Women. The Alpha Consumers


How many marketing campaigns can you recall from 2012? You know, the ones that really resonated with you and made you go out and buy something?

Are you still thinking?

As women all over the world continue to join the workforce, they’ve become ‘alpha consumers,’ driving 70-80 percent of all consumer spending. In addition to buying products and services with their own money, women are the primary influencers for their spouses’ and partners’ spending as well, determining which products do – or don’t – enter the household.

This combination of money and veto power is the most powerful one-two punch in the consumer economy. And it’s why executives in almost every industry work to create products and services with female appeal, even in traditionally ‘male’ product categories like electronics, automobiles, insurance and finance. Why is it, then, that so many attempts to reach women fail, or are met with ridicule, as with the recent BIC ‘For Her’ pens launch that was mocked so thoroughly for being patronizing that it became the subject of a commercial satire on The Ellen DeGeneres Show?

It seems so obvious, yet there are few things more obvious than the fact that men and women are different, and yet most people aren’t taught about how gender differences relate to business in any formal way, whether in college, business school or on-the-job training. It’s an enormous oversight in an economy in which one sex so heavily dominates consumer spending. Acknowledging, researching and understanding gender differences has become an imperative for executives of both sexes.

Why? There are two big reasons. First, women are brought up in a culture of their own gender, with its own social codes and language patterns. Since women weren’t in positions of power when the modern corporate world was created, men naturally created it in their own image.

Business culture is unequivocally male, which means many things we now take for granted as conventional wisdom in marketing, sales and product design are actually based on a masculine point of view. Since men run 96 percent of Fortune 1000 companies (according to research firm Catalyst), and women buy the majority of all consumer products, this can lead to marketing messages and strategies that get lost in translation.

The second reason is the persistent stereotype that women are insatiable shoppers of frivolous things. ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ stereotypes are slow to die. And like most stereotypes, this one does a disservice to women, and can lead to tone-deaf marketing strategies. The real reason women drive so much consumer purchasing is that in every society in the world, women have primary care-giving responsibility for both children and the elderly. In this capacity as primary caregivers, women buy on behalf of everyone in their households. This means that women are multiple markets in one: they are the gateway to everyone else.

The bottom line is that women are females first and consumers second. The ability to understand women’s brain structures, priorities, worldviews and demographic patterns can make the difference between success and failure in the marketplace. How can you leverage this knowledge in your own business? Here are five ways:

  1. 1. Study women with the same intensity you would a foreign market, even if you’re a woman. No matter where you’re born, you’re born into the culture of your own gender. Studying the cultural differences between genders is critical for executives targeting a female demographic. Read everything you can on the subject.
  2. 2. Recognize that customer service and marketing are the same thing. Research shows that women have higher expectations of the service experience than men do. The fact that most women consider great customer service to be a novelty means it’s a major opportunity for business.
  3. 3. Remember: Pink is not a strategy. Pink has been the designated universal female color on marketers’ menus for so long, it’s beginning to cause a little indigestion. An exception is when a product is raising money for the worthy cause of breast cancer research. Unless your company is trying to raise money for the disease, however, pink is style, not substance.
  4. 4. Pay attention to the major demographic changes impacting women. From delayed marriages and smaller families to the aging population, there are several global shifts among women that are only beginning to be tapped by businesses.
  5. 5. Never forget that women are females first and consumers second. Try using the words ‘women’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘consumers’ in your business conversations, and see if it changes the dynamics of the discussion. These simple words may help you ground your ideas in a female point of view.

About Bridget Brennan

Bridget Brennan is CEO of business strategy firm Female Factor and author of the acclaimed book Why She Buys: The New Strategy for Reaching the World's Most Powerful Consumers (Crown Business, July 2009). Her book was called “essential reading” by The Wall Street Journal and “required reading for anyone burdened with a Y chromosome” by Fortune Small Business. A recipient of numerous industry awards, Ms. Brennan was named U.S. Public Relations Agency Practitioner of the Year by PR NEWS for her work in applying gender psychology to communications. She is also contributing writer on the subject of marketing and selling to women for Forbes.