Automakers have endured the financial media's spotlight for months as they struggle to boost sales to beleaguered consumers.
It's a challenging task even as the economy begins to recover -- but the fact that 74% of women feel misunderstood by automotive marketers* might have something to do with the industry's difficulties. Paired with BabyCenter's August 2009 "Talk to Mom" study, which found 29% of its moms were planning to buy a new car in the next year, this statistic is even more compelling.
So, how effectively are automakers -- by now familiar with the American female's buying power -- marketing to women? Specifically, how well are they marketing to moms via their websites?
For our informal survey, we selected Ford, one of the few bright spots in the ailing industry, and the landing pages of a few cars historically more popular with women than men, as noted by the Los Angeles Times: the VW Tiguan and Beetle, Volvo V50, and Honda CR-V.
As we browsed, we kept in mind BabyCenter's study, which found many moms focus on fuel efficiency, long-term savings, and eco-friendliness while shopping for a car. A recent study conducted for CarMax, meanwhile, found price, reliability and fuel efficiency to be top factors for car-buying women, with space and seating capacity also making a strong showing among moms with children under 18. And, of course, we kept an eye out for female-focused marketing techniques: highlighting relationships and benefits rather than features, clean and intuitive web design, and so on.
The bad news
All five web pages were filled with beauty shots of vehicles, angled toward the viewer, spotlighted against lifeless backdrops, and so on. Aside from three small images (15% of all images shown) that included humans, one might think we lived on a planet populated by machines rather than people. Relationships? They were nowhere to be found.
Cold gray and blue color schemes added to the machine-centric feeling. Website navigation was usually logical but often crowded, cluttered and uninspired, with links like "exterior" and "sedans" dominating.
Features like powertrains and navigation systems were highlighted in the copy, but benefits were scarce; auto marketers seem to have forgotten to sell the sizzle rather than the steak. Uninspired headlines like "New 2011 Ford F-150" abounded; the few zippier headlines ("It's good to be turbo"), focused on the car, not the buyer. And yet it would be easy to highlight benefits. A mom driving with two young children in the back seat might appreciate the security of knowing she won't get lost; mentioning that would be simple.
The good news
Volvo's V50 page won our survey. It, too, was plagued with machine-centric photos, but the design was clean, simple and inviting, with a pristine white background complimenting the warm colors, graceful curves and the spotless white car in the primary image. Touches of transparency added to the airy feeling. The overall tone was light and welcoming rather than heavy, technical or cluttered.
The price was listed in large print by the car. Of three secondary photos, one showed normal women in a real-life setting. The number of links was kept to a comparative minimum, and some used an active tense that included the visitor: "Style your V5," "Explore all models."
Clicking on Volvo's invitation to compare its models, we were taken to a tool that compares not only fuel economy but seating and cargo capacity. It did take several extra clicks to get there and we had to scroll past the engine specs -- the less female-relevant "engine bore" and "torque" -- to see it, but it was available.
The VW sites were better about fuel efficiency; although we had to click the ambiguously named "complete specs" link, a large, user-friendly fuel consumption graphic was the first item to appear. In fact, with some warmer colors, human faces and editing of the navigation, Volkswagen would have ranked far higher. (We especially liked the "Carefree maintenance" link.)
Price? Fuel efficiency? Space and seating capacity? Check.
Reliability? With Volvo, not so much; after our scan of links failed, a search for "reliability" turned up a list of jumbled text links ("Global site search, Find a Retailer, Style Your V50, 5 Things to Know, The Gallery"), none of which we'd want to click on. Volkswagen did better, although we also had to resort to its search function.
We found another bright spot in Honda's CR-V landing page video. Though we endured some buffering issues and there was no pause or volume button, the video featured human beings and was both narrated by a woman and oriented toward young women.
The bottom line
Overall, we agree with the women who feel misunderstood by auto marketers: we'd give the auto industry a score of 74% in appealing to America's most influential consumer online. The good news? As Volvo shows, it's remarkably easy to stand out.
* Too Busy to Shop: Marketing to Multi-Minding Women