Selling to the Bridget Jones generation
Targeting today's woman is seen as adland's biggest challenge, writes Meg Carter. But just exactly who is she?
Monday 16 March 1998
And boy is adland running hard to keep up. So hard, in fact, that understanding today's female under-35s is becoming an industry in its own right. Focus groups, demographic analyses and, this week, a one-day Winning Women conference are being devoted to the cause as advertisers try to come to grips with who we are, what we want and how to persuade us to spend our cash on them.
There's a stark difference in attitude between women in their mid-thirties and over and those who are younger, believes Carol Reay, chief executive of advertising agency Mellors Reay & Partners and chair of the Winning Women event. "It's the post-feminist thing, I suppose. Working women of my age, 41, definitely feel they are one of only a few. I don't think younger women feel so lonely or out on their own," she says. "The problem with marketing is that it hasn't got it right for many older women for quite some time. Whether it's getting it right for the younger, post-feminist brigade must surely be in doubt as well."
Never have there been so many better-educated women working and earning more and putting off marriage and having children later. We want to cram more into our lives and we have more to spend than ever before. The challenge for the advertising industry is to understand what we want and where we're coming from. But how can they do so when many of us, apparently, still don't really know ourselves?
"These women are optimistic but torn - between hope and excitement about what they can achieve and the cultural norm of marrying, settling down and having kids," says Melanie Howard, director of forecaster the Future Foundation.
"Their challenge is to define a positive role in society beyond the late Eighties' negative stereotypical career woman who was a ball-breaking man hater."
Conflict is a major factor affecting our everyday lives, agrees Paul Edwards, chief executive of the Henley Centre for Forecasting. "There is still conflict between carer or career - how these women will resolve it will surprise all of us. Many women working in marketing departments today are baby-boomers and don't understand their younger, female consumers."
Even so, today's young woman views the future - with its increased freedom and growing opportunities - with optimism. Society is opening out to produce a huge younger generation of people who interact very well with each other, it seems.
"There may still be industries where women are not so well accepted, but there is hope that by confronting old prejudices the walls will come down," says Ms Fydler, who conducted research among a cross-section of ambitious and successful women aged between 15 and 35 earlier this month. "These women see men and women as different but equal. They don't want to emulate to succeed, they want to be themselves."
Confidence and independence no longer come from external trappings. "It's down to being yourself and feeling comfortable with it. These women are far more inner-directed," she says. And the role models chosen by this age group would appear to underline the point. Forget Anita Roddick and Germaine Greer, today's sources of inspiration are clever yet unostentatious, quietly confident and not obsessed by outward appearance.
This, however, is where many marketers fall down. Adland may now proudly denounce overtly sexist advertising, but it still relies too much on sexual stereotypes. Long gone are the days when car ads featured scantily clad female models to demonstrate "handling", or a household product was enthused over by, in adland parlance, "2 Cs in a K" (Clue: K stands for kitchen and the C word rhymes with "punt"). Yet many marketing "experts" are still missing the point. Using sex to sell is old hat, Ms Fydler claims. And using gender roles and role-reversal is dismissed by many as "boring".
Take the Nissan Micra's "Ask before you borrow it" campaign. Many of Ms Fydler's interviewees responded negatively to the depiction of the woman as a ranting harridan. The Terry's Chocolate Orange ad starring Dawn French, however, shows a large woman enjoying chocolate with a witty endline: "It's not Terry's, it's mine!" This scored better as it was seen to portray a woman at ease with herself.
Another popular ad was for Boots Natural Collection, in which a naked girl dances in a giant fish tank. She, too, was perceived as liberated, in control and at ease with her body.
"These people don't like to be sold a lifestyle by a product," Ms Fydler adds. "Too often marketers focus on their product rather than women's attitudes to themselves and their changing role in society." In other words, don't talk to me as a woman, engage me as a person. And if the product's specifically aimed at women? "Don't mess about, tell me about it and why it's so great."
Edwards believes there is a role for products and brands which "offer solutions" to young women's increasingly complicated and busy lives. Practical benefits rather than aspirational images are therefore more effective, he claims. Marketers used to assume women were looking for symbols of motherhood, family or home life. Not any more. Nowadays it is blokes who seek reassurance in advertising.
"Women today want a product that does this or that," he says. "Men want brands, meanwhile, that say `It's OK. Don't worry. Buy this'." Poor dears.
For information about Winning Women contact 0171-413 4116.
Dawn French "Funny, big and beautiful - obviously a woman at ease with herself"
Jennifer Saunders "Funny, clever, private - doesn't over-sell herself"
Vivienne Westwood "Has really carved out a niche for herself and stuck it out in a tough business world"
Isabella Rossellini "Beautiful but doesn't care - willing to look her worst on film"
Anita Roddick "Has sold out, too commercial, doesn't `walk the talk' as she has claimed"
Germaine Greer "What is feminism - it's about equalism nowadays"
Janet Street Porter "Loud, exhibitionist and obnoxious - seems to be saying things just for effect, even though this is probably unfair"
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