Marketing to women is about excluding stereotypes, not men

Marketing to women has been the life’s work of Bridget Brennan, the CEO of Female Factor, and author of two books, Why She Buys: The New Strategy for Reaching the World’s Most Powerful Consumers, and more recently, Winning Her Business: How to Transform the Customer Experience for the World’s Most Powerful Consumers. In Winning Her Business, she explains that the main reason women drive more than 70 percent of consumer spending with their buying power and influence is that they are the primary caregivers for children and the elderly.

This is why they have such a multiplier effect when it comes to serving as the chief purchasing officers of their homes, but as Brennan notes, preconceptions about women can result in lost sales and unhappy customers. In this Take Five interview, she talks with IB about why marketing to women isn’t about excluding men, “it’s about excluding stereotypes.”

IB: You note that e-commerce has changed expectations for buying IRL (in real life), so how much of the advice contained in the book relates to how understanding female consumers can help retailers and others compete with the Amazon factor?

Brennan: Yes, you’re absolutely right. There is quite a bit of that in the book. E-commerce has changed our perspective on buying IRL. Ironically, e-commerce has become the unlikely new benchmark for flawless personal service. Just as we continually upgrade our software to stay current, we have to update our customer experience just to stay relevant. The fact is, great customer experiences are still the exception and not the rule despite our state-of-the-art communication tools. So, I believe that that’s a huge opportunity for businesses to deliver a great customer experience. Understanding what that looks like in the age of e-commerce is what’s so important, and that is a large part of what I cover in Winning Her Business.

IB: What would you say it looks like at a very basic level?

Brennan: Well, today it’s all about inspiring people to buy from you and giving people a reason to leave their homes and leave their businesses to engage with your retail business or your small business or whatever type of business that you have.

IB: With more vacant stores than ever, our local shopping centers are focused on providing a great experience when consumers visit. Based on your research for this book, are they on the right track?

Brennan: Yes, and just to note, the book covers every type of sales interaction, so not just retail but also business-to-business and service-oriented businesses, as well as businesses that sell products. So, it covers a wide swath of the modern business environment. You are obviously well versed in the challenges for brick-and-mortar retail. That’s something that we’re all reading about every day, and it’s constantly being covered. It’s so high profile. I believe that with so much of our time spent staring at devices, compelling physical environments are more important now than ever. And so, the imperative for anybody who is selling from a physical space is to deliver the kind of personal, sensory-rich, and service-oriented experience that inspires people to leave their homes and businesses to seek it out.

For the most part, it’s still difficult to touch, taste, or smell anything through a screen or through a device. This means that brick-and-mortar retailers and brick-and-mortar businesses have what I call a home-court advantage. They have the opportunity to engage all five senses within a physical environment, and that’s a great opportunity. We’re seeing regional businesses understanding that they do need to create more of an experience for the customers to bring a brand to life. Malls are also recognizing that there is an opportunity to create a mix of businesses beyond pure retail to attract new customers. We’re seeing innovations in malls that include everything from attracting places like fitness-oriented businesses to more restaurants or even to work and office spaces, so expanding the mix that can draw more regular customers and foot traffic.

IB: So, just think of the human senses and that will lead you to ideas to make your experience more enriching. It’s really a very basic solution, very simple and fundamental.

Brennan: Exactly. We’ve lost some of the fundamentals and going back to them can bring all sorts of new opportunities — fundamentals like hospitality. Hospitality has worked for human beings for thousands of years, and it’s a big part of what makes us human, and even offering more hospitality inside of stores and retail environments is something that can create a more differentiated experience than the online experience.

IB: Is there a really good best-practice example of this, perhaps from a brand that’s familiar to us, or one that’s not a household name such as a smaller, independent retailer?

Brennan: I tell the story of when I recently walked into a small, independent bike shop, and when I walked in, the owner of the store was sitting there and asked me, “Hey, would you like a cappuccino?” That was the last thing I expected to hear after walking into a bike shop, and even the word cappuccino conjured up an image of luxury and made me think, “Oh, I’m not going to be getting coffee that’s been sitting in a carafe for three hours.” With single-serve coffee makers out there, there is an opportunity to more easily offer things like hospitality in a small business environment.

Even something as simple as comfortable seating can encourage your customers to linger in a store, and women are often shopping with companions. These companions might include children who may be less than enthusiastic about being on a shopping expedition. So, having chairs where women’s companions can sit comfortably while your primary customer is executing her mission can help your customer actually execute something that they came into the store to do, and do it more easily. So, these are simple things — hospitality, comfortable seating — that really can make a significant difference.



IB: In the book, I believe you identify four actionable strategies to jump-start customer engagement. Can you highlight the one you think is the most effective for a small, independent retailer?

Brennan: One of the most important ones is connecting. Connecting with the customer, meaning double down on service. There are so many things that a small business can’t control. You live in Wisconsin, and I live in Chicago. One of the things we can’t control is the weather, for example. None of us can control the pace of technology. None of us can individually control the economy. But happily, every business is in control of what is arguably the most important factor of all — the customer’s experience. I still hear stories from women who walk into a store and aren’t greeted or aren’t followed up with, so simple things like making sure that every customer is warmly greeted or engaged in conversation, they receive eye contact, and they’re engaging with an associate that is interested in learning about their needs. These things sound like common sense, but they are not always common practice. Otherwise, great experiences would be the norm and not the exception. Today, still, great customer experiences are the exception and not the rule, despite the fact we have so many state-of-the-art communication tools.

If you show your customers that you really appreciate their business, they’ll respond. One of my motivators is appreciation, and another strategy for small businesses is showing that you appreciate the customer’s business. A lot of people I talk to want to support local businesses, and when you have customers who are intentionally trying to support your business, it’s very important to give them great service and to show that you appreciate them and that you appreciate their time. One of the trends that I talk about in my book is one that I call double duty, half the time. This is all about the blurred lines that we have between work life and home life, and the resulting time compression that comes from it. Basically, it’s the feeling that we have less time, and what we know is that if time for shopping and engaging in the marketplace goes down, expectations for ease and convenience go up. It’s an inverse relationship, and there is now less patience for interacting with companies or sales professionals who are not elegantly easy to work with.

Understanding your customers’ pain points and demonstrating that you respect their time can make a big impression. You can try all sorts of interesting things to see how customers respond. For example, in the book, I talk about how Lexus, a brand we’re all familiar with, has piloted a new breed of dealerships called Lexus Plus. In these dealerships, they offer upfront, negotiation-free pricing. This means no haggling, no moments of “please wait here while I get my manager” because there is one point of contact for every customer. This addresses a pain point that many customers have when they walk into a car dealership, which is the haggling. Now, there are some customers who enjoy that, but many don’t. So, they have piloted this new breed of dealership, and with price off the table in the customer interaction, that means the conversation shifts from the topic of actually buying the car — because if you’ve walked into a dealership, you’ve probably already researched it — to the topic of owning and what it’s going to be like to be a customer of Lexus over the long term.

IB: Most retailers and business-to-consumer businesses already know that women, particularly mothers, make the vast majority of purchasing decisions for families, but they might not know why that is. What is the number one reason women drive the vast majority of consumer spending?

Brennan: In virtually every society in the world, women are the majority of primary caregivers for both children and the elderly. In this role, they are often the chief purchasing officers for their household. So, when they are out in the marketplace, they often are not just seeking and buying products for themselves, but on behalf of the other people in their household, and even in their social and business networks. This adds layers of complexity to their buying decisions. I talk about how women, typically, have a multiplier effect on sales because they are often the gateway to everyone else in the household and beyond.

IB: At the moment, what is the most impactful trend that influences women’s purchasing?

Brennan: One of the biggest trends is this double duty, half the time trend, this blurred line between work life and home life. What we’re seeing is that many businesses are responding by offering complementary services in addition to the products they sell, so that when a customer is out and engaged in the marketplace, not only can they buy something, but they might be able to get a service that compliments whatever they are buying, so they are able to be that much more productive. We saw a few years ago that Ikea bought Task Rabbit, which is an app where you can hire somebody to come into your home and do all kinds of helpful activities, like potentially assemble the Ikea furniture that you just bought.

DSW is a major shoe store chain that recently announced that they are offering services like shoe repair and bag repairs, so that if you go into a store, you can get a service in addition to buying a product. That’s a trend that we are going to continue to see, that retailers are offering services that complement products in the store.

IB: Finally, what is the fastest way to alienate female consumers?

Brennan: Stereotype avoidance is crucial. Even though it’s 2019, there are still so many stereotypes out there about what women want. I often say pink is not a strategy. It’s more style, not substance, but you still see many businesses defaulting to the color pink in an attempt to attract women buyers. Unless you’re raising money for breast cancer causes, pink should be considered just one color amongst many.

Make it your business to learn how factors like language, attitudes, and social roles are evolving for women. These can impact your customers’ perceptions of everything from the sales interactions they have with someone on your sales floor, to how they react to in-store signage, the visuals you use, and the language you have in your marketing campaigns. Making sure that you are up to date and relevant for a consumer economy dominated by women is very important.

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[Pull quote] “Women, typically, have a multiplier effect on sales because they are often the gateway to everyone else in the household and beyond.”