In the early 1900s, according to cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell, it was thought that women would not be able to travel on the new steam locomotives, since the velocity of the train (50 mph) would cause their "uteruses to fly out of their bodies".
How ludicrous that seems now, but it won't take another 100 years for us to marvel at the fact we ever thought pink biros for women (Bic for Her), or laptops with inbuilt calorie counters were good ideas.
In fact recent history is full of examples of "marketing to women" which failed to even understand women, let alone market to them. Little wonder that from our own Female Tribes Women’s Index research, 85% of women said that when it comes to understanding women the brand world needs to catch up with the real world.
So Clarks is far from unique, and with its Dolly Babe shoe is the latest in a long line of companies demonstrating that truly reaching a female audience is much more fundamental than "just" communication. It has to cover product design, service design, business development and even distribution considerations; it can impact the entire organisational DNA.
Consider for example that women wearing a seatbelt are 47% more likely to be injured in a car accident versus men, because crash test dummies are often based on a male torso; or the fact that the Apple Health app launched without a menstrual tracker – little surprise that from our Women’s Index research 70% of women felt there weren’t enough women working in the tech industry.
Women want and need products and services that truly intuit their needs, and it’s not about "feminising" them. Our Women’s Index report shows that 88% of women wish that brands and companies would realise that just because they’re women, doesn’t mean they want to purchase "girly" or "for her" products. A further 79% of UK women would rather be described as strong than sweet: designing for women needs to embrace the facts and not the myths of contemporary femininity, women don’t necessarily want prettier, softer, pinker hued products.
And the fact is that 64% prefer products designed by women because they "better understand our needs" and 51% wish that products made by women business owners were labelled more clearly, illustrating the fact that women are yet to be convinced that companies really "get them" or understand their needs. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Walmart’s women-owned businesses generate "better sell-through rates and better margins," according to Kathleen McLaughlin, chief sustainability officer for Walmart. Add to that our finding that 69% of women claim to make the majority of household purchasing decisions and you’ve got a financial imperative for complete overhaul in how a business needs to be set up if it isn’t going to alienate the biggest purchasing group in the world – because at 69% women are not "an emerging market", they are the majority of the market.
Truly embracing brand and service design through a female lens (it’s not rose-tinted) can yield a profound domino effect through an organisation, touching on all aspects of the consumer or "human" experience, and the first domino in the chain is true female insight.
By truly embracing female insight, new opportunities reveal themselves, and in today’s challenging commercial world, isn’t this what we’re all looking for?
A core principle of our Female Tribes philosophy is to embrace all the possibilities of being a woman; and that presents a creatively abundant space for brands to occupy.
So let’s put Dolly Babe in the corner, stop being so linear, and get on with courting, designing and creating for this powerful audience with due insight and respect.
James Whitehead is chief executive of J Walter Thompson London