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Overt or covert - The two different approaches for marketing to women

"Don't think pink" is something we regularly advise our clients. What do we actually mean by that?

You might have a female target audience and you might also have a product (or service) that has attributes that will appeal more to women than men. But it doesn't mean that shouting loudly about it is always the right approach for your marketing. Sometimes it is, but often a bit more subtlety is required in order to avoid being perceived as patronising. It really comes down to choosing the approach that is most appropriate for your brand offer and female segment.

When overt works well

It's useful when there is a genuine value or benefit to be gained by her from purchasing the tailored female version of the product or service. This could be connected to functional delivery, safety, fit and so on. It is based on clear and intuitive insight into her different needs because she is female.  

EXAMPLE: Pink Ladies cabs - by women, for women

This UK concept was initiated by businesswoman Tina Dutton, after a she heard about a young woman on her way home in a taxi who was raped and murdered. A simple idea; make it obvious to women that this is a safer option.

EXAMPLE: Breast Cancer Canada - eye candy for the girls

When sex(-iness) in advertising works with women.

EXAMPLE: ANZ - addressing the gender pay gap

Of merit and mention among the plethora of brand campaigns targeting women is a brand ad from ANZ as they continue to aim to position themselves as a bank that understands and fights for female issues. Great casting and directing means the hard-core gender message gets through, unlike so many others from their competition.

When overt is just wrong...

If you don't have a strong reason for targeting females directly, then obvious "for women" labelling is risky as it often points to superficial or 'manufactured' reasons for purchase. 

Image: Ellen Degeneres' parody of Bic for Her

BIC has continued to get into our 'marketing to women' Hall of Shame. In another "how not to do it", Bic South Africa posted the "empowering" message 'Look like a girl, Act like a lady, Think like a man, Work like a boss' to its Facebook page in honour of National Women's Day. Unfortunately, they weren't so much empowering as demonstrating two things: 1) they really don't get women; and 2) they learned nothing from their previous failed attempt at connecting with females.


A serial offender with wrongly-used overt, Bic brought out a female-specific pen in 2012. After initial failure, there was a pen relaunch of sorts in 2015. In their (misdirected) wisdom, Bic branded these new pens 'For Her', and marketed them as "designed to fit in a woman's hand". They also came in "both lady colours, pink and purple" as Ellen Degeneres pointed out in her hilarious skit on the product. So, instead of appealing to their intended target, Bic's overt brand and marketing approach meant the product became a target of derision. And, unfortunately, they've continued in this vein.

When 'covert' is the better approach

On most occasions! Most women won't thank you for singling them out for "special treatment". Why? Because often there's a subtle social history that has meant women were considered inferior consumers e.g. buying and owning cars, mechanical or technical gear, or operating in lower status categories... housework versus business. And the sociologists will tell you it's all to do with Denial of Personal Disadvantage theory (call Linda for an explanation).

So, treat her as a customer first and then as a woman. Focus on her needs, not her gender; often this means you will hit a male need too - because it's about need, not gender. A covert approach is reflected in the way you communicate that need and link it to your brand. Think of it as talking her talk; talking to her as a friend would... right style, relevant content and language. Treat her the same way you would a man, as a valued customer... but press different triggers in her subconscious to surprise and delight her.

EXAMPLE: Victoria Police - recruitment campaign for female officers

It's a tricky one. How do you challenge advice from trusted loved ones, friends & family, and get women to consider a career in the police force? The answer was a campaign that targeted women in terms of media placement but, in a creative sense, was covert. Using real police officers and always a mix of genders, the work looked to be targeting all prospects but, in reality, talked directly & clearly to women reading the ads, saying "we want you!" The Vic Police campaign aimed to break the mould by showcasing real jobs available to female officers; without singling out women in the creative work or running a female-only campaign. Instead it showcased the wide range of jobs where women participate and make a difference, from "more male" jobs such as Critical Incident Response Team officers, through to Community Policing with a focus on caring & building bonds. Talking to them as future police officers overtly, as women covertly.

EXAMPLE: Clarks shoes for kids - bad fit now equals bad foot later

This is a great example of effective targeting to mums without saying "we get mums and we know exactly what you need for your kids." Clarks has understood how to talk her language and make her care about fitting and quality in shoes that last only months thanks to those growing feet.

EXAMPLE: All About Eve - Command vs Invitational language application to surprise and delight her

Science has proven that there are significant differences in how women & men communicate. Amount of words used, subtlety of words, tone & manner of the "talk", and visual language as well as verbal. It all adds up to the need to understand how to effectively identify the subconscious cues in female language and be able to use them in your campaign copy & design. A solution, as many Eve clients have discovered, has been to apply Eve's Command vs Invitational principles to gauge if creative & marketing work is meeting these needs - and doing so in a covert way. Here's a top-line cheat sheet to get you started.

Once you get the hang of it you'll see the opportunities everywhere for improvement.

Image source: Daily Mail


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