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How to market cars to women

This week I decided to offer some advice to those car marketers who sit around in their warehouse offices and decide just how a car will be marketed to women.

MOST OF OUR content here at Practical Motoring is aimed squarely at the consumer, but today, I’m writing for the information of car manufacturers and products.

And it’s an important topic, because it really impacts upon the experience of owning and driving a car – for me, and for about half of our Australian population.

Earlier this year, Summernats raised – as it always does – a lot of questions and discussion around the place of women in the automotive world.

Previously, the joint project between SEAT and Cosmopolitan to design a car for women (complete with ‘eyeliner’ on the headlights) landed so badly, it’s now legend among motoring circles. I’ve written previously about my earlier experiences shopping for a used car.

And now we have UltraTune pushing ahead with a series of advertisements that continue to cop a lot of criticism for their portrayal of women.

If you Google ‘marketing cars to women’, you’ll be overwhelmed with articles about the mistakes manufacturers have made, the problem they have with women – even about why women ‘hate’ the automotive industry. There’s very little good news to be found.

Yikes. How do we keep getting it so wrong?

Is there any other product industry that has such an obvious and overwhelming gender split? I’ve been fortunate to encounter nothing but honesty and respect from the manufacturers I’ve dealt with.  That said, I do have a running joke with my fellow female motoring journalists.

“Hashtag lifestyle!”, we frequently say to one another other. Because when a PR contact is trying to pitch a new car to you, and they find out you’re a woman, they inevitably say something to the effect of, ‘oh, you’ll love this car, it has some really great lifestyle aspects …” [What does this even mean? Do men not have lifestyles?]

Plenty of studies have found that more women than ever are buying and driving cars, and leading as well as influencing the family’s car-buying decision.  And just as frequently we find evidence that women feel consistently misunderstood and marginalised by the automotive industry and its marketing and advertising activities. Smart car-makers are realising there’s a big opportunity there, if they can get it right. So what does it take to market cars effectively to women?

For starters, don’t treat them like they’re all the same.

If I could send just one message to car manufacturers – and frankly, to many businesses more broadly – it would be this.

The idea that woman are a single, homogenous group, that think and act as one, is as ludicrous as making the same assumption about men. Every time we ask ‘what do women want?’, we should realise it’s as silly as asking ‘what do men want?’

What women want is to be recognised and treated as individuals with diverse knowledge, interests and desires. Just like men. Some like pink, and some like blue. Some wear high heels and some wear work boots.  Some throw shopping and their handbag in the back, while others throw in their golf clubs and cordless drill.

Of course, it’s necessary in marketing to make some generalisations about your target audience – what they know, what they think, and what they’re looking for. But these generalisations should segment female customer groups the same way they segment male customer groups.  The moment you treat all women (or all men) as one and the same, you’ve got it wrong.

Understand some women may not have the background knowledge you do.

That being said – and while there are hopefully many exceptions to the rule – chances are, the women visiting your showroom or website don’t have the broad background in cars that men do.

From a very young age – when they’re gifted their first set of Matchbox cars or first remote controlled vehicle – to popping their head under the bonnet with Dad as a teenager, men in our community tend to be steered toward learning about cars more than women are. There are plenty of good indications that’s changing, but we still have a long way to go to shift those norms.

People still assume women aren’t interested in talking about cars and don’t naturally invite them into conversations about cars. We still behave as though it’s a man’s domain, until the individual proves otherwise.

So even a woman who goes out of her way to take an interest and learn more about cars, is likely starting from a lower point that a man in the same position.  She has a lot of ground to make up first.

Treat them with respect.

That woman who wanders into your showroom may not know a lot about cars (yet). She might even feel awkward and self-conscious because she knows she’s out of her comfort zone.

But it’s good idea to remember that, chances are, she knows a whole lot about a whole bunch of others things. Things you can’t even imagine or begin to understand. She probably works, or studies, or does community work, or runs a household, or – in many cases – or all of the above.

The point is, if we remember that everyone has different strengths and abilities in different areas, it helps us remember to treat each other with a basic level of respect. If you have people on your team who can’t talk to women without talking down to them, or who resent having to explain the more complex aspects of the car, get rid of them. Stat.

They don’t belong in sales anyway, and chances are, it’s not just the women they encounter that they’re offending.

What’s good for women is often good for men, too.

It’s important to recognise that marketing which marginalises women has a negative impact on men as well. For every woman who doesn’t understand a lot about cars, there is at least one man who – despite a fair bit of pressure from society – barely knows his radiator from his exhaust pipe either. 

Chances are, if your approach to marketing is making women feel like idiots, it’s making a quite a few men feel like idiots as well.

If your business is so profitable, so lucrative, that you can afford to focus in on that narrow market of car enthusiasts, and damn the competition – good for you, and good luck to you.

But if you think you might need to be competitive and possible even expand your audience into new markets – then it makes no sense at all to exclude large and influential parts of your potential customer base.

From design through to sales – recognise differences without stereotyping.

If you were selling a car to a business-suited finance industry man in the CBD, you wouldn’t highlight the same features that you would if you were dealing with a tradesperson in hi-vis looking for a new ute – even though they’re both men.

So why not apply to same techniques when dealing with women? Women’s interests span far beyond looking pretty and going shopping. It is possible to recognise and address the different needs of car buyers, without resorting to lazy stereotypes. In this day and age of digital communication, someone will call you out on it.

If the woman you’re speaking with is wearing high heels, then do point out you’ve noticed this, and that the high-quality flooring that prevents scuffing and doesn’t wear through under the pedals. Don’t assume all women wear high heels and will need this feature.

Don’t try to sell them unnecessary extras, thinking they won’t know the difference anyway. Chances are, they’ve done their research online, and are not only onto your game but will be insulted you even tried to fool them in the first place. I’ve blacklisted dealerships and even entire brands of car for less.

Do ask what size car they want – don’t just head straight for the tiny hatchbacks. Maybe even make sure women feature as prominently in your large car advertising as well as your small car promotions.

If you want to market your cars effectively to women, ask your customers what they want their car to do and respond accordingly. The key is simply to not assume their gender determines their needs and preferences. Probably a good practice in marketing and advertising all round, really.

Over to you – have you seen or heard of any really good (or really bad) examples of marketing cars to women? What else could brands do better?


  • Squeaky_1

    WOW! Great article Jane. I didn’t get bored once and I usually do re such subjects. It is, though, an important subject and I really appreciate the way you’ve written it. I’ve never seen it put in such a common sense way without the car company hype, misunderstanding and BS. It made me think about one or 2 things differently and that’s when I know I’ve spent my time well on an article. I spent a number of years in my 20’s in a past life (1980’s) as a fleet (and retail) salesperson and some further time in the accessories market back then so this was an especially interesting read. It certainly brought back some precious memories of the showroom floor and long forgotten customers. What a trip! It was a very exciting part of my life and I wouldn’t change it at all even if given the chance. Your article had me constantly checking the old memory to see how I related to women. Whilst I may have been guilty of one or 2 little incorrect thought-frames I was always respectful to women when they came in and genuinely did all I could to help them. Just another article to show the ‘other’ online sites how to write a proper and useful motoring post. Thank you.

    • Jane Speechley

      Wow, thanks so much for your kind words, Squeaky_1. I think that’s about the best review I’ve ever gotten. Writing these articles is often just as useful for me, to get my thoughts clear on a topic, so I’m glad it’s helped you too.

      I don’t think you should worry too much about past thought-frames – it was a different era and things have changed a lot. If you’re even trying to keep up with the times, you’re doing a lot better than many!

      Cheers and thanks again,

      Jane.

  • Grommet

    Thank you Jane. .. a good read. ..all I can say, is … I would not be surprised if women have moved into major percentage numbers of car buying stats. .. I’m not a stats person myself, …but very happy to see more women active in car purchases … one question though, which comes from reading in your article … …about ‘high heels’ … I have a vision of someone trying to drive while wearing high heels (stiletto’s) … but then I realised that there are different forms of high heels .. so it could be a really dumb question … but can you actually drive wearing high heels?

    • Jane Speechley

      Thanks for your comment, Grommet! Of course, not all women wear heels 🙂 and they come in various heights and shapes. From ‘stilettos’ which are the very tall pointy ones, through to lower, block heels.

      It’s less comfortable to drive in stilettos as you’re essentially ‘balancing’ on the tip of the heel – it’s quite possible but will tire your leg out over a longer journey, as well as eventually digging a hole in your carpet.

      I’m not aware of any data that says they’re as unsafe as that might sound, but I obviously wouldn’t wear them if I was doing any challenging kind of driving. I can’t say I’ve ever had a particularly stiletto-related issue with my foot slipping off the pedal, for example …

      Lower, more solid heels aren’t much of an issue at all …

      Good question!

      J.

      • Yeah we’re going to leave the question of driving in stilettos to Janes 🙂

  • Andrew Riles

    The information age we live in means that we can go through all the specs, features and options online and we only really need the salesperson to chuck us the keys for a testdrive and negotiate the final price….

    It also makes it possible for us to know a particular model at least as well as they do….

Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley is an experienced freelance writer whose natural curiosity means she knows enough about cars to hold a decent conversation. While happily admitting her Toyota 86 makes promises her street driving can’t quite keep, she’s relishing the opportunity to review some of Australia’s most interesting new vehicles from an ‘everyperson’ perspective. She’s on a mission to understand and explain how all those features and gadgets actually impact upon your driving experience. http://www.charismaticcommunications.com.au