By Lisa Valent
I work at Harbinger, a marketing agency that specializes in marketing to women. As part of the creative team who develops the visual communications that bring the marketing plans to life, I am often asked how my specialization translates into design. “How do you design for women?”
The simple answer is: “I don’t.”
I don’t believe that there are catch-all design strategies that can be applied to communicate to all women. The notion that there is a particular set of colours, fonts or layouts that will resonate with half of the population is illogical. Everyone, male or female, has their own preferred sense of style and aesthetic. Show me a woman who loves pink and
I will show you a woman who only wears black.
I do believe it is important to understand the audience you are talking to. But communication design that simply panders to gender stereotypes is not going to be as effective as communication design that speaks to a shared value among your audience.
The strategic importance of engaging female consumers is no secret; women wield tremendous purchasing power and influence. Some of the largest product categories are dominantly purchased and influenced by women, including massive markets like grocery, child speciality and cosmetics. A woman’s purchase drivers and behaviour also tend to differ from a man’s. Moreover, women are a complex bunch—in many cases more so than men. The female population is made of numerous distinct segments with unique values, aspirations and behaviours, which differ from other groups of women.
What she wants you to know
Harbinger has long believed that a woman’s stage in her life, not her age, is the key to understanding her and building brands, marketing programs and visual communications that speak to her. As a woman experiences major life milestones, such as getting married, graduating school, having children or retiring, her values, behaviours and preferences change. While no woman’s journey through these milestones is the same—paths aren’t linear and don’t always feature the same destinations—the universal truth is that what is important to her changes as she journeys through life. These changes, in turn, create challenges and opportunities for marketers to drive purchase and loyalty.
Harbinger recently conducted a large North American study to solidify this thinking. The study helped us confirm six major life stages, and identify ten distinct, actionable female consumer segments defined by working status, age and personal income.
While not a substitute for a comprehensive creative brief, these life stages and the segments within them serve as a valuable starting point for understanding the values, priorities and lifestyles of female consumers. In many cases, focusing on life stages trumps traditional demographics when it comes to more accurately reflecting a woman’s state of mind and lifestyle. For example, a 25-year-old with a newborn may find she has more in common with new moms in their 40s than she does with other women her age who don’t have children. Anyone who has experienced shifting dynamics in their group of friends over the years may know what I’m talking about, but it’s something often neglected in marketing, advertising, and related creative fields.
Designing with purpose
In a cluttered marketplace, design is crucial for breaking through and effectively communicating a brand’s story. Gaining a deep understanding of your target equips you with the tools to reach her where it counts, connecting with her on a truly differentiated, values-based level.
Brands that make a significant, positive impact on people’s lives score higher in preference and loyalty. At Harbinger, we refer to this impact as “brand purpose,” the intersection of what the brand offers the world (its history, values, capabilities, etc.) and what the consumer desires and cares most about in life. Purpose is a brand’s point of view—what it offers the world beyond a functional benefit.
In general, we find that a woman’s favourite brands directly align with her personal values. The Top 25 brands named by respondents showed a higher correlation between individual “cares” and brand associations than the average brand. Most favourite brands were associated with helping the participant realize several of her aspirational desires.
This relationship really stands out when it comes to niche brands. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from the study that show how a group’s shared values and preferred brand are reflected in the brand’s visual communications.
Forever 21, favoured by the “Young Singles” segment, aims to empower women to express their individuality while staying on trend, having fun with their clothing choices. Its consumers value fun, creativity, beauty and fashion. Forever 21 communicates this visually by showcasing bright young women in an eclectic range of bold, trendy fashions. Its catalogues feature models wearing the product in a way that wouldn’t look out of place in a high fashion magazine. Its font and colour choices also reflect the bold style and iconographic lettering of the fashion houses it emulates.
Annie’s Homegrown, on the other hand, is a favourite with moms, especially those in the “Pre-school Moms” life stage. The brand’s purpose is to “cultivate a healthier and happier world” with delicious food products made with whole, organic ingredients. “So simple a rabbit could eat them.” It’s all about parents delighting and nourishing their families without compromising on quality or health. The shared values here are relationships, growth, development, and the aspiration to be a source of nurture and support. All of the visual communications reinforce this purpose, from Bernie, the bunny mascot who appears in everything from ads to social to experiential marketing, to the brand’s rabbit-approved seal, to the website featuring vibrant images of happy children.
Both Forever 21 and Annie’s Homegrown are examples of brands that have done a great job translating their brand purpose into engaging brand stories. Even though their audiences share a gender, the values expressed and shared in their communications are vastly different and are all the more effective for it.
There are many design decisions that can be made in support of a brand’s story. To design on brand purpose, it is important to understand your client and their consumer equally. If you are presented with a creative brief that simply talks in terms of target demographics, it is necessary to have a larger discussion with the client. Knowing the target demographic is “women 25-45” is not going to be as helpful as understanding the brand’s larger purpose and the female consumer who will most strongly respond to it.
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Lisa Valent, R.G.D., is creative director at Harbinger in Toronto.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.