A Look At Women, Men And The Marketplace

“A man does what he can; a woman does what a man cannot.”  -- Isabel Allende, Inés of My Soul

Discussions of gender differences often generate wide interest -- and intense debate -- in part because everyone is personally invested in the topic. Everyone has an opinion, based on beliefs about the facts, but also inescapably shaped by personal experience. It's hard for anyone to think “objectively” about differences between women and men because, well, as a member of one of those groups, no one is truly objective about them. 

The problem with personal opinions, of course, is their variety. Author John Gray famously claimed “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” while comedian George Carlin retorted: “Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it.”  Even personal opinions widely held enough to pass as “common knowledge” are sometimes poor reflections of reality, particularly in a rapidly changing world. A 2008 study found that senior marketing executives overestimate how stressed women feel, and underestimate how successful and happy they feel. These marketing executives also underestimated women’s passion for culture (books, music, travel), while overestimating her enthusiasm for fashion and celebrities.



This is the first in a series of articles about the myths and realities of women, men and the marketplace. This month we will explore general shopping approaches, and in future months we will offer data-driven perspectives on how women and men differ (and how they sometimes don't) -- in their lives generally, but particularly in their brand preferences, media habits, and decision-making across categories.

In many ways, today's marketplace is characterized by the ebb and flow of two key trends: value-orientation and frugal fatigue. And there are several gender-specific patterns that emerge in each. The search for value has been a predominant theme in the marketplace since 2008, and the hypothesis that women skew more value-oriented than men has been supported by several recent studies, including the "Women, Power & Money" study produced by FleishmanHillard and Hearst Magazines. Early waves of this study found that women were more value-oriented -- and the CEO of most households -- before the Great Recession, which in turn strengthened women's value-orientation and hold on household finances. Women's marketplace priorities became the de facto priorities for the marketplace as a whole, and value orientation became the dominant marketplace theme for the next half-decade.

Although a value orientation is prevalent among many men as well, for men it is distinctly different -- a more reactionary, necessity-fueled response to economic uncertainty that is less reflective of their preferred marketplace approach. And importantly, men's value-orientation is slipping, and shows signs of leading the countervailing trend: frugal fatigue. Compared to women, men are less focused on value or “waiting for things to go on sale.” They are tired of calculating the value equation with each purchase. Remarkably, they are more interested in luxury across several categories, even though (on average) they feel more financially constrained than women. These gender differences extend up the affluence continuum, with a recent Mendelsohn Affluent Barometer (for example) reporting that men express more interest in increasing their spending if the economy improves.

For marketers, perhaps the greatest challenge is appealing to both genders while offending neither. Certainly there is some opportunity for gender-tailored messaging -- emphasizing value in categories where women make most of the shopping decisions (which is most categories), and considering more free-spending male-oriented appeals for a wider range of luxury offerings and other discretionary splurges. But the path toward a broader appeal may be with messaging that acknowledges these different approaches, perhaps depicting couples wrestling with -- but eventually reconciling -- different marketplace approaches (for example, by purchasing product X, which manages to meet both sets of needs). 

It’s less about a heavy-handed appeal to one gender or the other, or depicting spousal decision-making or monumental conflict (research has shown that couples report relatively little conflict over most purchase decisions). Instead, it’s more about a winking nod to the general tendencies of women and men in the marketplace.


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