Joel Voysey, head of partnership development at charity VSO. "One is whether women need gender-specific messages, and secondly, that we should question whether the male/female split on databases has more to do with the channels used to collect that data rather than it appearing that more women support a particular organisation because of their gender." He argues that just because a charity may have more females on its books, it doesn't mean women are more likely to give/buy, it's just that the channels are skewed towards capturing more women in the first place. "There's no doubt women are a core audience for charities, and there could be an argument for saying that women relate more to suffering and images of children. However, I wouldn't say that we specifically court a female response."

It's a point Frood agrees with. "We've got a number of charity clients, and in fact, Oxfam is probably more male-biased, but the reasons people give are not down to gender alone, but their initial motivations."

So is gender purely a red herring? While many began this Think Tank by saying gender wasn't an issue, after further probing, they all admitted it was something they had tried. "I worked on a campaign for Sightsavers," says creative consultant at White Door Careers Lou Hart. "We did one pack using slightly more emotive wording that went to females and a second that used more rational copy for men."

Although Hart says it didn't yield any difference in response, Soper believes that depending on the product, there is an opportunity to be had. "I think this example suggests that men and women don't have the same sensibilities, which I don't agree with," she says, "Poverty and child abuse are unifying regardless of sex, but there is room for looking at the motivational elements in data." She adds: "Automotive manufacturers constantly bombard us with 0-60 speeds, and how fast their cars go round corners, and women aren't going to be interested in this."

Even Frood admits that with one of its financial services clients, Lloyds TSB, an overt gender campaign for loans was run. "We identified an entire segment of female shoppers and designed a mailer saying 'you've got your first job, you're young, splash some money about while you can'." And he isn't alone. "We tailor our communications," says Sarah Mason, marketing manager at Club Med, the family holiday provider. "For brochures aimed at women we use more pictures of beauty spas and relaxation, while for those aimed at men, they get more water-skiing and pursuits-based images."

Product-led campaigns

But is this really being gender-specific? Curiously, many are at pains to say no. "It's still product-led, but it is talking to women," argues Frood. "It's definitely products," adds Mason. "We contrast what we do with a catalogue cover by one of our rivals. It features a girl in her twenties, wearing a revealing black swimming costume. This only talks to men, which is bizarre, as it too is a family holiday company. It's not product-driven like we are."

Confused? Group account director Chris Brooks at CCHM:Ping, the financial services specialist DM agency, certainly is. "Product-led genderisation is still something I'm not comfortable with," he says. "It's all very well creating a gender modified, product-led niche but all too often, this isn't carried through. The campaign is done and then the organisation starts to say 'we can't afford to treat people differently', so it sends out the same bills, the same reminders, and that person realises that they bought into something that isn't being carried through."

Brooks certainly has a point. In North America, gender specific direct mail is advanced, but has been found to work best only when internal business processes are changed too. RBC Royal Bank in Toronto first began marketing specifically to women in 1994 when it discovered that once women made their decision to bank with them they tended to be more loyal and refer more business than men. At that time its share of female entrepreneurs was 18 per cent but it had risen to 22 per cent in four years because, as well as just mail, RBC formed an advisory board of women and trained branch managers in meeting women's needs.

"The experience has to match the promise," agrees Frood. Soper adds: "The marketing manager is often only responsible for acquisition, not ongoing development, so they think they've achieved their aims."

Brooks argues that rather than genderising overtly, marketers should be developing ways of finding out which media has the most opportunities to talk about a product in a way men and women get the most from it. "One of the unfortunate things is that there are so many people down the decision-making line that any gender slant tends to be driven out as people are more worried about falling foul of the FSA."

Exploiting differences

But if some of the panel think gender is less important, this view is not shared by Nicola Armstrong, director of DM agency Iris' about-to-be launched woman-orientated division Iris Female. She believes there are important differences between men and women that marketers ought to exploit.

"Iris is looking at lifestages," she says. "It may not always take gender in isolation, but we are saying there are more lifestages that affect women and these need to be looked at. It's about us saying women of 16 may have more in common with boys their age, but also saying that they shop in Topshop and read Heat just like their mums."

But it was on this issue that Frood really disagreed: "Having children is a female lifestage, but after that I think people have given up on it. We're in the age of attitudes rather than lifestages, with these attitudes spanning a much broader age group." Soper comes to Armstrong's defence. "There are many more lifestages that relate to women: pre-children, with children, grown ups and empty nesters.

There is even more interest in the 50-60 year old category - women who may either have lots of wealth that they want to spend or those prefer to keep it for their inheritance."

But doesn't producing more gender segments risk alienating females by falling into traditional stereotypes? Armstrong says no, citing interest from clients in its offering, including the Milk Development Council which wants to talk to young females about the importance of drinking milk and eating cheese. "As a copywriter there are certain words that I would only use for females," adds Hart. "You wouldn't say 'your little ones' to men."

Given this, it is understandable why the best way might be to play safe - unisexing copy and mailers to appeal to everyone. "We don't have the money to differentiate between the sexes, but that's not how we think," says Mason. "We're more likely to think about school holidays, non-school holiday times of the year and families."

But Mason does raise one point the entire group seem willing to accept - that if clients had the money, they would see how marketing to the genders could work for them. "I think clients would see uplift in response if they were able to do it," adds Soper. "Car manufacturers should especially do it - the buying cycle is much longer so the opportunity is there."

The divisions about just how marketing to women should or could be carried out seem destined to continue as long as the differences between men and women exist. However, alerting women to products in a way they can relate to might be the next way businesses can generate most from half of the population.



Hart began her copywriting career at Tullo Marshall Warren before moving to DP&A and Clark McKay and Walpole as head of copy. She is a founding creative partner of Boy Meets Girl.


Previously working with AXA Sun Life, Britannia Music and MBNA at DRS Advertising as well as Orange and Emap at Draft Worldwide, Robinson has been at Iris for four years and is launching its first female-specific divison, Iris Female.


Voysey has been working in the third sector since 1997, beginning as committed giving manager at Wateraid. He was also supporter recruitment manager at Amnesty International on DRTV ads.


Working for WWAV for six years in a strategic planning role, Frood has worked for clients across all sectors. For Zalpha he has worked on global brands developing CRM strategies.


Mason spent 10 years working agency side in the UK and Australia before taking a masters in marketing at Kingston Business School. She has been at Club Med for four years.


Previously marketing manager at Gan, and DM manager at Pinnacle Insurance (where it had a female insurance product), Brooks was at financial services agency Ping for five years before it merged with CCHM earlier in 2004.


Soper has 19 years' experience in data, which includes seven years at CACI. Client-side she was Morgan Stanley's global database director.


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