Resource-light shopping

Women are an influential target group. Supposedly, they influence 80 per cent of overall consumption. If they chose less resource-intensive products and services, entire markets would perform more sustainably. Is it possible to focus more on the ethical and ecological issues in terms of female consumer choices? Moreover, is eco-friendliness a reason to buy at all?

By Jasmin Andresh

Translated from the German by Margarita Müller

The article Die Kaufkraft der Frauen (the purchasing power of women) published in 2011 by the German Handelsblatt newspaper, dealt with a recently finished study carried out by Nielsen, the American global information and measurement company, according to which 80 per cent of all consumer choices are made by women. 6,500 female consumers from the Asia-Pacific area, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Northern America participated in the survey on how they buy and who decides on what to buy. “Women have their own money. In addition, they spend the money of others, for example their partners”, says Diana Jaffé, head of an agency for consumer research and business consultancy. Jaffé is an expert for gender marketing, which means advertising that addresses a specific gender as a target group. She even coined this term. After having examined different studies on this topic, she is convinced that the female market is more than twice as large as the Chinese and the Indian markets together. It is hence a more than lucrative target group, also or especially for sustainable products.

Women show their willingness to act sustainably

Surveys conducted across Germany show that women are interested in sustainability and ecology. More than half of the 5000 women surveyed already said in 2007 that sustainable consumption should play a more important role. They do not just care about ethical and sustainable issues, but they want to act accordingly. For example in 2011, 48 per cent of women – and only 35 per cent of men – answered in a survey that they often buy ethically acceptable products. 

However, do women really consume more sustainably than men do? The statistics indicate the opposite. The exploitation of non-renewable resources is increasing. The so-called Earth Overshoot Day is the day on which existing natural resources are already exhausted for the current year and the reproduction capacity of the planet is exceeded. In 2013 it was 22 August, ten years before it was 22 September and in 1993 the day on which we slipped into an ecological deficit was on 21 October. 

Here is one question: if women are aware of the necessity of a sustainable development, why do they as a consumer majority not “buycott” companies that are harmful to the environment or exploitative?

Professor Ines Weller of the artec Sustainability Research Centre and the Gender Studies Centre of the University of Bremen says, “According to surveys, more women than men are willing to contribute to sustainability. The difference, however, is not that great. What they do in practice then can be something completely different.” The reason for this is that certain answers to survey questions are often expected by society. Women are implicitly expected to be more connected to nature and to take necessary precautions. “When it comes to specific questions, which do not ask about everyday sustainability in general, the outcome changes. The answers turn out to be more differentiated. For example in case of mobility or nutrition”, says Ines Weller. “Compared to men, women are more often intensive buyers of organic products. They use public transport more frequently. On the other hand, more men are familiar with car sharing and are interested in electric cars.”

Are women really powerful consumers?

If you ask people about who in their relationship makes what kind of decisions, you will not necessarily get realistic answers. The scientists Miriam Beblo and Denis Beninger also agree on that fact. Both economists do research on the decision-making behaviour of women and on the specific factors involved in allocating time and financial resources within families. In a recent study for the Hans Böckler Foundation, they evaluated the distribution of money and the proportional spending of couples. For this purpose, they interviewed each partner with indirect methods and finally came to the following conclusion: the one who earns the money makes the decisions. Given that men are the primary breadwinners and working women earn less than men, as a result of the Gender Pay Gap, it is surprising that women supposedly make 80 percent of buying decisions.

If you take a closer look at Nielsen’s Women of Tomorrow study, you will in fact notice that women have a greater influence on purchasing decisions than men when it comes to groceries, clothing, healthcare and cosmetics as well as –what a surprise– childcare. However, most purchasing decisions are regarded as shared responsibility, without mentioning the internal negotiation processes. In most cases, men decide when it comes to major decisions on cars, electronics or finances. One third of men and women stated that men are better suited to be politicians, to take leadership roles in their professional life (29 percent) and to make big purchasing decisions (22 percent). These results are based on surveys from 21 countries, including those countries where the role of women is not considered to be very emancipated: The Nielsen study was conducted in developed countries like the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Australia and South Korea; as well as in growth markets like Turkey, Russia, South Africa, Nigeria, China, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Mexico and Brazil.

Keeping the female target group loyal

The Nielsen study shows especially that women today are generally under considerable stress and that they do not have enough time to relax or to reserve for themselves. The majority of women from developed countries indicated that they use their extra money for vacations, clothing and cosmetics, followed by savings and the repayment of debts. On the other hand, the majority of women from developing countries invest any surplus they might manage to save in the education, and thus, in the future of their children.

Let’s say you want to have an influence on the consumer choices of women, where do you start?

Note: If you want to do business with women, you need to reduce their stress.

Nielsen Vice-President Susan D. Whiting commented on the study results in an interview with the German Handelsblatt newspaper. In her opinion, companies that intend to appeal strongly to the female target group should focus on how their products reduce stress and make life easier.

IKEA is a great example. Author Christiane Frohmann is the marketing manager of a publishing house and wrote a Pink Paper on how to sell a product to women without treating them like complete fools. Her analysis of the IKEA principles shows that IKEA is a well-known example for excellent service that helps to reduce stress, especially for female customers with children. It was based on the idea that mothers often go shopping with their children without actually enjoying it. Children easily get impatient and whiny, which causes emotional stress for their mothers. The company reduces the mother’s stress by offering a variety of activities for their children, for example the free supervised play areas with a ball-pit, more play areas in the restaurant and even some throughout the store. Moreover, they have the possibility to enjoy a quick meal or to eat peacefully. The IKEA stores offer every kind of comfort such as clean public toilets for adults and children, hooks for jackets and handbags, baby changing rooms, free coffee for IKEA FAMILY members, cheap organic meals for kids and much more. Frohmann knows that, thanks to its services, the IKEA stores turn into a social hotspot for mothers with small children where they can meet with their female friends. She stresses that the good feeling for the brand persists beyond this phase. Many companies do not have the same financial and human resources as IKEA does; but every little store with even a tiny budget should at least be equipped with a water dispenser, a good coffee machine, a small and safe play area and clean toilets with baby-changing facilities. These are the main requirements for female clients, summarizes Frohmann.

Note: If you want to appeal to female clients, you need to tell a story.

Diana Jaffé, an expert on advertising for women, explains different gender-specific differences in perceptions as women look at products differently. She says that it is necessary to present the goods in context and in an inspiring way. In addition, it is important to show what a product does for a person. Some questions arise: Does it fit into my house or in my handbag, does it go with my style? How can this product be useful to me or to my loved ones (children, family, female friends)? Home improvement stores with interior design sections or IKEA have considered these aspects really well.

Note: Women do not only want beautifully designed products but also useful ones

Research undertaken by the Bosch company has shown that women prefer to buy functional products rather than the supposedly typical feminine ones, at least for everyday shopping. Women do not buy tech products as status symbols but for their practical benefit. Men, on the other hand, desire innovative products and the most modern devices and technology, even when the benefit is not worth on the basis of a cost comparison. 

Note: Women need an emotional bond when they buy something

Frohmann is certain that a salesperson who responds insightfully to a female customer, telling her perhaps that he already had a similar problem once, will win a buying friend. Frohmann says that this phenomenon especially concerns the former male consumption domains like the purchase of a home or a car, or perhaps insurance and investments. As the saying goes, the customer ‘is always right’; in reference to women this means that ‘female customers always ask good questions.’

Reaching the female audience

According to the Nielsen study, television is the primary source of information about new products for women, with the exception of Spain and Germany, where female customers prefer to be kept informed about novelties by friends. In other countries, 73 percent of the respondents in developed markets and 82 percent in emerging markets also trust the ’recommendations of friends.’

But be careful: it is not that simple. “Mum is dead”, Frohmann states in her brochure. The typical addressee of gender-specific advertising such as ‘the mere housewife’ and ‘mummy’ is only one among many lifestyle patterns. According to the authors Michael Silverstein and Kate Sayre from the Boston Consulting Group, various life situations along with different needs have to be taken into consideration.

Silverstein and Sayre distinguish between women of the following types: fast-tracker, family-focused (aptly called the pressure cooker), relationship-focused, with adult children (fulfilled empty nester), managing on her own and making ends meet. Frohmann presents her advice: “In order to sell a mother a mobile phone, the salesperson has to explain to her that with the help of the device she can stay in touch with her children during the day; with the help of a car she can drive stress-free with her children and with the help of a game console her children can learn a foreign language. In order to sell a phone or a car to a woman without children, advertise it as a stylish accessory.”

With all these requirements, is there still enough room for sustainability?

Jaffé thinks that sustainability is not the first thing that women pay attention to when they buy something. It is the same with them as it is with men: old habits die hard. Stress does not make it easier to change such habits. Conscious shopping means being up to date. And this takes time that women do not have. But they love products that promise them many things at once, Frohmann believes. They want to optimise the living environment for others and for themselves by keeping it stress-free and healthy as much as possible. And ideally, they want to achieve this without exploiting people and harming the environment. Then, at last comes the price. This also emerges from the Nielsen study.

Here is Jaffé’s advice for manufacturers: “Sustainably manufactured products need to come out of their niche; the ecological aspect can be mentioned, but not in the first place. This should be communicated in a natural manner. Instead, it is better to advertise: this product is cool or sexy. People are ready to spend a lot of money on cool brands. The environmental aspect itself is not a reason to buy. It is possible that an ‘eco image’ can even scare away some customers.” [see the box for best practice examples]

Weller, however, regards the whole debate about the influence of female customers critically. “One needs to consider whether the influence of female and male customers is not being exaggerated and as a result, other influential and mighty players are perhaps being overlooked.” In addition, Weller believes that there is the view that the environmental impact of products is decided at the beginning of their development and production. In this respect, consumers do not have any influence on this process at all.

Sustainable women whisperers – best practice

The Bosch company is a good example of the advertising and products women wish for. The German electronics company was struggling with being pushed aside by Chinese rivals and so it focused intensively on market research in the 1990s. In doing so, they discovered the group of sporadic do-it-yourselfers that consists to a great extent of women. Especially for them, Bosch developed a small, functional cordless screwdriver without any special features. 12 million IXO screwdrivers were sold during the first year, says Diana Jaffé, the owner of a marketing consultancy company. She adds that roughly half of the buyers were women. Usually, an item sells only 1.5 million times during its life cycle. Today, the IXO is the best-selling electric tool in the world.

Moreover, Bosch is doing something for its image as a sustainable producer. Thus, for example, the Robert Bosch Foundation annually funds a professorship the emphasises the sustainable use of natural resources. The award is endowed with EUR 1m over a period of five years for the creation of an independent research group at a German university or a research center. The company annually publishes a sustainability report, funds studies in this field and operates a sustainability blog.

Gender marketing is also an important part of Unilever's marketing strategy. The Campaign for Real Beauty launched by Dove, the company’s personal care brand, targeted female customers and earned very positive reviews. The campaign focused on regular women of average weight and age who did not correspond to the beauty stereotype commonly promoted in the advertising industry. In a previous survey, the company had discovered that 87 per cent of the female respondents think that the media and the advertising industry are responsible for the unrealistic beauty ideal many women believe in. According to the survey, only five per cent of the women surveyed could identify with common beauty ideals. Many of them, on the contrary, were frustrated by the perfect role models and were asking for more natural women in advertising. By picking up this attitude, promoting a healthier self-image and supporting partners in the battle against eating disorders, Unilever succeeded in improving its image. The company also benefitted from the campaign in a different way: Dove’s annual turnover increased significantly and the brand took a big step closer to Nivea, the market leader. 

Unilever also focuses on sustainability. According to its own statements, the company saves energy during the production process and tries to reduce its CO2 emissions. On its website, Unilever promotes a Sustainable Living Plan. With this plan, the company hopes to help more than a billion people to improve their health and physical comfort, halve the ecological footprint of its products and obtain 100 per cent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020.

Jasmin Andresh is a biologist and works as a medical and scientific journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, (a Frankfurt daily newspaper) among others.

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