How to Target the World’s ‘Alpha Consumers’: Women

How to Target the World’s ‘Alpha Consumers’: Women
Five Questions for Bridget Brennan, Author of ‘Why She Buys’
By Jennifer Rooney

Published: June 17, 2009

NEW YORK ( — Women are arguably the world’s most powerful consumers. So why do marketers still fall short in reaching them?

Bridget Brennan

Bridget Brennan is CEO of Female Factor, a Chicago-based marketing consultancy. Her first book, “Why She Buys: The New Strategy for Reaching the World’s Most Powerful Consumers,” is out next month. In it, she explains why the existing misunderstanding of gender cultures isn’t just a gender gap but a gender “canyon,” and provides case studies of female-focused initiatives from marketers such as Callaway, Ryland Homes, Lululemon, Lexus and MasterCard.

She sat down with Ad Age recently to discuss the still-untapped marketing opportunity in targeting those multifaceted, exceedingly powerful consumers — “the alpha consumers of planet Earth,” as she calls them: women.

Ad Age: How do you define the difference between the male and female consumer?

Ms. Brennan: Women often have different reasons for buying the same product. When women are out, they often pick up things for the people in their lives. Women aren’t just shopping for themselves; they’re shopping for other people.

The second thing is women often focus on the practical aspects of products that they buy. Let’s say they’re looking at an HDTV. A woman might be looking at the functionality at a very practical level, for example, asking questions such as, “Is this too monstrously large to sit in my living room?” and “How many remote controls does it come with?” Women and men can look at the exact same product but be judging it by different standards. A lot of those standards go back to being other-people-focused. When you’re bringing something into the home, women are often conscious of the other people in the house and whether they’ll be able to use it easily.

Another thing about women as consumers: Women will notice things about a retail environment that might have escaped the attention of men. Women are more likely to notice that many establishments have grossly inadequate bathroom facilities. They’ll notice if shelves aren’t stocked well, if lighting is bad. Women notice ambiance, because the ambiance impacts the experience for a woman when she is shopping. This is true on the web, too.

Ad Age: Why is gender still a blind spot among marketers?

Ms. Brennan: There is still a gender gap between manufacturers and buyers. And broadly speaking, men still dominate most of the companies that sell to women. And almost the very definition of masculinity is rejection of the feminine. There’s a lot of pressure on both genders to conform, and this sort of socialization continues to the hyper-masculine world of fraternity culture. Sometimes it is difficult for men to see the world through the lens of the female consumer. There’s no real training in most companies on gender differences. And women get to these [senior] positions in the corporate world and they might feel uncomfortable pursuing what in their colleagues’ eyes is a feminine agenda.

Ad Age: Creatively, how are marketers failing women?

Ms. Brennan: Marketers are still using the pink sledgehammer because it’s probably the easiest route to go. Pink has been designated the universal color for all females. If you want to try to find a present for a little girl, I defy you to find something that isn’t pink. Pink is not a strategy. But when it’s the only color offered, it makes it seem like you haven’t put any thought into this at all.

One company that has done a good job of using color including pink but not just pink is Apple. Apple is using bold colors, and they have a lot of colors, and their products are curvy and they don’t come with manuals, and they’re very colorful, and the people that work in their stores wear brightly colored T-shirts. Apple has done a great job of using color in a way that appeals to both genders.

Just using pink is too heavy-handed. If it’s not raising money for breast cancer, it just seems like someone somewhere in the company thinks pink is catnip for women. And in some cases that’s true. But it’s just getting a little old, and women expect a bit more than that.

Ad Age: Why is customer service such a critical component of marketing when it comes to targeting women?

Ms. Brennan: Customer service is the new marketing, because in a commoditized world, customer service can be your most powerful differentiator, especially in a world where women have never had busier schedules, so there lives are very time-compressed. And so customer service can be so powerful, and it’s so underleveraged.

Do women value good customer service more than men? Yes, because women conduct most of the shopping, so it’s women who are more often physically returning items. They’re the ones who are physically interacting with the companies more. Women have a very highly developed sense of fairness. From an early age, women are teaching their kids how to treat others. They are the primary caregivers. … As a consequence, women notice when they themselves are on the receiving end of bad treatment.

Ad Age: What societal change do you feel presents the greatest untapped opportunity for marketers?

Ms. Brennan: There are two huge opportunities: the divorce economy and the ability to create products and services that appeal to almost half the population that ends up going through a divorce. I don’t know why there aren’t more banks advertising divorce specialists. There’s an opportunity in all kinds of industries to provide help.

Each divorce is something that results in a torrent of consumer spending. Business can play a role in that, in everything from fresh-start weekends in places like Las Vegas to things like service offerings.

The other opportunity is something everyone talks about but we still haven’t seen much progress on, and that is the aging population. They’re still largely ignored. We think that youth is where all the action is. But really, it’s the people who have spent a lifetime earning and saving money who have more money to spend.

And then I don’t think marketers have yet caught up to the realities of working women. There are still a lot of businesses set up based on the old model that there’s somebody at home all day. The reality is that more often than not, there isn’t someone who’s home all day. For example, it’s great that a lot of retailers are open later, but often for women it’s the end of the day, when it’s impossible to get any shopping done. What hasn’t been looked at from a retail standpoint is you rarely see a retailer that’s open at 7 a.m., and for a lot of women, that early time is an opportunity to get some shopping done really quickly