Sales & Marketing

"The paint it pink and it will sell" era has ended: How car brands are attracting women

14 min read

06 March 2015

The “paint it pink and it will sell” era is now dying and will soon be buried six feet under. Car brands have spent millions upon millions on campaigns in an effort to attract women. We all remember Honda's “she’s pretty in pink” campaign, right?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg famously said: “You can’t be what you can’t see – and how we market to women is critically important.” 

This statement was echoed by Sarah Todd, CEO of Geometry Global ahead of International Women’s day: “In the UK alone, women influence 80 percent of buying decisions and by 2025 are expected to own 60 percent of all personal wealth. Yet brands and even politicians [think pink minibus] can still get it wrong.”

Even when it comes to cars, the overwhelming statistics don’t change. It’s estimated that 60-80 percent of car buying decisions are made by women.

“The truth is, male and female decision-making is very different,” said Todd. “When it comes to shopping, men have very technical needs and want instant fulfilment. Need a pair of jeans? I’m off to Gap. Women want endorsement and confidence through conversation. They look at practical, aesthetic considerations and make lifestyle choices. Buying a sofa? Men shoppers look at functionality.”

Clever brands that sell well, know where to focus attention, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Arguably, the idea of marketing a car to women was tried in 1950 by the Dodge La Femme. It looked like a toy Barbie car! And it claimed to be the “first and only car designed for Your Majesty, the modern woman”.

The interior was pink and came hand-in-hand with a custom-made purse, which you could get your name engraved on. You also received a comb, lighter, cigarette case, lipstick case, coin purse, and a face-powder compact.

Better yet, hidden in a compartment on the back driver’s seat was a matching raincoat, rain bonnet and umbrella.

But despite all of its efforts, the Chrysler car is probably seen as one of the biggest flops in history.

Josée Paquet from Auto-Venus, suggested that it was only in 1898 that “some courageous women dared to leave the passenger seat and step behind the wheel. The first woman to get a driver’s licence was Marie Adrienne Anne Victurnienne Clémentine de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Duchess of Uzès. As a matter of fact, she also became the first woman to receive a speeding ticket… when she topped 15 km/h on a road with a limit of 12 km/h!

“The Duchess went on to create the first car club for women, which didn’t sit well in male circles. Back in the day, female car owners and club members took part in concours d’elegance, but since the vast majority of judges were men, these women were merely regarded as ‘added value.’ Outrageous, isn’t it? That was the sad reality in the early 20th century.”

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That was when the first chick car came into play.

“The truth is, the only other time a manufacturer used that much pink was when Mattel created the Barbie Corvette,” Paquet added.

This was but one of the reasons why Chrysler failed in the market. Essentially, there really is such a thing as going over the top, not to mention the fact that lack of advertising meant that almost no one knew about the car anyway.

“It’s great that an automaker cared about women, but if you ask me, it seems like Chrysler was treating them a bit like children,” Paquet said. “You know those toy make-up kits and fake jewels that little girls play with to feel like adult women? Well, there you go.

“Considering the lack of popularity of the Dodge La Femme, I’m thinking that many women back then must have felt this way. The car did have some character and could have enjoyed lots of success if Chrysler hadn’t given women the impression of driving around in a big rolling candy.

“I love pink just as much as I love purple and blue. I feel comfortable in jeans as much as I do in skirts. Yet, I will never drive a car that’s blatantly created to ‘please’ women. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one…”

Fast track to the 20th century, where we’d like to think automakers have since learned that women want a vehicle they can identify with, and there’s a way to feel feminine without overdosing on pink, Honda came up with “She’s”.

Heralded as “the ghost of 1955”, it only lasted two years.

Kat Callahan of Jalopnik wrote upon its reception: “It was identified the designer as Tomonari Eri, a female Honda executive. Much respect to Tomonari, making it to such a high position in many countries as a woman is difficult. In Japan? So much harder than many other places—even with anti-discrimination laws on the books. You have to respect the level of dedication and work (and sacrifice, probably in terms of family) she put into Honda Motors for her to have a chance at leading a design project.

“That’s all well and good. I don’t know what kind of pressure she was facing from her superiors to be the woman who ‘understands women’ and ‘designs women stuff.’ Unfortunately, whether under direct pressure, or simply because of the pressure to conform to Japan’s still rather stringent gender segregation, she apparently ignored a truth that Honda had already figured out about three decades ago: Women buy cars for the same reasons men do.” 

Read on to find out what the most modern strategies are so far…

But what’s new? Taking the hint that women didn’t necessarily want their own “car version”, that they could be just as hooked on horsepower and what’s under the hood as men were, and that the vast majority of females around the globe weren’t interested in, well, the colour pink, brands have finally changed their way of marketing.

According to the latest Carmundi research, one out of five women avoid car workshops. Why? Some 22 per cent of women were not comfortable with the environment, 28 per cent reported that they were nervous about asking technical questions and 31 per cent said they were confused by the jargon used by the trade. For Toyota, the experience of buying a car is just as important as the vehicle itself.

The University of Toyota provides extensive training to dealers about how they can create a gender-neutral sales situation. And it is no surprise that women buy almost half of Toyota certified used vehicles sold by Toyota dealers. Nissan, as part of its “lady first” project, plans to revamp more than 300 of its dealerships in Japan in order to cater to women. Nissan has already opened its first “lady first” pilot dealership in the Tokyo suburb of Fuchu.

Given that social media is more popular among women than men, it follows that sales and marketing campaigns are slowly becoming a key way to capture the attention of women. This has allowed them to glean insight into subtle ways of tailoring ads.

Fiat already caters for gender preferences through enabling its vehicles to be entirely customisable. And the Italian car brand also releases many variations of its car models. Meanwhile, BMW believes that more women under the age of 30 are leasing luxury cars. 

Thus, the German car brand’s “joy” campaign is targeting young professional women.  And there’s not a pink car in sight!

Kia also introduced a seven year warranty, capped price servicing and roadside assistance, which has proved successful at attracting women.

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And before 2014, nearly eight out of ten Porsche buyers were men. However, that same year, the Porsche “For Her” Macan was introduced.

It came with over 600 personalisation options, a panoramic sunroof and a higher seating position than shoulder line. The Macan targeted females that were interested in buying SUVs and small sporty convertibles. And, in a further attempt to change its perception of being a “manly” car brand, Porsche announced sexy tennis star Maria Sharapova as its brand ambassador. The result? Women accounted for 25 per cent of Macan sales in 2014. 

This was the result of a Frost & Sullivan survey, which noted that there were more women with driver’s licences than men. Mitja Borkert, a designer for Porsche, also explained that there are also a lot of rich women in the world nowadays, of which 23,500 are valued at more than $30m.

Furthermore, the Land Rover Evoque, which was designed and endorsed by Victoria Beckham, has been the first Land Rover model that has had more women customers than men.

Before it was revealed in Beijing,  Land Rover’s design director Gerry McGovern suggested that the styling might surprise many: “Those of you expecting something pink will be disappointed.”

It’s grey colour and gold accents would be largely due to Beckham’s input.

“I’ve stayed very true to myself. I’ve designed a car that I want to drive, a car that I think David wants to drive,” she said, upon revealing that she kept her husband in mind while designing the car.

Other brands have been introducing more interior space, better quality materials such as leather and improved convenience features for parking and manoeuvring.

While you won’t see a Hello Kitty BMW Mini, it is worth noting that eight out of ten Mini drivers in China are women. The 2014 BMW Mini comes with automatic parking, an infotainment touch screen and back up camera. The model is 4.5 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider, 0.3 inches taller with a longer wheelbase. All this makes it more appealing to women. 

The 2014 Citroen C1 also evolved to appeal to women. The car is highly personalised, with leather trim and also comes with a reverse parking camera and a seven inch touchscreen that controls the radio, phone and computer.
 
So, the question is will women be a bigger and more valuable consumer segment than men? And if so, will brands start designing most of their vehicles with women in mind? Hopefully it doesn’t end in a “la Femme” disaster.