Women comprise more than half the U.S. population. And – of more interest to marketers – women make or influence the purchase of more than 80% of all products and services. Women are the majority decision-makers today, not only in the traditional areas of  fashion, food and cosmetics, but also for such big-ticket buys as automobiles, financial services, home improvement, computer electronics and travel. So you might think there would be nothing about the buying habits of women that American businesses don’t know.

However, according to the authors of two new books about marketing to women, American businesses are woefully ignorant about this sector of the population, sometimes to the point of paying millions for advertising and sales strategies more likely to annoy their target audience than attract them. 

“You might feel that you have already evolved into the most politically correct person you can be. Your ads are not offensive; your products keep improving,” but that’s not enough to lure a woman to buy your product rather than a competing brand, warns Mary Lou Quinlan in her new book, Just Ask a Woman: Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy

The problem, explains Martha Barletta in her new book, Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the World’s Largest Market Segment, is that what has long been viewed as “normal buying behavior” turns out to be normal only for men. “Women,” she says, “have a very different set of priorities, preferences and attitudes.”

Both Quinlan and
Barletta make a strong case for tailoring sales tactics to please women as a way to increase market share. In addition to the obvious reason – their huge numbers – women are especially valuable customers. That’s because women typically ask for recommendations from friends and acquaintances before they buy and, if they are happy with a product or service, will talk it up and recommend it to others.

By and large, Quinlan and
Barletta offer similar takes on what women want. Women, especially working mothers, lead time-pressured lives and therefore appreciate products that simplify tasks and relieve anxieties. Women would rather have product warranties and service guaranties than extra bells and whistles. Women don’t want to be told a product is “cool;” they want to hear specifics about how the product serves their needs and their families’ needs. 

Both agree that women want marketers to be patient and helpful. “It’s frustrating to marketers of high stakes businesses such as financial services and the automotive industry … to be asked to meet with women several times, to go through alternatives,” writes Quinlan. But from a woman’s point of view it’s necessary: “Women judge the quality of the relationship as well as the quality of a product. They ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening before they form a trusting relationship,” she says.

Still, even though Quinlan and
Barletta reach many of the same conclusions and offer overlapping advice, it must be said that they have written very different books.

For one thing, there are points on which they disagree. For example, Quinlan says women today – especially working mothers – are stressed out.
Barletta says, not so. In fact, women today are proud of how well they cope with stress. 


Also, while both authors describe a current ad for the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, they reach opposite conclusions as to its effectiveness. 

In the ad, writes
Barletta, a “gracious, glamorous, silver-haired woman is coming up a red carpet as if to the Academy Awards. Suddenly, she trips and falls flat on her face. The message: Cholesterol doesn’t care who you are – it can even bring a princess down.” Women don’t like the ad because they “don’t like to see anyone get hurt, even for a good cause,” says Barletta. “All I can think is, ’oooh that poor woman, is she okay?’…”

Quinlan praises the same ad for being “cliché-smashing.” She says the way to get women’s attention is to play against type. “How often have you seen the gray-haired grandmother walking the beach and worrying about her incontinence or arthritis?” she asks. According to Quinlan, the Lipitor ad is an example of letting older models be “silly and not just sentimental,” which, she implies, appeals to women. 

But the books differ most significantly in how they present their material. Quinlan is CEO of Just Ask a Woman, Inc., a marketing research firm she founded in 1999. Its best known research method is a TV show-format in which Quinlan plays “Oprah” to elicit candid views and opinions from an all-female audience. In her book, Quinlan relays the messages she has heard loud and clear after interviewing more than 3,000 women.

They have told her that, in their stressed lives, they would appreciate having bank statements that are “understandable” and instructions for cell phones “written in English,” (as opposed, presumably, to techie talk). Surely, a wise bank or cell phone manufacturer would provide same. But a reader can’t help wondering: Wouldn’t men like understandable bank statements and cell phone manuals, too? Wouldn’t anyone?

Barletta to the rescue. Barletta is president of The TrendSight Group, a marketing consulting firm that also was founded four years ago. Its patented product is the “GenderTrends Marketing Model,” a structured way of analyzing how to mesh what you sell and how you sell it with, as Barletta puts it, “female gender culture.”

Her book not only describes what women want, it clearly spells out why men and women – on average, no rule applies to 100% of either gender – behave differently in the marketplace.

Barletta says it’s not that women want better products and better service while men don’t. It’s that women will go to more trouble to obtain what they want. She points out that Wyndham Hotels put magnifying mirrors in bathrooms based on suggestions from women who wanted them for applying eye makeup. Men didn’t request the mirrors and probably never would have, according to Barletta, but they appreciated them when they appeared because it made shaving easier.

One reason it takes women longer to make a buying decision,
Barletta explains, is that women want the “perfect answer.” Men will buy a workable answer rather than continue to shop, while women will continue to shop in hopes of finding that perfect answer.

Barletta describes a woman who wanted a cell phone that would work anywhere, not rack up high roaming fees, and be “cute.” The woman’s husband researched various plans and came up with one that suited her calling and financial criteria. “What kind of phone comes with it?” the woman asked.

“What difference does it make?” replied the husband. The woman checked out the phone offerings and learned they included a Nokia model that could be had in “ocean blue,” although the nearest store carrying one in ocean blue was an hour’s drive away. She drove. “The color of the phone is the most important thing?” asked her astounded husband. No, said
Barletta, it wasn’t the most important thing, but while this woman was buying, “she wanted what she wanted.” To women, details matter. “A woman might choose a Jeep Cherokee because it’s the only one whose hatch she can easily flip open.”

Studies have shown, writes
Barletta, that the male sees his relationship to others in terms of higher-lower, faster-slower, first-second. A female sees her relationships in less competitive terms: similar to-different from, know her-don’t know her. Thus advertising that says others will be jealous if you own this product works with men, but is off-putting to women. Women, says Barletta, want to be able to say: “Yep, that’s my life. If that product works for her, it’ll probably work for me.”

Women also relate better to “warmer” than to “winner.” A Nissan print ad stating “horsepower increased 17%, torque increased 6%, bragging rights increased 100%” is a male-only ad. Women don’t care about bragging rights (even those who know what torque is), says
Barletta. But an ad for an SUV that says, “Think of it as a 4,000 pound guardian angel,” is an ad that resonates with women.

Both Quinlan and
Barletta have written books filled with information that can be used to attract female customers. But Barletta’s book contains more of the kind of information that resonates with marketers, regardless of gender.