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Powered by Guardian.co.uk Marketing to women: why painting it pink doesn't work (and never did) Marketing to women: why painting it pink doesn't work (and never did) poweredbyguardianBLACKThis article titled “Marketing to women: why painting it pink doesn’t work (and never did)” was written by Kate McCann, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th May 2013 07.29 UTC

Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts founded Pretty Little Head in 2007, having previously worked in advertising for DDB. Their second book, The Daring Book for Boys in Business, has just been published, and is aimed at companies who are comfortable marketing to men, but struggle to engage with female customers. We caught up with Jane to ask how they got started …

We'd been working in advertising for about 15 years before we decided to leave, so we'd got to the point where we were on the boards of our companies. We were commissioned to write a book and left our jobs to do it. The book was all about marketing to women, how you should be doing it and a structure for thinking through the way to target women. It was a very alternative way to doing existing marketing constructs, which were all about demonstrating the user being the best in their group, and we felt the reason why people didn't do marketing to women very well was because there wasn't a similar construct for female markets. The existing one was inherently masculine.

You started your own agency, Pretty Little Head, in 2007. Were there any tough moments?

We were really lucky because we got lots of nice clients relatively quickly. There was that awful period of waiting for people to call you and slamming the phone down on you – and cold calling too. Initially we thought that most of the interest would come from health and beauty brands – all the classic female categories – when in fact most that actually came to us were typically masculine: banking, automotive and so on.

They found it really hard to absorb a totally female or feminine model into their companies because they still wanted to target men too. And by and large their way of operating and their internal approach was pretty far down the masculine end of the spectrum. Those clients struggled to absorb the idea of feminine markets and that's how this new book came about. We said ok, you're used to targeting men, how do you have a model to appeal to both genders? It's not a completely feminine model – it's in the middle if you like, the sweet spot. It's a strategy for them to win over female customers while holding on to male customers at the same time.

What are the real differences between marketing to men and women?

The classic masculine thing is starting from a place where it's all about looking at the competition. So what you find with big organisations that are used to targeting men is that they will obsess about their competitors, especially in automotive, where all they think about is the model and how model A has more speed than model B from the other manufacturer.

That presents a massive problem because industry becomes very myopic and innovation becomes very difficult and all you ever do is create incremental advantage over the competition. Whereas you will get a brand sometimes that instead of looking inward in a self-centred way, which is a typical masculine perspective, they look at context, talk to the audience and understand their life in 3D rather than just clichés – and they innovate on that basis. Often when you're not operating on the same platform as the competitors and creating a completely different need in the market, there is huge commercial advantage.

What do you think holds companies back when it comes to gender equality?

Very fixed styles of management are unhelpful for women and for men – Marissa Mayer for example. If that's the way she wants to run her company then great, but a lot of very talented women are not going to want to work there. So she's making a decision about what kind of people she wants. They might become the typically hardcore masculine brand in the market, I'm very unconvinced that that would succeed.

It's much more of a cultural thing than a rights thing or a childcare thing. From an industry point of view it's about developing a culture to understand how women work.

There's also the point about women on boards – there is a question mark there: who says that means you're at the top of your game? Who says that is the pinnacle of your career? So a woman who leaves to start her own business – is that not a big achievement? It needs to become a much more individual and varied thing, what does success look like? People aren't necessarily prepared to fit into the old definition, there's a lot about being on a board that isn't fun. A lot of women don't want to live in that extreme way where you don't see your family.

And finally, your top tip for businesses looking to do a better job of marketing to women?

People normally come to us when they've tried painting it pink and it hasn't worked – they tell us, women just don't seem to like pink or flowers!

Some people are only attuned to one way, and that's true of some women too – they can only think in a fundamentally feminine way. We would say the people who succeed are the people who can think flexibly with different modes and are able to flex their skills and their way of thinking according to the need in that moment. We do get some people who just can't see it – it's so alien. Or they go one step forward and slide back to default mode, but leaders need to be capable of both, because they are leading people who are capable of both.

We run focus groups where we ask women to go away and think about financial services (for example) and explain how they feel about it, and then we ask them to spend some time redesigning the category. Then we ask them to come back and discuss it, everything from service to language. You do the same thing with guys and then find some way of matching the two. Getting people who work in financial services to go and listen to how women perceive them is a really amazing eye-opening experience. Women say: "Why do they make it like this?". That's not well represented in quantitative data.

Jane Cunningham is founder of Pretty Little Head and co-author of The Daring Book for Boys in Business

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