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Gen Y Leads Us to Rethink Female-Targeted Marketing Strategies

Posted on | November 29, 2007 | No Comments

I recently spoke with Gen Y expert Barbara Bylenga of Outlaw Consulting about her research related to the women born between 1979 and 1997 (currently ages 10 through 28). For perspective, Gen Y is the largest – and in the years to come – the most powerful segment of our population at 80 million strong. In just three years, they will represent 32% of the population. Many brands have already latched on to the growing power of Gen Y, but apparently it’s not just age (and therefore lifestyle) that separates Gen Y females from previous generations. This cohort has radically different ideas and attitudes about gender and womanhood. In fact they’re so different in their approach to life, that we will be forced to totally rethink how to we market to this new and powerful generation of female consumers.

What’s Different?

For today’s young women, the concept of what it means to be female is the result of a 40-year evolution of gender identity. Most were born to baby boomers, the generation that first challenged the traditional gender roles in society. They are the offspring of women who put the first cracks in the glass ceiling.

Gen Y girls have been raised to believe they are truly equal to men and that gender is a non-issue. They can try out for Little League baseball or spar with the boys in karate class. If they want to major in science or be a firefighter, the opportunity is open to them. Gen Y boys have been raised in the same environment – at home and at school, their mothers, sisters, and girl friends have been on equal footing with their male peers.

However unlike the feminist movement, these women believe they can get what they want without battling the opposite sex. Instead they believe: “I know I’ll succeed if I try hard enough.” This internalized idea of equality has given them the confidence to cut ties with history and focus on the future instead.

As Barbara told me, “the first thing we have to realize about Gen Y females is that their version of equality is not like that of our generation. It is not about equal wage, a balanced proportion of senate seats, or other tangible measures of progress. Instead, equality comes from within each individual. It’s a way of being in the world that erases the lines that divide the sexes.” In other words, young women don’t consider it a women’s right to run for president – but an opportunity available to any woman (or man) to pursue if they choose.

Rewriting the Rules

Gen Y women believe they were “born equal” and therefore they tend to approach life as an individual, not just as a female. So what does this mean for marketers? In most cases, gender is irrelevant. Unless we’re promoting feminine hygiene products (for example), we must speak to them as individuals, not women. If we’re marketing a contraceptive product, it’s not about being female. It’s about a person taking responsibility and control over their sexuality and future. If a product isn’t gender-specific, there’s nothing wrong with targeting the female audience. Our business objectives might require that we expand our reach to this segment. However, as we’re developing the creative, we need to see the world their way and appeal to their needs and desires as consumers.

Granted, some attitudes and behaviors might be unique to the female gender, but avoid spelling out that it’s “because you’re a woman.” Instead, copy should assume these unique characteristics, but not blatantly identify them. For a car campaign, you might feature young women and show how the brand or product features fit their lifestyle and needs, without overtly “speaking” to the female audience. You might also choose to simply target your media buy to reach a female audience without a gender-specific creative strategy. For example, a banner or video ad on a women’s fashion site might feature product-oriented imagery with copy presenting the product as a solution to consumer needs, regardless of gender.

If you’ve watched AMC’s “Mad Men” (a fantastic TV series set in the 1960s about the advertising business), you’ll realize how far marketing to women has come. Back then, women accepted approaches that were much more blatant and patronizing. However as current advertisers are realizing, today’s younger, more equalized female consumer will surely be turned off and reject their brands if treated as anything other than a valuable consumer and unique individual.

Gen Y is introducing a monumental shift in traditional gender roles – a change that holds many implications for brand development and marketing. In a future posting (Part 2), I’ll discuss further insights on how this evolution will impact how we position products to both women and men.


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