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What Women Want: the New Terms of Engagement

Like millions of women across the country, one of the first things Rachel Sawyer does each morning is to log onto her computer. That moment marks the dawn of 12-plus Web-rich hours where she is exposed to marketing messages, ads and other inducements to buy everything from shoes to financial services. "Everything I do is online," says Sawyer, 45, a librarian who lives near Baltimore with her teenage son. "I shop online, I read the news online, I bank online. I probably would never need to leave the house."

Sawyer gets RSS feeds on politics, subscribes to e-mail alerts about clothing sales, and downloads grocery coupons. Where she once subscribed to three home-delivered newspapers, now she reads them on the Web. When she's done with work, she'll add to her blog, Tinkertytonk. Toward the end of her Internet saturated day, she'll turn on the TV to relax.

"I'm a big consumer," she says, "but most advertising just annoys me."

Ouch. Why is marketing to women so challenging? With blogs, message-boards, social networks and other Internet-based feedback, what women think and want is easily at hand for brands that are listening.

"Demography is dead," says Ann Mack, director of Trendspotting for New York-based agency JWT. "It's horrible to say in our industry, which has so easily sectionalized people and targeted them with advertising. But in this world, you can no longer simply target to a demographic. You also have to look at life stage versus age."

Michele Miller, author of The Soccer Mom Myth and the WonderBranding blog on marketing to women, agrees. "Big marketers, if they haven't adjusted already, are about to receive a very big surprise," Miller says. "We are experiencing a major shift in our culture."

The changes are dizzying. "We always have to be five steps ahead of the audience," says Bob Bibb, co-chief marketing officer for Lifetime Networks. "It used to be that the culture would shift every couple of years; now it's every three months or so."

To stay ahead of the curve, savvy brands and media increasingly are segmenting their marketing by life stages. The vocabulary varies: Women may be categorized as Millennials, Gen Y or X'ers, Moms, or boomers, or grouped by consumer "accumulation" stages, Myers-Briggs personality types or psychographics. Oxygen Media just announced a strategy to target what it calls "Generation O," women aged 18 to 34 who are "trenders, spenders and recommenders."

Women and their busy lives can no longer be slotted into neat generational labels. For example, a brand marketing to mothers should be looking at women who may be 24 years old-or 44. Career women could be 30-or 60. They are all going through the same life stage, but they are not the same age.

"From a marketing standpoint, we think more about key life events, rather than age, such as married with kids, single, college," says Suzanne Kolb, chief marketing

officer for E! Entertainment Television and The Style Network and general manager of E! Online.

At the same time, major woman-targeted media companies are offering more and more touchpoints for their advertisers' (and their own) brands to integrate into women's lives, from online games to experiential efforts. Witness The Style Network's traveling "Beauty Bus," a Winnebago that offered local residents free makeovers, beauty tips and goodie bags. Likewise, ABC heralded the return of two popular soap opera characters by targeting African-American fans at 12,000 beauty shops.

Much of the cross-platform outreach is taking place online, where Web sites go far beyond regular programming content to include games, quizzes, forums and news. Adam Rockmore, senior vp of marketing for ABC Daytime and SOAPnet, likens the trend to creating "connective tissue."

SOAPnet.com relaunched this spring to celebrate life in a "soapy nation," where women are captivated by drama not just on the TV screen but by stories of real-life celebrities. Lifetime Networks developed a "360-degree approach" with its Web site relaunch. "The idea that women are solely watching television anymore is long gone," says Dan Suratt, executive vp of digital media and business development at Lifetime.

Because women are harder to reach and trust fewer brand messages, it's important to tap into the sources they find most credible. "Women respond to women," says Linda Landers, founder of Girlpower*, a strategic marketing consultancy. "Their most credible sources are friends and family. Direct mail and traditional advertising are way down the list. They're looking for a more collaborative approach to problem-solving. People are looking to simplify their lives. They're busier than ever, and they are looking for people or products to make their lives easier and save time."

At any point in their lives, women are powerful consumers. They have more financial and earning power than ever. Studies show they control 80 percent of the purchasing decisions in families. Women are buying cars, homes and financial products traditionally marketed as gender-neutral or to men. More women use the Internet than men and increasingly use online communities to replace the neighborhood interactions of old. And while women seek advice from their husbands, friends and families to make purchasing decisions, smart marketers know they had better appeal to them in a meaningful way, or else.

"Marketing to women should not be a special effort; it should be mainstream. It almost seems like a nobrainer," says Kelley Skoloda, director of the Ketchum Global Brand Marketing Practice and author of the upcoming Too Busy to Shop.

Nonetheless, marketing to women emerged as a specialty practice only recently. The first "mainstream" M2W conference launched four years ago, Skoloda says. Pink magazine, targeted to women in business, launched in 2005. Several books, such as The Soccer Mom Myth published in early 2008, are guides to effectively engaging women consumers. Industries such as financial services, real estate and automotive are waking up. For instance, CarTango.com recently launched a social marketplace targeted to female car buyers.

To reach female consumers effectively, marketers must be credible, consistent and use multiple channels at the same time, Skoloda says.

That means providing messages with "authenticity" that resonate emotionally. It means using new research and marketing insights. And it means using integrated marketing tools, from setting up bulletin boards and blogs, creating special events and providing non-commercial information online as well as using print and TV.

"We've recognized that the definition of the point of entry has evolved," says Jack Bamberger, senior vp of corporate sales at Meredith 360. "A consumer may experience our brand in different ways. It's a horizontal story instead of a vertical story."

Meredith's TV, online and print resources provide a surround-sound marketing message. The company participates in the National Kitchen and Bath Association trade show by exhibiting five kitchen and bath build-outs led by editors of Meredith magazines, such as Better Homes and Gardens. That multimedia project showcases ad sponsors at the event, on Meredith's TV programming, on the pages of the magazines, and on the Web. There's even a sweepstakes component.

Meredith, which has long understood the life-stage approach, uses reader polls, its database of 87 million women, 5,000 yearly in home consumer visits, weekly online focus groups and other research to tap into changing consumer behavior.

"We're really about understanding what women want," says Nancy Weber, chief marketing officer.

Similarly, Oxygen Media's cable network used extensive research in rebranding to hyper-focus on young "trenders who consume heavily and influence others' spending patterns." In late April, the network unveiled a multiplatform strategy to reach "Generation O" everywhere they are and a new tagline, "Live Out Loud," to describe its audience as women who like to look good, feel good and have fun living life on their own terms.

WE tv, a leading woman-focused entertainment network, is relaunching its Web site this spring to reflect psychographics based on "accumulation" habits and using its research in upfront presentations to guide media buyers.

"We've gotten some significantly positive reactions from advertisers," says Kennetta Bailey, WE tv's senior vp of marketing. "Several key ad agencies and clients have taken a look at the research and said, 'I get it.' We never abandoned demographic research, but supplementing it is a smart way to go."

Online tools and research methods help marketers focus on engaging women in long-term relationships with their brands, targeting the highest-value customer rather than mass-marketing. Imagine having access to real-time, real-life conversations to help you shape your marketing plans.

MarketTools, a research company, provides its clients with analysis of mothers' "unguided" messaging on blogs and has access to 10,000 moms whose comments can be more helpful than a traditional focus group, says Emily Morris, director of product marketing for online communities.

Through the Mom's Insight Network, one education client tweaked its ads based on what the mothers said. "They didn't like the ads that focused on kids doing poorly and then getting caught up to speed," Morris says. "The moms wanted the kids to focus on success and on feeling good about themselves."

Some brands are almost anthropological in their research. A baby-wipes brand enlisted mothers to wear a headset that recorded their activities while they changed diapers. Contrary to what the women claimed they did (always using a changing table), they actually were changing the baby on the floor or on top of the washing machine. And as they did so, they struggled with the baby wipes packaging, which required two hands. The manufacturer changed the packaging and probably saved the brand.

About.com recently began offering clients the Guru Insight Network, a mechanism for mining data from its 700 "guides," or content experts. "For a client who's interested in women and how they behave online, we can reach women in so many different areas of their lives," says Peter Weingard, vp of marketing. "It's very interesting data."

A food company wanted to know when people were accessing online recipes. It turns out that cooks were planning the evening meal at work in the middle of the day. "That becomes a very targeted advertising opportunity," Weingard says. "By the time they've gotten home, it's too late."

Authenticity is also key. "Perfect imagery has long been dictated by men," says Mack. "Air-brushed images, that sort of thing - the game is up. People now realize, 'I may have cellulite or sagging here or there,' but it's OK. That's reality."

Recent ads such as Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" have set a benchmark. The Dove message sets aside expectations that all women should aspire to look like supermodels. Similarly, Curves International's campaign focuses on health and fitness rather than weight loss. Mattel's "We believe in girls" message and Rice Krispies® engage parents to enjoy their kids' childhood together.

David Reis, president of DEI and a word-of-mouth marketing pioneer, works with Kraft to create interactive vehicles that connect with consumers. "Remove the veil," he advises. "If you want to successfully market to women, you have to not BS them. You cannot deceive them and have them expect one thing and deliver another… Honesty is so well-received. People are so sick of the BS."

One especially skeptical market may be millennial girls. "Modern girls are unlike any consumer the marketing industry has ever faced," says Heidi Dangelmaier, founder of the marketing-to-girls consultancy 3iying. "They are super-fast, super-aware, super-enabled and super-smart. They are the pickiest market ever."

In Dangelmaier's opinion, the much-lauded Dove campaign is off the mark. "Those ads are too angry and too negative for modern girls," she says. "Girls who are growing up on the Internet have a deep confidence in themselves… Millennial girls never felt tricked or manipulated by the beauty industry. They are savvy to Photoshop and photo-retouching."

Dangelmaier posted YouTube videos showing her advisory group of young women "flipping" ads they consider insulting and ineffective. "Who signed off on this?" is a common refrain.

Meantime, their mothers are yearning for information and hunting it down online. "They don't want people to tell them how to do something-they want to be the authority in their own homes," says Morris, of Market- Tools. "They are looking for tools to help them do this. Companies that provide moms with information are the ones that moms trust more."

About.com created two custom programs this year to focus on women's need for information: The Moms' Corner, sponsored by Disney, and the McDonald's-sponsored Family Balance microsite. This spring, the company is combining its pediatric health content with the parenting channels.

"Advertisers increasingly want targeted and age-specific content," says Sylvia Barsotti, editorial director of health and parenting for About.com. "We feel this is a way to give it to them and to give the readers what they want as well."

The election year has also served to focus more attention on women. JWT's Trendspotting lists among key advertising trends for 2008 the concept of "Queen trumps king." Hillary Clinton's candidacy may foreshadow increased career opportunities for women.

"When women rise to points of power on the political stage, they rise up through the ranks in corporations," says Mack. "That is going to trickle down to the consumer. The products and services on the market will increasingly reflect her wants, needs and desires."

Sometimes it seems most brands are focused on Moms, Gen X'ers, or single women, but every fifth female is a woman over 50, says Linda Landers of Girlpower*. "Some marketers still stereotype women over 50 as people headed to Grandma-Land."

Ignore boomer women at your peril. "There's going to be a huge transference of wealth," says Landers. "They're going to get hit twice, not only when they inherit from their own parents, but they will inherit when their spouse passes on. This market has a lot of years left in them."

They're traveling. They're savvy. They're online. They're key decision-makers. Boomer women are vibrant and they have money to spend. Older women see retirement differently; they're interested in longevity and staying healthy longer.

Says Miller: "Those companies that keep living by the old rules are going to have a difficult time. At the same time, this represents an extraordinary opportunity to create something so genuine that the sky's the limit in terms of growth. This is a fascinating time for marketing to women."

Clearly, dramatic changes are afoot, and marketers will need to be ever more nimble and agile if they are to tap into the vast consumer dollars controlled by women. The pressure is on to be more real, more authentic and less corporate.


Marilyn A. Moore, Adweek. May 5, 2008

Copyright © 2008 Nielsen Business Media, Inc.. All rights reserved.