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Making a Power Play for Women

The sports giant's foot-dragging trek to marketing full-throttle to women was based on the same misconceptions that have slowed much of corporate America.

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in consumer and business spending, aggressively pursued by a relative few players, since most have been blinded by outdated stereotypes, said Warner, author of the new book “The Power of The Purse” (Pearson Education/Prentice Hall: $25.99).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.”

In such an environment, the author explained, it has taken “something dramatic” to prompt a dedicated play for women and girls, such as those undertaken by the companies she writes about: McDonald’s, the Home Depot, Procter & Gamble’s Swiffer brand, DeBeers, AXA Financial, Women and Co., Citigroup, WomensWallStreet.com, Kodak, Avon and Bratz. At Nike, sales flatlined at around $9 billion in the era after Jordan-mania, which prompted a reconception of the women’s business. At Avon, a campaign to open the hearts and purse strings of teens and twenty-somethings to products from a company with a profile that was middle-aged and middle of the road led to the genesis of the beauty brand “mark.”

Avon’s creation of mark, Warner said in an interview, is a prime example of a “rethinking of what women really want; what it means when that primary contract between a man and a woman — that a woman’s financial viability comes from marriage — is broken.” In her discussion of the appeal made by mark, the author cites Shelley Lazarus, chief executive officer of Ogilvy & Mather, who told her in a 2004 interview, “The real freedom women have now is that they set their own paths, and society isn’t going to tell them what they should look like, or how many hours to spend in the office, or how many hours to spend at home with their children.”

For Nike, Warner maintained, the question was, “How do you make this heavy, testosterone-laden brand relevant to women?” Gone was Nike’s juggernaut of fuel-injected, Jordan-endorsed products that had ushered in what Warner described as a period of “in-your-face sport-star advertising,” one in which “there didn’t seem to be room for women.” And one in which sales followed a trajectory from $3 billion in 1994 to around $9 billion in 1998.

With their past marketing ties with runners Joan Benoit Samuelson and Mary Decker Slaney long faded in the distance, Nike signed teen golf sensation Michelle Wie this month as its newest endorser; launched Nikewomen (née Nike Goddess) stores, which now number 12, and introduced the new sizing. One goal is a bigger piece of the women’s activewear business, which is projected by market researcher Packaged Facts to reach $38 billion by year’s end, up a robust 52 percent from $25 billion in 2003. Warner now rates the brand’s equity with women a 6.5 out of 10.

While advocating such changes, Warner suggested the way for marketers to connect with women lies in “a nexus between old and new views. Women are increasingly comfortable with all of their roles, one reason they can’t be stereotyped.”