If you're searching for the aspirational ideal for the modern woman, it might be Sheryl Sandberg, the powerful COO of Facebook. Sandberg’s business success is unquestioned, given her position at Facebook and her prior success at Google, and she actively promotes women as business leaders—her popular TED Talk video decries the dearth of women in positions of power in the business world.
Yet Sandberg has also been quite vocal in her discussion that she also has a personal life. She notes in numerous interviews how she and her husband share their household responsibilities 50-50, how they prioritize their kids, how they prioritize both of their careers and how this household equality allows both of them to succeed.
While Sandberg may not be typical—after all, how many social media soon-to-be-billionaires are there?—her push for greater balance between career and family touches on the shifting role of women and what it means for them as consumers. As the role of women has grown in the workplace, it also has changed at home. There has long been discussion that women are moving from household gatekeeper to household decision maker. In 2012, that now appears to be the reality.
“Now the woman of the household is in many instances the head of the household and the decision maker,” says Vita Harris, global chief strategy officer at Draftfcb. “In past days, those things were very separate. There was the gatekeeper who was the mom, and there was the decision maker who was often male. Now these roles have blended, so you can’t treat them in silos. I think this has major implications for our industry.”
Today, more women are their family’s breadwinners than ever before. Harris notes that in the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of single-parent households was nearly equal to the number of dual-parent households. Analysis of the Census Department’s American Community Survey by the University of Minnesota found that more than 12 million families with children now rely primarily on women’s earnings (either single mothers or women providing at least half of a couple’s earnings), about a third of the approximately 35 million households with children nationwide.
This change has had significant implications for women. The January 2012 Women, Power & Money study from Fleishman-Hillard and Hearst Magazines—the fourth wave of research since the project was launched in 2008—found that women today are more likely than they were three years ago to describe themselves as “ambitious” (50 percent in September 2011 vs. 37 percent in 2008) and “decisive” (43 percent vs. 38 percent). At the same time, a third of women (33 percent) now see themselves as “stressed” compared to just 19 percent who used that word in 2008, a shift the report says is due to “the dual factors of a faltering economy and overloaded to-do lists.”
Still, women may be breadwinners, but they’re also still bread buyers. According to GfK MRI’s Spring 2011 Survey of the American Consumer, 75 percent of women are the primary shopper for all household products. When one considers that, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, annual U.S. personal consumption expenditures were $10.8 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2011, those are some pretty large purse strings.
“Think of anything in the typical kitchen or pantry and, chances are, it was brought home by the lady of the house,” says Anne Marie Kelly, EVP of marketing and strategic planning at GfK MRI.
It’s not just packaged goods and fashion either. Consumer categories long thought to be the bastion of male decision makers—such as automobiles, financial services and consumer electronics—are now falling to women. For instance, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) reports that while men still spend more on consumer electronics, the difference is shrinking considerably. On average, men spent $728 on electronics and gadgets in the past 12 months, while women spent $667 during that same time period, a difference of $61. In 2007, that difference was about $200.
Yet marketers still think they need to cater to women by creating phones in certain colors or with feminine touches. Consider, for example, HTC’s launch of its purple Rhyme Android phone, which included a light up charm so it could be found in a messy crowded purse. Engadget noted in its review: “The Rhyme’s promise as a piece of hardware got lost amid stereotypes painting women as ditzes who need a sparkling light to find their phone underneath tubes of lipstick.”
“Forget pink,” says Jessica Boothe, manager of strategic research at the CEA. “Women don’t want to be catered to with ultra-feminine looking products; they simply prefer lightweight devices that can fit smaller hands and smaller body frames.”
This points to another issue: the desire of marketers to try to reach “women” as opposed to the various segments of the female population. Instead, marketers need to start looking at different messages and different triggers. “We still have this belief that we target women 25 to 54,” says Jonni Hegenderfer, president of JSH&A, a Chicago-area consumer marketing public relations agency. “There is no such thing. It’s like using a thunderstorm to water your rosebuds.”
The Rise of the Social Purchaser
Where women do differ is in their use of their social circles to broadcast and influence purchases. While this may not be new, the growing importance of social media has hypercharged this form of social commerce, further catapulting women into a position of decision maker within their household, and influencer inside and outside it.
“Within digital, more of these commerce decisions are being made in social environments,” says Thom Brodeur, president and COO of EmpowHER Media, publisher of a social platform for women related to health, wellness and lifestyle. “I would argue that social discussion is the currency of commerce. Inherently, women are better at sharing points of view when it comes to household buying.”
In many cases, this influence on decision making is not just occurring on Facebook or Twitter, but via online product reviews and other references. Women are clearly influenced by these opinions and are both consumers and contributors of online reviews. The behavior is mirrored in face-to-face interactions.
Women, Power & Money cites this in its January 2012 report: “With the greater importance of social circles more generally comes a greater influence of social dynamics on marketplace behavior. Simply put, she is becoming an even more important influencer on the marketplace.”
For example, in the study, half of women say they regularly influence friends and family to buy or not buy a particular product or service, up from 31 percent in 2008. Moreover, 54 percent of women agree they feel it is their responsibility to help friends and family make smart purchase decisions. In terms of social interactions, 33 percent had recommended a specific product or service to someone in the previous six months and 30 percent had reviewed a product or service on a website.
“Simply put, when it comes to the dynamics of today’s marketplace, women have changed the marketing communications game,” says Nancy Bauer, SVP and senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard. “The 2012 female consumer is a valuable broadcaster and an amplifier of ideas in the marketplace.”
Hegenderfer of JSH&A concurs. “We’ve always been used to talking to women,” she says. “Now, we have to reach out to them for feedback and engagement.”
Hegenderfer notes the growing influence of “mommy bloggers” as an example of the viral effect of online recommendations. For example, JSH&A works with Hershey’s at the annual BlogHer conference of women bloggers, to help the candy maker create tie-ins with mom bloggers to promote its latest offerings. “Women are gatherers,” she says. “She buys based on information and recommendations.”