Ten years ago, Peter Frost made an observation that would change his life. He spotted that women were spending much more on stationery than men – or rather, had more say over how the stationery budget was spent.
He also found out that women valued stationery more than men, viewing it as a tool to help them do their jobs better, while men were far more dismissive.
Today, Frost is chief executive officer of Profiency Group, a conference organiser focusing on women's key position in the consumer and business marketplaces. He turned his office equipment company Officesmart into a market leader purely because he recognised the buying potential of women in an area that was hitherto seen as mainly the domain of businessmen.
"It all started when we recommended our stationery manufacturers to make more personal products that women would appreciate," he says. "Our sales rocketed."
Having revolutionised the stationery company, he formed the Proficiency Group to look specifically at marketing to women in general.
"Research we carried out showed that women are responsible for most buying decisions, not only in the office environment but also in home, DIY and car sectors," he says. "Incredibly, 90% of marketing messages are aimed at men and created by men. However, 80% of purchases are either made by or directly influenced by women."
This one statistic alone could account for why many companies have taken so long to catch up with the view prominently displayed on the Proficiency Group website www.proficiency2020.com: "Women are not a niche market, nor are they a new market. They are the market. Women want ‘productivity' solutions – time, money and space-saving ideas. Most manufacturers simply haven't looked at it that way before."
However, now the race seems to be on. The makers of many products traditionally seen as male-oriented have suddenly woken up to the fact that by gender-specifying their campaigns they are excluding a huge market. From beer to cars, gadgets to walking boots, DIY to pensions, campaigns have been launched that no longer reek of testosterone.
But are they getting it right? What are women looking for from advertising? First, it's necessary to find out why companies are suddenly alert to women's huge influence in the marketplace.
When asked, Karen Enver, planning director at London marketing agency Draft London, exclaims: "Because they earn money! Since more women are in employment (one of the highest proportionally in Western Europe), starting up companies and getting better educational results, they are more of a force to be reckoned with."
She also highlights a key business trend.
"Nowadays, a marketing department is far more likely to be staffed and headed by women, and their agencies are increasingly placing women in management roles.
"So, not surprisingly, the way women are thought of is changing."
Jan Adcock, group publishing director at women's title Cosmopolitan, which has recently launched a monthly page on cars, adds: "Lifestyle values are currently changing almost as much as they did in the 1970s. We all have growing affluence. Luxury goods are now accessible to everyone. Women start their adult lives arguably more confident than men as they mature more quickly, and most are also better educated. Of course, the big change from days gone by is that now many women don't jump into marriage and motherhood until they've been working for around 10 years."
Over this period women have a high level of disposable income, which they are desperate to spend.
But the lifestyle change isn't restricted to female 20-somethings. As Adcock points out: "Women still want traditional lives, but in a different sense to their grandparents. They still want to get married and have babies, but that doesn't mean that they have to stop enjoying all the things they did when they were single.
"There is no sense anymore of what middleage means. This has led to retail democracy on the high street. Many 40-year-olds are just as comfortable in Top Shop as 20-year-olds."
This, of course, has been spurred on by the fact that many women maintain their careers while they bring up children, or take a short break and go back to them later. This increases women's social and financial independence. As a result, women have more spending power, which has probably led marketers to finally acknowledge the big influence on purchases that they have actually had for some time now.
The new trend is the squeezing of the sector of products that used to be the sole territory of men, shrinking it down to condoms (although a lot of women buy these too), shaving foam and girlie mags.
Effectively extending the influence of a male-oriented product into this newly empowered female market is a sophisticated task. Simply slapping all visuals on a pink background won't wash. In fact, one thing is certain: companies that approach women in such a patronising way will feel the backlash.
A recent edition of the Radio 4 show You and Yours provided an excellent example of just how sensitive women are to even a whiff of being patronised. Mark Hastings, of the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), had been invited in to talk about his campaign to get women to drink more beer. Its first strategy was to introduce smaller measures in more stylish glassware, as research had shown that women felt uncomfortable drinking pints and attached negative connotations to halves.
Before Hastings had finished his introduction, the show received e-mails and texts from women outraged that the BBPA should think that they wanted "glasses for girls" and were quite happy drinking out of glasses.
Of course, as Hastings pointed out, existing women beer drinkers were not the target audience, but rather those who do not currently partake. However, this did illustrate just how careful the BBPA has to be with its campaign if it is not going to alienate its existing female customer base.
So what do marketers who are used to attracting blokes have to do to draw women to their products? The first rule is don't overdo it.
Anything that's obviously feminised for the sake of it can be horribly condescending and, as the response to the BBPA's campaign proved, this should be avoided at all costs.
"An advertising and marketing communication with ‘Made for Women' written all over it is not only off-putting to men, but will also deter women," says Draft's Enver.
A concept car recently created by Volvo proudly proclaims that it has been designed by women, but Jane Asscher, managing partner at marketing agency 23red, believes this is too much.
"Women aren't crying out to have products that are designed by women," she says. "They're just out for recognition of their needs by marketers and manufacturers. Volvo's whole design history focuses on safety and reliability, which will appeal to women anyway. By taking the women-only approach, they are watering down their strong brand values."
But Volvo's corporate communications manager, Tatiana Butovitsch Temm, explains: "The YCC (Your Concept Car) is made by women, but for everyone, just like there are women architects and not only women can live in those houses.
The idea behind the YCC is that if you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men. Our research revealed that women who buy cars in the premium segment want everything in their cars that men want when it comes to performance, prestige, quality and style. But then women want more. This makes her the most demanding customer. And by including women, not excluding men, we are confident that the YCC appeals to both sexes."
According to Enver, what works best is communication that targets a mindset that isn't hopelessly stereotyped so that it still pulls in both audiences. "You could argue that Lynx has pulled off the impossible – a feminised approach to a male product with blokey appeal," she says. "Kwikfit has recently tackled this well with a campaign from both a male and female point of view, which seems quite realistic and doesn't patronise. The AA has also shown how it can help women, but without alienating men with its Roadside service. However, I do think that the RAC has tended to over-dramatise the problem."
Another plus for the Lynx ad is that it displays an additional feature that women respond to: humour. And it's something that many campaigns ignore. However, be warned: women are happy to laugh at themselves, but make fun of their man and you're in big trouble.
"Alcohol was one of the first male-oriented sectors to consider the changing role of women in society with their ladette ads," says Deborah McCrudden, of consumer research company Synovate.
"However, although these were generally humorous, which is certainly a tactic that appeals to women, they were portraying women as the sexual predator, which had an emasculating effect on men. This is not something women respond to or particularly like and it doesn't work culturally. It's akin to someone taking the micky out of your father and it doesn't go down very well."
Women also want to see ad campaigns that present transparent benefits. They are looking for brands they can identify with and so want companies to be direct about what their products stand for. What's more, they want the message to be put over as succinctly as possible because their busy lifestyle means they have up to 30%less time than men to take ads in.
This is particularly the case with women in work, as Futurebrand's Jasmine Montgomery explains. "Where men are able to disengage from the home when they are at work, many working women are ordering their groceries online while talking to a client on the phone," she says.
"Conversely, men tend to view the weekend as purely leisure time, whereas many women are catching up on household tasks that are left over from their busy week."
According to Frost, women also respond better to real situations, rather than those that are overly posed. This probably explains why the latest B&Q campaign has gone down so well. It features women who look real in fun and inspiring homestyle settings, finally acknowledging that the way to sell more DIY products is to reach the person who's making the decisions on what the house will look like.
All DIY stores sell the tools to do the work; the big differentiator is affordable style. Those outlets that can prove they can do this better than the competition will triumph. What's more, women are increasingly carrying out home improvements either with or without their partners.
"We've been conscious for some time that women are not only doing more DIY, but that they are also decision-makers when it comes to shopping," says Lorian Coutts, B&Q's director of communications. "We're also aware that women do like to do the finishing touches – buying rugs, lighting, handles, vases, curtain finials, etc.
This has meant that everything from designing the store to the ranges we sell, as well as the marketing campaigns, have had to evolve."
B&Q's sponsorship of yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, although not part of the recent campaign, has further strengthened the retailer's offer to women.
Another example of a successful campaign, and one that is often overlooked because it has been done so effortlessly, is the latest one for Apple's iPod.
This is an uber-gadget that might have been adopted by so-called "geeks", who are primarily male. But now with the release of the iPod Mini and a beautifully simple cross-gender advertising campaign, the product has been pitched squarely at women as well as men. The usual close-ups of the gadget or techie facts give way to fun, vibrant images of men and women grooving away, emphasising ease of use and style.
According to Asscher, Nike has also done particularly well in connecting with women.
"This has become part of their core strategy," she says. "I think they have got it absolutely right.
The new campaign focuses on design, style and technology. It's not patronising to women and doesn't alienate men.
"Nike's product design has shifted to create proper standalone female and children's trainers, not just cut down versions of male products.
They have tapped into women's different fitness values to men and have built a community around the brand, including initiatives such as running nights for women. Now each group feels like it owns the brand – women, kids and men."
Of course, the list could go on, as there are an increasing number of sectors reorienting their products towards a female audience – and about time, too. There should, however, be a word of caution.
Some companies – like Standard Life – have moved from gender-neutral ads to ads targeting women alone. The shift from the talking baby ads to "I like Standard Life" has created a more emotional campaign that, while it includes male and female versions of the ad, could put off men who prefer amore rational approach.
As Honda's UK marketing director Simon Thompson puts it: "The traditional family hierarchy has completely changed. In some cases you have a little emperor syndrome where children are having a huge say in purchases. It's naive in the extreme to forget this and target individual genders. Keeping the same relevant social message is good for brand consistency. Putting out different messages to different genders can undermine and confuse the brand message.
"There's a lot of nonsense spoken in marketing about gender. It's common sense to look at the wider picture in society and examine buying patterns and influences. If you do this, you will see that women have a huge influence on buying decisions, even on products like beer, because even if a woman doesn't drink it, she will have an influence on when her partner drinks or whether he drinks wine with her.
"Perhaps it has been a mistake for any firms to market their products to men or women specifically and may reflect the male or female oriented industries that they spring from."
Surely the message for future campaigns is "don't exclude anyone".
Get her attention
Marketing-to-women specialist Rethink Pink offers 10 tips on communicating with women:
Give her a reason to howl with laughter and you may end up with a customer for life.
Give a woman clear benefit so she can rationalise her purchase and she won't think twice about buying it.
Make your message easy to share and harness the power of the girlfriend grapevine.
Don't over-feminise or women may find it patronising.
Offer women useful ideas, practical advice and cost effective solutions.
6 Real life
Women react better to believable real-world situations.
Convince her to buy your brand by leveraging credible endorsements from people she believes in.
Give her a solution that helps her gain control of her life and keep it all together.
Use this personal pronoun to get her attention.
Change is good – women want it and they like to be inspired by others who have done it.
Car companies –not delivering the promise
Many car manufacturers are reorienting their advertising campaigns to appeal to women as well as men. They are even launching new models with women in mind and promoting themselves on websites on women's issues.
But it's not enough to acknowledge women in ads or even in the models themselves.
This approach has to permeate throughout all the buying channels and rarely does it reach the dealerships, which in most cases are still very male dominated, dripping with arrogance and highly intimidating.
"It's okay promising the earth, but no good if you can't deliver it, and most car companies are failing woefully in this area," says Peter Matthews, managing director of advertising agency Nucleus.
"Why should you have to go to a dealer for a test drive? Why can't they deliver the car to you?"
Nucleus looked at all these issues when working with Toyota to create a better dealership experience. The result is Autobase, which aims to make taking your car for a service a joy rather than a nightmare. Collecting your car for you is part of the service and courtesy cars are standard, all of which creates a better customer experience and one that is particularly appealing to women.
It's a lesson to companies that promising a recognition of female values is not enough – they must deliver, too.
Getting it right
Outdoor leisure store Millets launched a campaign at Easter this year with the aim of broadening its appeal to reflect its increase in women customers. Devised by advertising agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, it uses humour and clever design to get the message across. One ad features a floral patterned tent created by leading designer Cath Kidston carrying the line "Delight children, impress friends, confuse bumble bees". This campaign will be followed through with a revamp of store interiors.
"Traditionally, outdoors stores used to be quite macho and intimidating: lots of khaki but not much fun," says brand manager Sue Morgan. "This didn't just put off women, it put off a lot of men, too.
"Our new Millets advertising deliberately takes a more accessible and colourful approach. That way, it shouldn't just appeal to a particular gender – just anyone who wants camping to be fun. Four years ago, the women's range represented 10% of our product mix. Now that figure is 40% and is growing every season."
This article was first published on Media Week