Despite the fact that in the United States alone women make up 50 percent of the consumer base and 85 percent of purchases are made or influenced by female customers, many companies still struggle with the best way to reach this demographic. Why is it so hard?
Well, one reason is that the role of women in society shifted dramatically over the course of the last century. At its start women were encouraged to perform just one specific role, that of homemaker. By the century's close women were fulfilling multiple roles. Then by the early 2000s, women were told they could “have it all.” And as mommy bloggers gained popularity, it wasn’t just companies saying it. Women were telling one another they could do it all, too.
Now the pendulum seems to be swinging to the middle but hasn’t quite settled in a definitive spot. Several seemingly connected trends are creating a variety of currents that marketers are attempting to navigate. Here are three that appear to be making some big waves:
1. Women are pushing back against perfection. Following a global survey capturing women’s views about beauty, the Dove research team found that only 2 percent of women thought they were beautiful. That one key insight led to Dove's 10-year “Campaign for Real Beauty” in 2004 and countless marketing tactics, catapulting an anti-perfection movement that’s still alive today.
The success of this campaign has demonstrated that research shouldn't just be about understanding how women feel about a product or category or even about how they spend their time. It should also focus on the heart of what makes people tick. Uncovering and leveraging those details is often what creates powerful, long-term success.
Women began to actively push back against the idea of perfection in looks and started finding beauty in imperfection. This was echoed by new mommy bloggers, who penned in a more confessional tone celebrating the highs and lows of motherhood, united in their desire to be seen as human but not expected to be perfect.
Most recently, Beyoncé gave voice to this trend. As a superstar admired by women and someone whom men want to be with, Beyoncé has been widely regarded as the epitome of perfection. With the December release of her latest album, she actively challenged that notion by encouraging women to find beauty in imperfection and the happiness in their lives.
2. Women are becoming more comfortable with making tradeoffs. Perhaps as a result of women's pushing back against perfection, they are becoming more comfortable with tradeoffs. Women have started determining their personal ideas of success and happiness and are growing more comfortable making the decisions that need to be made to achieve them.
This trend was further energized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's publishing last year of the book Lean In. In it, Sandberg acknowledged the value of women's work in raising a family but also recognized the importance of those who choose to work outside the house and encouraged them to rely on the support of family, friends and spouses for home responsibilities. This, coupled with other movements, such as Ariana Huffington’s The Third Metric (focused on "redefining success to include well-being, wisdom, wonder, compassion and giving"), points to a greater emphasis on women being able to achieve better balance in their daily lives.
3. Women are starting to embrace themselves. The convergence of these two trends is creating a new and powerful movement whereby women are becoming less concerned with external perceptions and are instead interested in meeting their own self-defined expectations and realizing their version of a happy or successful life.
Women in entertainment, such as actresses Tina Fey and Lena Dunham, have personified this trend in their professional endeavors. And the tools available to marketers are changing. Sandberg's women's empowerment group LeanIn.org recently partnered with Getty Images to create a gallery of stock photos with more realistic images: older women in the workforce, diverse sets of working mothers, authentic images of women athletes and even young girls in computer and science labs.
The convergence of these powerful trends, affecting a significant portion of consumers, has created a very confusing environment for companies marketing products. Just look at the controversy that erupted over a promotional campaign for Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue featuring the doll Barbie.
So how do marketers navigate the currents? The answer is simple. Stop simply reacting to trends and instead dive deeper to find the real, actionable insights that are driving them. Besides Dove, here are a few examples of companies already doing this:
1. Debra Sterling, was frustrated at the lack of women in the engineering field and wanted to help fix the gap. The company she created, GoldieBlox, makes a game to help teach young girls basic engineering fundamentals. The company partnered with Harvard researchers to study how children played and found that boys generally liked to build and girls liked to read. And so the company built a game tailored to fit girls’ play habits by incorporating a book into a game that would lead girls through the process of building.
2. American Express, a company typically associated with business travelers making high-priced purchases, sought to target a new audience: busy moms. After much research into women’s shopping habits, American Express found that most mothers don’t make a few big purchases but rather they have more frequent smaller purchases as they go about their daily lives. And so, the company created the American Express Everyday Card, which rewards customers not only for dollars spent but for frequency of use.
As the role of women continues to evolve and change so will the marketing environment around it. By diving deeper and trying to know about real women, marketers can avoid being swept away in the currents.