Exclusive Q&A: What Brands Get Wrong About Marketing To Women

Bridget Brennan FemaleFactor pngThrough a combination of their own buying power and their influence, women drive 70%-80% of U.S. consumer spending. It’s a statistic that retailers know well, and it should inform everything from marketing to product assortments, the in-store experience and associate training. But according to Bridget Brennan, CEO of Female Factor and author of an upcoming book, titled: Winning Her Business: How To Transform The Customer Experience For The World’s Most Powerful Consumers, outdated assumptions and stereotypes prevent many retailers from providing women shoppers with great customer experiences.

“As a researcher on women’s buying decisions, I routinely hear stories about poor sales experiences that drive women away from buying products and services,” Brennan writes. “Many women report being treated with less respect simply because of their gender; judged on their appearance in ways that men are not; and ignored, overlooked, or underestimated when shopping with a male partner or companion.”


In this exclusive Q&A with Retail TouchPoints, Brennan reveals:

• Why it’s so vital for retailers to create great customer experiences for women;
• How creating women-friendly retail can appeal to younger consumers of both genders;
• How encouraging emotional engagement can boost customer retention; and
• Retailers that are doing an effective job of marketing to women, including Sephora, Nordstrom and Lexus.

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): Why is it so important for retailers to create great customer experiences for women?

Bridget Brennan: Women have a ‘multiplier effect’ on sales. In addition to buying products for themselves, they buy for everyone in their households and also have a strong influence or veto vote on other people’s purchases. Also, women tend to drive word-of-mouth publicity, including social sharing. When they have a great experience, or find a great deal or product, they often feel it’s nothing less than their duty to pass it along to their friends. They recognize that their female friends are often in the same position as they are in terms of provisioning and procurement for the household. So if you have a happy female customer, you have the opportunity to reach everyone else in her household, business network and social networks. 

RTP: What are some of the things retailers and brand marketers do now that don’t appeal to women?

Brennan: Modern female culture is evolving all the time, and it’s important that retailers keep up. That applies to signage, language, marketing materials and images. For example, I was recently standing in line at a rental car facility. There were lots of other women standing in line, too. But every poster in the facility had pictures of men, and men only, renting cars. I thought: How did someone miss this? Marketers need to look at images to ensure they are inclusive, and reflective of modern women’s roles.

For example, even though they are in the labor force and an important driver of the economy, you’ll still see marketing photography that shows women passively gazing at people doing things, rather than being agents of action. Marketers also need to avoid clichéd images, like the over-use of the color pink to target women for “gender-neutral” products, with the exception of when the color is used to support breast cancer causes. Other common images, such as showing a pair of stilettos to indicate that products are for women, can also come across as cliché — unless you’re actually selling stilettos. Retailers should take an inventory of their marketing language and images to make sure they reflect modern women’s culture.

RTP: Can appealing to women consumers in an up-to-date way also enhance a retailer’s appeal to younger shoppers overall?

Brennan: What I’ve observed from studying women consumers all these years is that a lot of the qualities once associated with women — like wanting to buy from a company that does good in the world or aligns with their values — we’re now seeing in younger-generation customers of both genders. You see it through brands like TOMS, a hugely popular brand that is very focused on values and has strong cross-gender appeal. You see this in the workplace as well, for example that maternity leave is evolving into family or parental leave, meaning men should have the opportunity to take it as well as women. It’s all part of a larger-scale cultural change.

RTP: What are some best practices that retailers can use to improve women’s customer experiences?

Brennan: A lot of women are holistic buyers. They are often engaged in multiple aspects of the experience beyond product and price — and they tend to notice the details in a brick-and-mortar environment. So one thing retailers can do is heighten the sensory engagement. In a brick-and-mortar store, determine how many senses you’re engaging and try to add at least one more, through color, texture or scent. This helps to create an experience.

Retailers also should provide multiple ways for a shopper to contact customer service. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right channel for actual human contact or for getting an issue resolved. If something goes wrong with a purchase, women are often the ones returning it or getting it fixed. Making it easy to find the right information or reach the store itself is something that’s still important, because people get frustrated if they can’t find the information they need quickly.

Another aspect of catering to women buyers is recognizing that they are often shopping with companions who may be unenthusiastic about the experience, like children. Retailers should work on welcoming and accommodating a shopper’s companions so that she can complete her mission. Sometimes the best solutions are the most low-tech, like providing more seating —comfortable chairs for companions of all ages. I’m constantly surprised that I don’t see more seating near places like dressing rooms. Shopping trips can be cut short very quickly by bored or cranky companions.

RTP: Your book talks a lot about the need for emotional engagement. Is that particularly important in marketing to women?

Brennan: Emotional engagement is what makes a customer want to participate in a retail experience again and again. We all know there’s no end to the number of places where someone can buy a product. People want to feel connected to a brand or business; they want to be inspired to buy; confident in their purchase and appreciated for their business. I call these The Four Motivators® and in my new book, Winning Her Business, I detail how to bring these motivators to life.

RTP: Are there brands that are currently doing a good job in communicating with and marketing to women, and are there lessons other brands can take from them?

Brennan: Sephora does a great job because of the way they’re able to master the customer experience, both analog and digitally. They have put a lot of time and energy into making every type of interaction, in all channels, emotionally engaging. They have bolstered a classic analog beauty experience, the makeover, with technology that allows you to use augmented reality (AR) to try different looks before the makeup is applied to your face. That helps customers feel confident that they are making the right decision. Curation and confidence-building, both in-store and online, are very important.

Lexus also does an excellent job. They don’t just sell the customer on the product: they communicate the experience of being a long-term customer of the brand. They paint a picture of what it will be like to be a Lexus owner, and will tour customers around the dealership to demonstrate things like: Here’s how we’ll service your car; here are the convenient ways we’ll make things easier for you. By talking about the experience of ownership, they are showing consumers that they want to have a long-term relationship with them. Often, the customer already is thinking about the future with any type of product purchase, especially a major one. They want to know how it will make life easier or better, so as a retailer, this where you want to be, too.

We all know Nordstrom is constantly mentioned as a retailer that delivers outstanding customer experiences, and there’s a reason. They have trailblazed in many different ways, and they continue to innovate with stores-within-a-store, pop-up-brands, and creating a bar/restaurant experience where shoppers and their companions can relax and refuel.

RTP: How does retail compare to other industries in terms of women in leadership roles?

Brennan: In most industries at the very top level, retail included, there are still far fewer women than men. Across the S&P 500, the CEOs are 95% male. We still have a lot of progress to make when it comes to gender balance in corporate leadership.

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