By  on October 19, 2005

NEW YORK — What took Nike so long?

The sports giant's foot-dragging trek to marketing full-throttle to women — a milepost it has reached only in the past few years — was based on the same misconceptions that have slowed much of corporate America's approach to the country's roughly 112 million women, contends author/business journalist Fara Warner.

At stake is approximately $7 trillion in consumer and business spending, aggressively pursued by a relative few players, since most have been blinded by outdated stereotypes, said Warner, author of the new book "The Power of The Purse" (Pearson Education/Prentice Hall: $25.99). There's been a slow-to-develop acceptance that women are not a minority but rather an economic force with increasing social independence.

Only in the past three years or so, Warner said, has Nike begun to produce activewear and athletic shoes, and advertising for those products, that connect with women. "After almost 30 years of creating women's clothes and shoes simply by ‘cutting down' men's sizes, women would get their own shoe lasts ... modeled after real women's feet. Clothing would be designed to fit real women's bodies, not the fashion-fit models that the company had long used," Warner recounts in her 216-page book, which is subtitled "How Smart Businesses Are Adapting to the World's Most Important Consumers — Women."

Prior to Nike's change of direction, its women's ads struck Warner as "patronizing" because of the mismatch she perceived between the brand's marketing messages and the goods. However, as the author points out in her book, by 2002, women held the majority of the country's gym memberships and, a year later, accounted for 47 percent of people who took part in trail running, cross-country skiing and kayaking, perhaps motivating the powerhouse brand to put its sports products and ads in sync.

Nike is one of 11 companies Warner examined in attempting to illustrate the stereotypical thinking that continues to limit marketers' approaches to women. "There's still a sense of women as one homogenous group," observed the 39-year-old Fast Company contributing editor. Rather, they range from Ivy Leaguers who envision themselves as stay-at-home mothers in 10 years to women with committed, full-time careers. Too, Warner said, "There is a prevailing myth that if you focus on women, you'll lose men."

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