In 1955, Dodge unveiled La Femme, a car made just for women. Painted in “Heather Rose” and “Sapphire White,” with a rosebud interior, the La Femme was designed “with every sophistication your heart could desire,” such as a matching purse and lipstick case.
The vehicle was discontinued within two years.
Six decades after La Femme, marketing to women hasn’t progressed much. In a male-dominated industry, designers who can’t seem to relate to female buyers continue to rely on stereotypes. Or worse, they don’t seem to consult women at all. Take, for example, Apple’s latest offering — the iPad. Within hours of its announcement, posts about the “iTampon” flooded Twitter.
“Naturally, women were going to associate the word ‘pad’ with menstruation because we have heard the word over and over for years — period,” says Stephanie Holland, executive creative director of the advertising agency Holland+Holland and creator of the blog She-conomy. When a brand decides to create a product for women, designers often succumb to “pink-thinking,” also known as promoting female stereotypes.
“The same men who admit they don’t understand their wives, daughters and mothers feel completely qualified to tell women what they want and why they want it,” says Holland. For example, there is the stereotype that women are clueless when it comes to technology. Last spring, in a misguided attempt to engage female consumers, Dell unveiled Della (awww), a sister Web site just for women. The “Tech Tips” section on the site offered advice on serious technical issues — such as where to find recipes online.
Another stereotype: Women talk too much, and all they talk about is men and gynecological problems. In December, Virgin Mobile aired several disturbing cell phone commercials starring women who can’t stop talking long enough to go for a swim, take a shower or try on a blouse in a dressing room. In the ads, women set down their phones — and their lips, which, naturally, detach from their faces — and continue to chat as passersby watch horrified.
And, of course, there is the stereotype that women love anything pink and glittery, be it earbuds, cell phone covers or video game controls. These stereotypes are so ingrained in our culture that they begin to shape our lives before we pop out of the proverbial pink womb. In the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps–and What We Can Do About It, Lise Eliot, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School, describes how parents paint nurseries to correspond with the colors associated with a boy or girl as soon as the sex is known. Later, girls are given dolls and kitchen sets, and boys receive action figures and footballs.
In school, boys are encouraged in math and science, girls in art and English. Eliot writes, “There is enormous danger in this exaggeration of sex differences, first and foremost in the expectations it creates among parents and children.” In other words, biology may determine if you are male or female, but your environment — what you see and hear and play with — shapes the perceptions you’ll have for life.
So it only goes to follow that companies assume little girls grow up to want tech the same color as their Barbie mansions. In fact, there’s even an industry-wide term for the phenomenon: To make technology appealing to women, they say, you must “shrink it and pink it.”
According to Lisa Johnson, founder of the consulting firm Reach Group, marketing to women actually scares many companies. “They fear that making their products appeal to women will ruin the brand,” says Johnson, who lectures frequently on how to avoid pink-thinking in marketing campaigns. Ironically, most women don’t even want the type of overtly feminized products companies are afraid to offer.
In an online survey of 250 women last November, less than 9 percent of women indicated a preference for feminized technology. The overwhelming majority wanted “beautifully designed, sleek technology that enhances their lives, not their wardrobes,” says Belinda Parmar, aka Lady Geek, who conducted the study with the U.K.’s Times Online.
Women want function, not frills, and they respond to intuitive design. This explains why until, arguably, the iPad, Apple was voted “most liked brand” by women surveyed in a Women & Digital Life study, conducted by the consulting firm Solutions Research Group (SRG).
Innovation, ease of use and reliability were all listed as reasons for ranking Apple above brands like Sony (second) and Microsoft (third).
Women also don’t want to be treated like novices when it comes to consumer electronics. After the overwhelmingly negative response to Della, Dell posted a note on its Web site stating that it would make the “tech tips section, well, more technical.” The company also wrote that there would be “less pink. We are listening.”
In the end, Dell ditched Della, who is probably still at home reading He’s Just Not That Into You and eating bon-bons in bed.
Dell and other consumer electronics companies have no choice but to start listening. Women are no longer (and were they ever?) a niche market of tech neophytes. Companies should be aware of this, says Johnson, and make their marketing transparent: If you’re going to tailor something to women, don’t dumb it down. Make it relevant.
Women have a huge influence on consumer electronics purchases: According to SRG, we bought an estimated $45 million in digital products within the first six months of 2009. And we aren’t just snapping up tech for ourselves: We’re buying for our children and partners, too. Though, last I checked, my husband’s iPod wasn’t blue or shaped like a football.
Women designers of consumer electronics are also, albeit slowly, gaining a voice in the field. The International Consumer Electronics Show held annually in Las Vegas is making a conscious effort to host more panel discussions with women in the design industry, while firms are beginning to recognize the value of having women’s input on a design team.
For example, at New York City–based Smart Design, a group of female designers called the FemmeDen are infusing a female perspective into product development. FemmeDen, along with other teams at Smart Design, created the highly popular Flip camcorder for Pure Digital Technologies. The easy-to-use design and sleek appearance is universally appealing and doesn’t pander to stereotypes. With 1.5 million Flip cams purchased in its first 18 months on the market, it was a sleek coup for Pure Digital and Smart Design alike.
Sure, you could argue that men and women approach technology differently — men like spending hours fiddling with buttons, and women want more of an intuitive device — but essentially, we all want something that betters our life without insulting our intelligence.
Ultimately, the future of the consumer electronics market will depend on the kind of thinking behind the Flip cam — and that means designers would be wise to strap their pink ideas into a vintage Dodge La Femme and roll them over the nearest cliff.