Marketers continue to fall into gender-stereotype traps

From Dell's female-focused Della site to Mars Snackfood's new candy bar Fling, there's been buzz in the online space about marketers not understanding how to speak to women, and instead tripping over the thin pink line distinguishing women's passion points from tired clichés.

From Dell's female-focused Della site to Mars Snackfood's new candy bar Fling, there's been buzz in the online space about marketers not understanding how to speak to women, and instead tripping over the thin pink line distinguishing women's passion points from tired clichés.

Based on consumer feedback, Dell eventually revised the Della site, including its “tech tips” section, which reportedly stated “once you get beyond how cute they are, you'll find that netbooks can do a lot more than check your e-mail.” The tips sections, then, noted ways to utilize netbooks for fitness and cooking objectives.

John Pope, senior manager in global consumer PR for Dell, tells PRWeek that Della was not a “think pink” marketing maneuver, but rather intended to tap “people who value that convergence of technology, style, and personalization.”

Recently, the new candy bar Fling faced criticism for its suggestive “naughty, but not that naughty” marketing campaign, including packaging that referred to the candy bars as “fingers” and ads that suggested women could “pleasure yourself” with the chocolate treats.

Fling was slammed for the references, though Ryan Bowling, PR manager in the integrated marketing communications group at Mars Snackfood US, says “finger” is a common culinary term for slim chocolate bars.

As many candy bars are targeted to men, Mars “felt there was a need in the marketplace and that's why we purposefully designed [the candy bar] to be quite feminine,” says Bowling, who adds that Fling is intended for an “empowered,” “self-sufficient,” and “career-minded” woman.

Both companies tell PRWeek these initiatives were developed with the help of focus groups and an internal team including women, and that they are driving sales while hitting their respective target audiences, despite some negative feedback.

Yet, the criticism demonstrates how companies – including well-funded, marketing-savvy ones – still struggle in determining the right way to market to women. While these products – chocolate and a computer – are gender neutral on the surface, the marketers clearly wanted to create campaigns that would resonate with women.

“I think gender-focused campaigns and… products can be very successful if done right,” says Ellen Ryan Mardiks, worldwide director of marketing and brand strategy at GolinHarris. “It's legitimate to expect that [women] are a target audience.”

Issues arise, though, when executed badly, she notes.

“If [campaigns] are only looking at one aspect of what women are interested in, it's of course going to be too narrow and stereotypical,” Mardiks explains.

For example, when Golin helped client Nintendo reach out to moms on its male-focused Wii gaming product, it included a MySpace page for the women to talk about how they played, she says.

And Edelman's Danielle Wiley, SVP of social media and consumer brands, points to client Dove's “Campaign for Real Beauty,” where “the biggest success com[es] when engaging real needs, rather than speaking down to people.”

Getting into those real issues, rather than stereotypes, will help brands succeed.

“Our philosophy is focus groups [need to be] replaced with actual conversations,” says Reggie Bradford, CEO of social media company Vitrue. “The best way for marketers to reach women is to provide tools to harness their opinions and feelings.”

Marian Salzman, partner at Porter Novelli, adds that values should drive a campaign, not gender.

“A driver is shared attitudes, beliefs, and values… It's not really effective to get women to galvanize around gender,” she says.

While Vitrue's Social Media Index (SMI) shows negligible statistics in context of online conversations regarding the Della and Fling brands, the changes made to the Della effort show the power of how “a small group of dissenters can be magnified through social media,” Bradford notes.

“[Consider] the ‘Motrin Moms' campaign, a fraction of the total audience had an uproar,” he says. “But, if you have consumers passionate enough to stand up and be heard… [marketers] should use it to develop a more proactive dialogue.”

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