Talk to Her

Despite the strides women have made over the years, marketers are just now waking up to the New Woman

It won’t come as a revelation to many that Harley-Davidson markets to women, the focus of several of the iconic motorcycle brand’s digital initiatives and promotional events. What might surprise them is that one of America’s most famous—and macho—brands has been advertising to women since the 1920s.

Among consumers profiled in its early ad campaigns are Avis and Effie Hotchkiss, a mother-and-daughter team who in 1915 biked from Brooklyn to the Pacific Coast and back, and 19-year-old Bessie Stringfield, who in the 1930s became the first black woman to make a cross-country motorcycle trip. Through those promotions, Harley-Davidson celebrated the new breed of independent, adventurous female.   

Since then, across generations, women have earned unprecedented control of their finances, their careers and their bodies. More women than men are graduating from college, more are buying their own homes, and more are in command of their own spending.

While that reality plays out in city highrises and suburban cul-de-sacs, rural areas and upscale gated communities, it’s too often not so apparent when it comes to marketing communications targeted to women.

When it comes to household purchases, marketers have long understood that it’s women who are the decision makers. Why is it, then, that in TV spots and magazine ads we tend to see the same old female stereotypes? The mom who dances around the kitchen with her new floor-cleaning system? The buxom barmaid serving up a cold one to some latter-day Marlboro Man type? All the tired portrayals of women as either sex kittens or matrons, depending on the particular product being sold?

That is not to say there’s not been progress in how marketers illustrate both the uniqueness and the evolution of women, and digital media have certainly expedited that. And nowhere can brands looking to strike lasting relationships with women consumers learn more than by looking at marketing to millennials, that generation of post-feminist consumers who are more independent and more tech and media savvy than their predecessors.

Last month, Unilever launched the first female product extension of its popular Axe line for young men. With the limited-edition fragrance, marketed in conjunction with the men’s product, the brand had already recognized the market potential of the female consumer already featured prominently in ads for Axe for men. That strategy clearly served to build affinity with females: Of Axe’s 2.6 million Facebook fans and Twitter followers in the U.S., nearly one-quarter are women.

“We made a strategic decision in recent years to involve women more closely in the creative to bring them even closer in on the joke,” says Barret Roberts, senior brand manager for Axe.

That said, there have been complaints that the brand’s racy ads—portraying animalistic, scantily clad young women chasing after the dude who uses Axe, what a tagline famously called “The Axe effect”—objectify women. And yet, spots for the new women’s fragrance turn the tables, casting grunting, predatory men in the wild-animal role.

“You can’t be a successful youth brand today if you’re not coed in your approach—this is a generation where guys and girls are friends and like to hang out in groups,” says Jonathan Bottomley, head of strategy at Axe’s agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London.

Axe’s young-adult target has been reared by a generation that’s more relaxed and less structured about relationships. This group of female consumers would no doubt tell Axe’s critics to relax and to simply accept sexual attraction as a fact of life. Given the media exposure of your typical millennial, she has an inate appreciation of transparency and a lack of spin.

Consider one of the most successful recent product launches for women, U by Kotex, designed to win back share after years of losses to rival tampon manufacturers. Parent Kimberly-Clark said its aim was to eliminate the shame and embarrassment surrounding personal-hygiene products and bring forth new honesty in discussing it. The product itself was designed with that sense of boldness, packaged in black boxes and neon wrappers. TV ads parodied the category’s marketing messages with spoofs of menstruating women dancing on the beach and in white spandex. “U by Kotex empowers women and young girls to challenge the euphemisms that hide the truth,” said Aida Flick, Kotex brand director.

“Women really liked U by Kotex because it was funny in using ad spoofs and the brand also did a great job at creating a forum to have teens and moms talk about their periods,” says Melissa Lavigne-Delville, vp, insights at Women at NBCU, part of NBCUniversal’s integrated media unit. The commercials were championed by Women at NBCU’s Brand Power Index.

This is certainly a group of female consumers who aren’t squeamish. Last summer, before Universal Pictures’ Bridesmaids opened, reviewers wondered what women moviegoers would think of the female protagonists’ swearing, farting, belching, vomiting—and worse. The sleeper quickly exceeded box office expectations and surpassed Sex and the City as the top R-rated female comedy of all time. It also became the top-grossing movie from filmmaker Judd Apatow, who pushed for a coed marketing strategy that included commercials airing not only during female programming but also during male-dominated events like the NBA playoffs.   

But unlike one of the leads in that film, women have become increasingly ambivalent about marriage, viewing it as an optional lifestyle and no longer an economic necessity. De Beers was quick to address this shift with its promotion of right-hand rings, urging its female customers: “Women of the world, raise your right hand.” It was a smart market tactic for an industry in which diamond engagement rings have been hawked as one of the ultimate accomplishments a woman can hope for. Now, women don’t need an engagement to put a ring on it.

More recently, ads from Lowe’s featured a single woman in her new home, admitting that she had felt intimidated about updating her bathroom before paying a visit to the home-supplies chain.

Chevy Malibu also employed a more contemporary and realistic female-targeted message with its “Dependable Friend” spot in which one young woman rescues another from a blind date. As the friends drive away, the one who just dumped the dude who described himself as a “professional student” cracks: “Single lane ahead. I’ll be in that lane.”