“Female customers? Make it pink.”
I once heard this sage advice in a product marketing meeting. It was said partly in jest – but only partly. Does that make it insulting, offensive, and sexist? Or was it a helpful insight into gender biases amongs consumers?

2015_JULY_ALL_MARKETING - Does Gender Matter in Marketing?

The answer is: there is no right answer. Gender is a complex area when it comes to business. You can say the wrong thing with the best of intentions, get it right by accident, or offend the very people you’re trying to please.

It’s important to bear gender in mind when you’re trying to market your products or services. Part of my psychology degree involved taking a critical look at a wide range of advertising campaigns. We soon saw a theme develop. Actually, two themes.

Gender themes in marketing

Products aimed at women tended to emphasize their power and freedom. Any male characters were usually portrayed as slow-witted, nice (and occasionally handsome), but dim.

Products aimed at men? Just substitute “pretty” for “handsome” in the previous sentence.

Why was there such a prejudiced state of affairs? Because it works. Or at least it did. But as social and sexual politics change over time, old stereotypes have to be shaken off.

That TV advert for laundry detergent with the idiot husband who can’t work the washing machine? Try that in some countries today and you’ll lose business from home-working dads who share the housework.

How about advertising a new convertible sports car, using a sexy blonde model in the magazine ads? It might have worked in the 1970’s, but in many countries today women make over 50 percent of car purchasing decisions. So maybe the sexy blonde model should be male.

There are more subtle differences too. A colleague attended a seminar in New Zealand about women in business. The audience was predominantly female, the speakers were not. One male speaker kept referring to the audience as “You ladies…” and was surprised at their growing hostility. Women, yes. Ladies, no. Just one reason why you need to know your target audience – and market – inside out.

Stereotypes are never useful

I recently pointed out to a client that part of their planned content was unlikely to be well received. The text stated that when hard-working female entrepreneurs needed a break, they should buy shoes, visit a beauty salon, or go on a weekend trip with their husbands.

Some might want to do that. Others might want to go bungy-jumping, skiing, nightclubbing or just sit at home reading a book. It’s not sensible to lump everyone together by gender, especially using such predictable stereotypes.

In a different vein, I’ve done some writing work with an inspiring group of women at the League of Extraordinary Women. As you can see, their website is pink. Very pink. Their site and their business is designed by and for women. It’s important that their website is attractive to their target audience, and they’ve chosen a pink theme.

Pink is definitely not a universal female preference. I speak as the father of two daughters who would much rather wear black. But maybe, sometimes, if you’re trying to win more female customers it’s okay to use pink – even though it’s considered a cliché.

How do you do it right?

Gender does matter, but how do you strike the right tone in your own marketing and advertising campaigns? The goal is to get your message across to your potential buyers without offending them – or anyone else.

The organizations I’ve seen that get it right do so by treating their customers as people, not as two groups divided along biological lines. They research their market in great detail and understand the preferences and dislikes of their target audience. They know when it’s okay to use pink, or talk about ladies instead of women, and when it isn’t.

It’s easy to slip into the type of thinking that says “Men do X, women do Y,” but it’s also counter-productive. You’ll find a lot of women doing X and plenty of men doing Y. If you want to reach all your potential customers, skip the patronizing stereotypes. Do your research carefully and address your customers they way they want to be addressed.

Alex Cruickshank Xero

This content is provided courtesy of Xero Accounting Software - used by hundreds of thousands of businesses all over the world.