Consciously Competent: Why leaders need to focus on women

According to the Economist, the most powerful key forces that will shape the century ahead are the three ‘W’s: The Web… The Weather… and Women.

Knowing that brands cannot underestimate the massive contribution women can make to future economic growth and leadership, we made it the subject of our latest Caffeine Business for Breakfast (designed as a short sharp shot of stimulation to start your day).  ‘What Women Want’ was a critical reminder of the importance of understanding the female audience for businesses and was a humdinger of a thought-provoker.

Why bother with women? Globally, women control about £20 trillion in annual consumer spending and that figure could climb as high as £28 trillion in the next 5 years. Their £13 trillion in total earnings could reach £18 trillion in the same period. In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined – more than twice as big in fact.

The Breakfast Debate was led by our friends Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham from specialist research agency Pretty Little Head. Their thesis is that women are the most valuable consumer audience on earth, yet many categories, companies, and brands still operate (usually unwittingly) according to “masculine” principles. It is never as simple as the cliché of the ‘Mars vs Venus’ approach – men and women (aka ‘humans’) are, of course, a range of complex individuals. However, the work of Simon Baron-Cohen on the female and human brain shows a tendency towards the ‘systematic’ in the male brain and the ’empathiser’ in the female. Pretty Little Head’s research shows that companies often show a tendency towards one of these as well. Great companies have successfully scaled and built using a systematic, competitive approach but the debate centred on being conscious that the ‘female’ empathetic approach when it comes to communications is a contemporarily relevant one which can really resonate with the female audience. It’s no longer just about 20% better than the other product but about brands who build communities and create a world where people buy into ‘brands like me’.

The classic rational systematic approach is fantastic for scaling a company but often misses opportunities to connect empathetically with the female audience.

How do we overcome this? It’s about thinking carefully about your organisation and your people. Are there gaps? What balance of systematic vs empathetic approaches are applied? The truth is that – despite being a woman – I am a shocking systemiser. The combination of reading history, being trained by big FMCG companies plus a natural impatience for growth means I flourish with a systematic approach. However, as a marketeer in origin I know for a fact that making sure the systems for any organisation we work with have to include a set-up which allows that proper customer/consumer understanding and that however a company is portrayed needs to show empathy and understanding.

Three tips from the breakfast to consider:

  • Powerful organisations should be ‘consciously competent’. At Caffeine we see time and again that the most successful brands have the consumer or customer at the heart of everything they do. If you get closer to your consumer and talk to an empathiser audience about how the brand and market looks through their eyes, it will allow you to remain aware of their needs. Put that into your system.

At Caffeine we work with leaders to reinforce the idea that customer centric brands consistently outperform in their markets; there needs to be an ongoing, consistent flow of customer feedback and information within the business, bringing the customer (warts and all) right into the middle of it all.

  • Adopt an empathetic brand model centered on shared purpose. As Andy Milligan and Shaun Smith have written about in ‘On Purpose’ a motivating sense of purpose not only fuels employee clarity and motivation but also allows consumers to feel closer to brands rather than feel ‘told’ what to do by the brands. brand models 4
  • Consider if you should recruit in your customer’s likeness. Now this is an interesting one. The statistics show clearly that a more diverse board produces more successful business decisions. The question then becomes: should your employees reflect your audience? For some brands this really helps: Zara’s shop assistants who are like their customers have been great at feeding back what works and doesn’t on the shop floor. John Lewis is nice middle-class people serving nice middle-class people. Grazia’s writers live in the world their readers live in. I think that for sales people and content providers, having an insightful representation is useful.

My personal caution here would be that we should be very careful to avoid a token or a superficial reflection of your audience. In my time working on brands like Always and Tampax, I fought vigorously against the argument that we should only have women working on the business or women in the advertising agency. Because actually we needed most of all to understand teenage girls and new mothers (and there were few of them in the company or agency). We can listen, we can ask, we can get closer to our audience even when we’re not an exact reflection.  Remember ‘fish can’t always see water’.

For me, this goes back to the ‘being consciously competent’. The best leaders create and employ people who observe, who listen and who think. And smart people who observe, who listen and who think should realise that many of the bigger or more traditional companies need to do this more when they are considering the female audience.

One last thought from Pretty Little Head: on average when happy with a product, men tell 2 people. Women? 23! Cost of word of mouth? Priceless.

So there is significant economic power in creating a world of happy females. Please spread the word…


Statistics: The Economist & Harvard Business Review

Sophie Devonshire
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