August is Women’s Month; the month when South Africans remember and celebrate the spirit of the women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 to protest pass laws. It’s an opportunity to focus on issues that are relevant to women in our country today, whether that’s equality in the boardroom or fighting gender-based violence.

It is also traditionally a month where marketers launch campaigns that feature women and attempt to focus on women’s issues. But these campaigns can backfire if they rely on offensive gender stereotypes or if the audience immediately identifies them as a tick-box exercise.

Even if you manage to execute a marketing campaign that makes women feel heard and seen throughout the month, only communicating with women during Women’s Month raises some questions, namely: why amplify communication towards women only in August, and, are we even getting it right?

Marketing to women is important

According to Forbes, women drive the majority of consumer spend. They make up 50% of the African population, and 60% are primary consumers in their households. In fact, women have so much purchasing power, increasing at such a rapid pace, that the female economy is poised to outpace the economies of some of the biggest nations in the next five years.

Whether you expect them to be or not, women are likely to be part of your target market. As well as women being primary consumers in their households, they are also influential in purchases where they are not the primary consumers. Women drive 70 to 80% of all consumer purchasing, through a combination of their buying power and influence. Even in industries primarily targeted at men, women have significant influence. For example, 85% of car purchasing decisions are influenced by women.

These statistics make a compelling argument for why women should be primary considerations for marketing strategies all year long. But even then, marketers need to be careful about how they market to women.

Why are marketers getting it wrong?

According to a global report by Kantar, more than 75% of marketers think they are avoiding gender stereotypes. However, 76% of female consumers and 71% of male consumers believe that the way they are portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. Even according to our own internal Clockwork survey, 45% of men and 45% of women don’t believe that women are positively represented in advertising or in the media, in general. Eighty percent of the women in our survey felt like the representation of women had not improved over the past few years.

While women control so much purchasing power, the mistake marketers make, is insisting on creating messaging for women based on assumptions about gender. These assumptions are largely built around the idea of women being of service to those around them – whether it is the woman as the sex object, the super mom, or the “girl boss” who gets the job done and still makes time for her family and friends. This is not to say that women are not family-orientated nurturers, but that they are also more than that.

Just like men, women are complex individuals with varied backgrounds, stories, sexualities and needs. Marketers and brands need to factor that into their marketing and communication strategies, while also getting into the habit of interrogating third-party insights about women.

Gendered ‘insights’ that encourage the stereotypical categorisation of women still exist today. For example, a 2020 article explaining ‘gender differences in digital marketing’ argues that men are more practical in their approach to purchasing while women are “hedonistic” and focus on their feelings when making a purchase. The same article recommends using a direct approach when targeting men and a more roundabout approach when targeting women; giving women the backstory before the important information while painting a “metaphorical tapestry” about a product. This operates on the assumption that people are actually making decisions based on their gender and not their need – and it seems that both men and women are growing tired of brands that rely on sexist tropes.

So how should we target women?

The simple answer is: don’t. A study by Harvard Business School actually found that gendered marketing can backfire. It can dissuade women from choosing a product they would have considered if the company hadn’t targeted them based on their gender. Even when people strongly identify with their gender, many don’t want to be categorised by a single identity.

According to Kantar, gender-balanced brands drive more value – which makes sense when we consider that consumers expect more than being trapped by sex, sexuality and gender. Studies are increasingly showing that parents around the world want their children to be raised in gender-neutral environments. The younger generation, in particular, expects brand experiences that are inclusive of all gender identities. Taking a gender-balanced approach is not merely a marketing trend but something your audience expects, now, and in the future.

A way forward

So, what does this mean for strategies going forward?

Here are a few points to consider when looking at your marketing (and Women’s Month) campaigns:

  • Understand that it’s important to interrogate the research, the process and the intent of the work. Is your research about women, or gender-based marketing in general, outdated or biased? Is your intent behind your empowerment campaigns sales-driven or is advocating for female empowerment a big part of your brand’s purpose? If it is the former, your target market will know – and this will very likely put them off. If it is the latter, then this needs to come through in your communication before and after Women’s Month.
  • Let women lead the process. When men create ads for women, it shows. Ensure women are both part of the process and part of the decision-making team. It’s important to let the people you’re speaking to drive the conversation.
  • Remember to market to needs and not assumptions. Get rid of sexist notions that women need emotive language and men need logic. Both genders and all sexes need products and services that meet their needs and provide a positive brand experience.

For a long time, it was convenient for brands and marketers to take a more gendered approach towards marketing to segment their audiences. Strategic segmentation remains relevant today and with women still being marginalised in society, taking a specific approach to connecting with women makes sense to a degree. However, a line must be drawn between empowering women as your primary target market and simply trying to increase sales with a female market base.

It’s important for brands and marketers to revisit their marketing approach and investigate whether it still perpetuates stereotypes about women and their decision-making processes. For brands to connect with women authentically, they need to treat them like people – just as they would treat any marketing segment with a need. They also need to ensure that there are empowered women behind the scenes helping to drive the conversation – from creative teams to executives on the board.