Barletta, Martha

Martha Barletta, president of The Trendsight Group, is a recognized authority on gender-focused marketing strategies for wooing women consumers. Her Wharton MBA, a distinguished career at top-flight agencies such as McCann-Erickson, TLK, FCB, and Frankel, and work on blue-chip brands such as Kraft, Kodak, and Allstate helped hone her marketing and sales talents. Barletta's lively style, command of her subject, and passion for her topic make her a popular presenter at corporations, conferences, and business schools. Her book has been featured in Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge newsletter, the Knowledge@Wharton newsletter, the Wall Street Executive Library (top 2% website), Sales & Marketing Excellence, and many other publications worldwide, as well as on CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, First Business TV (165 markets), WebFN-TV (global financial news webcast, 100+ countries) and numerous Radio shows (200 markets). Her book, Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the World's Largest Market Segment, is in its fifth printing, and it is now available in 12 languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Brazilian Portuguese. asks …

What do women want?

MB: What do women want? [laughs]

To borrow a question from your own book. Or, to quote Freud.

MB: The thing that I try to explain to people is that women want all the same things as men, and then some. There’s a fair amount of background to that. People usually assume that women might want different products than men, or different services than men. But women usually don’t. I don’t recommend to many clients that they create a special mutual fund for women, or a special computer for women, or a special “anything” for women. Because women tend to reject anything that’s for women specifically, as do men, frankly.

The focus of what I talk about is how do you communicate with women differently? You can tap in to women to help improve your products and services. They’re likely to be able to help you a little bit more than men can, because women have, literally, the ability to perceive a finer level of detail than men do.

I think women notice things more; they notice smaller things than men. In the past I’ve heard, “Oh yes, women are good with detail.” That used to irk me, because I thought it meant that men are good with important things, and women are good with unimportant things.

But that probably was the thrust of the statement.

MB: At the time, it might have been. But I think it was a misunderstanding. Men prefer to focus on the big important stuff, and they don’t “muddle up things with the details,” meaning deal with things they perceive to be inessential. But the difference is that women don’t perceive the details to be inessential at all. A woman’s point of view is how do you get the big picture without looking at an issue in depth. Comprehensively. It’s just a very different way of choosing to look at things.

Research has been done that shows that women can perceive a finer level of detail. Moreover, there’s research that shows that women literally do feel emotions a little bit more strongly than men. What that means is that women care a little bit more about details than men do. So things that men, in the first place, wouldn’t consider important, and, secondly, wouldn’t care about, women do consider important, because they have a more multi-minded and integrated way of looking at things.

In general, women just care about most things more than men do. I know that’s a sweeping statement. But if you look at surveys where the question is phrased in the “How important is this” way, you will find that women generally will rank everything more important.

Deloitte and Touche did a study about women working there. They found women were doing very well, starting up the partner ladder, and then they were just disappearing. The myth was, of course, that they were going off to have babies. It turned out that that wasn’t the case at all. The women just didn’t like the work environment. The CEO at the time—I don’t remember his name [J. Michael Cook] decided, “Well, let’s do something. This is important. We need more women partners.”

And they have made big changes. But the most interesting thing, from my point of view, is that all the things they did to make the workplace more woman-friendly, it turns out, as you suggest, were appreciated by the guys just as much.

MB: Exactly.

I don’t know why that idea doesn’t get more play in corporate America. Because women just want more from things, and guys do, too; they just haven’t had the patience to bother to figure it out.

MB: Exactly. A teeny version of that same example that you just talked about is Wyndham Hotels. In the early ’90s, they found out from their Women’s Advisory Board that women would really like to have makeup mirrors, so they wouldn’t have to lean four feet over the counter to put their makeup on in the bathroom. So Wyndham took that suggestion, and they said, “Okay. We’re going after the woman business traveler. That’s fine.” And they found out that men really liked the new mirrors, too, for shaving. It just hadn’t crossed their minds that there was anything missing.

It’s very much the same thing that you were just talking about with Deloitte. In response to what women have asked for, a lot of changes in the workplace have happened. Everyone—male and female—is benefiting from flextime and telecommuting.

I think your book is the fourth or fifth one written on the topic of marketing to women. Terrifically small number, given the size of this market. Why is that?

MB: I think it’s a couple of things. One is that people don’t understand. They think that whatever marketing they’re doing, “Hey, it’s good enough.” The attitude among marketers seems to be that women and men aren’t that different, so if it works for guys, it ought to work for women, too.

Right. They’ve all got two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose.

MB: There’s another thing. I heard this from an executive at a media company that is in the business of convincing people that women are an important market, because their primary audience is women. They’ve done a lot of research, and they know that women are an important market, and they know all about the power of the woman’s dollar.

He said, “I know it with my head, but I don’t feel it in my gut.” I think he feels that way because there are five stages of the buying process. As it happens, women are primary movers and shakers in four of them. But the fifth one is the one that’s visible. And that’s the point at which there is more joint decision-making.

The first stage is deciding to buy a thing. For example, “We need more insurance.” Very often it is the woman who initiates that. She’s the one who decides, “Honey, it’s time.” But the marketer doesn’t see that.

The second stage is research. Here again, the woman will often take the lead. She says, “Well, I think we should talk to Jenny’s broker—Bob is good,” and “We’ll look at this company, because I like their advertising,” and then, of course, “But Jill is our neighbor, so we should talk to her too.” She sorts out the three options, the finite number of options that they’re going to consider for this purchase. What marketers don’t realize is how critical this stage is, because she’s already eliminated 97 other possibilities. By narrowing it down to the ones that they’re going to consider, she has excluded many others. That’s a key stage of the process. Again, invisible to marketers.

The third stage is where they make the purchase. If it’s a couple and it’s a big deal, they usually go together. Even if she’s buying her own car. Because women are just treated poorly at car dealerships, she will often take a male—either her husband or some sort of a male companion—for moral support, so that she won’t get pushed around. In the case of the car dealer he sees that there’s two of them there. The car dealers, actually, are very, very slow to catch on, because they’re still doing a lot of the talking to the man, even when the woman is asking the questions. Or they’ll go get the car keys for the test drive, and after she’s been asking all the questions, they hand the car keys to the man.

Stage 4 is maintenance—ongoing interaction with the company. Usually it is the woman of the house who pays the bills (handles the checkbook in 83% of households), and handles any problem resolution with the company. If she is finding that “their statements make no sense—you can’t tell what’s covered and what isn’t;” or “you can’t ever reach a live person when you call them, just an endless phone tree,” or “once you reach a live person, s/he is an idiot—no training or power to address the problem” or I’ve tried three times to correct the phone number they have us listed under and I’m not getting anywhere.” These types of service issues are usually the reasons customers leave a brand—most of the time, it’s not product but poor service that drives them away. … And women are the ones pulling the business.

Stage 5 is referral. Most big-ticket salespeople—the good ones, at least—will tell you almost all their business comes to them from referrals. This is true in financial services, automotive sales, computers, and many other categories. And women are much more likely to provide referrals than men. In insurance, over the lifetime of a customer, a woman provides on average 28 referrals, vs. 13 for men. And in Tom’s book, he cites the case of a financial advisor who analyzed his book of business and found a 21.0/2.6 ratio!

I had the same experience. My wife went into a financial services office. She was rolling over money from an account. We sat down, and even though we were there because of her account, her money, the guy still spoke to me. I finally said to him, “You know, this is my wife’s money we’re talking about here. Why are you talking to me?”

MB: I think they also assume that you’re the primary decision-maker, even if it is her money. Because 50 years ago that’s the way it was. I’m hearing more and more men making those kinds of observations about how their wives and daughters are treated. Once it happens near to home, the guys start to see what the problem is. But even though they know it’s true from personal experience, that learning has not really started to percolate into the marketing and sales programs yet. Most industries still have an awfully long way to go.

All of the statistics in the world don’t change somebody’s gut feeling. That’s why I tell a lot of stories in my presentations and in my book. Because I think people can relate to those stories. There’s recognition of some incident that they’ve also experienced.

What I loved was that story of yours about how when men say, “I’ll think about it,” it basically means, “I’m not interested.” But when women say, “I’ll think about it,” they’re expressing the truth. They’re going to think about it, and they’re probably going to do some more research. Then you relate how one consultant was making that point in a sales training session, and there’s a guy in the back of the room who hits himself on the forehead and says, “Oh, my God!” Because he realizes at that moment all the money he’s left on the table over the years.

MB: That just cracks me up. Because I didn’t know that “I’ll think about it,” in man-talk, meant “No.” I didn’t know that. It’s just like Japanese culture. The fact that there are cultural differences between men and women is just absolutely true. From what I’ve read about Japanese culture, it’s very similar. When they say “Maybe,” that means “No.”

There really are cultural differences between men and women, literally. I think that only so much of it can be traced back to socialization. Who knows where it comes from? But the difference is there, and the head-nodding thing is the flip side of that same story. Men just haven’t realized that when women are nodding their heads, they’re not saying “Yes.” They’re just saying “Okay, keep talking.”

I read that in one of these books, so now I’m very conscious of it when I’m speaking with women on the telephone. I try to say “Yeah,” a lot.

MB: Good for you.

Just because of that. No one ever complains, so it must be a good thing.

MB: It’s a very good thing. I’m preparing a talk for some financial advisors. And these guys always ask me, “Now, how do you know? What are the buying signals for when a woman prospect is ready to buy?” I tell them there are no magic tells, like poker tells. Don’t exist. But I will tell them one thing. If she’s not nodding her head, you should have shut up about ten minutes ago. Because when she stops nodding her head, that is an active signal that you’ve been talking too long.

When I think back to conversations I’ve had where I’m sitting there, and I’m listening, and I’m basically engaged. If a woman is talking to me, if she hasn’t heard from me in awhile, she’ll say, “Are you still there?”

MB: I think there’s a different mechanism in guy-culture, where if a guy has something to say, he’ll just jump in. So if you keep on talking, if the other guy doesn’t have anything to say, he’s content to keep on listening. Women are less likely to do that.

What’s the biggest hurdle to overcome in getting a company to think about marketing to women?

MB: Well, the biggest one is the one that Tom also talks about, which is the organizational stuff. The marketing stuff is a breeze, compared to the organizational “silo” stuff. Because usually what you find is that somebody in some department thinks it’s a good idea. But it’s hardly ever somebody who can say, “Alright, we’re turning this whole damn company around.” Which is, frankly, why we are trying to get the word to CEOs, so they can align the whole company with the key customer—who is female! That’s why I have “Notes to the CEO” as the last chapter of my book; they need to hear this message.

Yes. I liked that. That was a nice touch in your book.

MB: But it’s so hard to get the ear of these top-level guys, and it is mostly guys. It’s not a malicious “suppressing women” thing at all—it’s just simple ignorance, or, rather, obliviousness of some sort. A lot of companies—for example, banks and financial services companies—don’t have the information on their customer base broken out by gender.

Part of the reason, then, is that they don’t track these things. People who sell computers and things like that? It’s never occurred to them to track their databases by men versus women. And getting back to banks. You can’t figure out the primary decision maker on a mortgage, for instance, because if it’s jointly held, both names are on there and the man’s name is first. By default. That’s the way the computer is programmed. Even though she might have been the one that decided, “Hey, we’re going to go talk to the Charles Schwab Guy.” Which is what happened in my household. I said, “We’re going to go talk to the Dean Witter guy,” and he ended up getting our accounts. But the statements always come to Van and Martha Barletta. So, you can’t tell that I was the one who was the decision-maker, because it’s a joint account.

A lot of these companies don’t have any idea how important women are to their business. I think the reason the financial services industry is the leading-edge industry in this whole area is that it’s their job to know where the money is. And where the money is going.

Not only do women have a lot of money of their own now. Add to that the fact that baby boomers are going to be inheriting from their high-saving parents in the next couple of decades. Then, after that, the baby boomer women will be inheriting from their husbands. So you’ve got the combined wealth of two generations, and two sides of the family in this widow’s wallet. That’s a huge amount of money. The financial services companies are aware of that.

The car companies should be right in the same pocket. They should be right in the same pocket. And they’re not even close. You see a company like Mercedes-Benz that is designing littler, cheaper cars so that they can appeal to the youth market; this is ridiculous! Let me get this straight. Instead of preserving your high-end brand equity, where you are recognized as a true leader in the high end—which is where baby boomer women are going to be buying their next car, by the way—you’re going to go after the low-end market, which has less money. At the same time you’re going to “cheap-down” your brand name, because you’re making smaller, less-premium cars. That’s a ludicrous decision.

Then there’s the age issue. I go into these marketing meetings, and when I ask what is their target audience, they say things such as “adults,” or “women, 25 to 54.” They think the entire U.S. population dies off at age 55. Again, this is ridiculous. Because the average age of widowhood in this country is 67 years old. The widows outlive their husbands by an average of 15 to 18 years. That’s huge! There’s another couple of decades where they’re solely in control of the money.

I’m going to backtrack to one more thought here, because another reason I think that this recognition for women’s purchasing power has been slow to catch hold is that the press always focuses on what I call “The Poor Story” about women. What you see in the press is how women make only 76 cents on the dollar as compared to men. Then there are the “We’re Disappointed” stories. People are disappointed that only 13 percent of Fortune 500 Board members are women, and not as many women are in senior management as we had thought that there would be by now.

But the other story—what I call “The Power Story”—is never told. I don’t understand why I haven’t seen headlines that say, “Women Control the Majority of U.S. Personal Wealth.” Got that? 51.3 percent of the personal wealth! Or why I haven’t seen the story that the rate of growth of women millionaires is almost twice the rate of growth of male millionaires. Yes, the women are starting from a smaller base, but the point being, they’re catching up fast.

And why isn’t it big news that 30 percent of working wives out-earn their husbands. And that doesn’t even count the 20 to 30 percent who earn about the same as their husbands. Why don’t I see a front page focus on that in the newspapers?

Well, from my very cynical point of view, it is because of a cultural bias.

MB: But these numbers are from the Federal Reserve, and the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics!

Yes, I think it’s a good point, and I think it would be worthwhile for somebody to find out why.

MB: The number in my book was, “Women’s income has soared 63 percent in the last two decades, and men’s has remained essentially stable at plus 0.6 percent.” These are dramatic numbers. And you don’t see these in the press. All you see is, “Women don’t—.” If all you ever saw in the press was, “Women don’t have any money,” and “Women don’t have nearly as much money as men,” then maybe you wouldn’t be motivated, particularly, to think, “Well, that’s a market I want to go after.”

But the fact of the matter is, there’s another side to the story that is never told; and it should be. The point is not that women need to be recognized. The point is that companies need to recognize this market opportunity. You know, companies are leaving so much money on the table. It is so easy to do better than what’s being done out there right now.

You have these side-bars in your book, brief stories usually about a woman-run business, generally a marketing firm, and then you get the full story at the back-end of the book, I think, in an appendix. You’re sharing other women’s information within your book, without just relegating them to the back of the book. You’re saying, “Here’s somebody who’s doing something interesting.” It just seemed very networking-like. Was that conscious?

MB: That was the origin of it, yes. But there are so few people working in the whole arena of marketing to women, that there’s more than enough business for everybody. The attitude here is that it’s much more collegial than competitive. Theoretically, you could call those people that I have in my book my competitors. But the sense in the community, as small as it is, is much more collegial than that.

Yes. I think that’s sort of the underlying story of this whole thing: It’s all amazing. There are all these statistics about how much money women have to spend and no one seems to want it. Why aren’t there more women out there talking about marketing to women?

MB: Just when you think that business is rational … ! It’s a huge opportunity. On the one hand, I understand how this country is becoming more multi-cultural, and I think it’s a wonderful thing that we’re finally recognizing that and adapting to it. But when push-comes-to-shove, the ethnic populations that they’re talking about doing specific marketing to—and they have been doing specific marketing to these groups for 10 or 20 years—are on the order of 10 to 12 percent of the U.S. population. Most of them have an even smaller percentage control of U.S. spending, at this point. Whereas, the U.S. female population is the majority of the population, and they control a much higher index of the spending power. Why marketers aren’t tripping over themselves to cater to this group is beyond me.

You suggest that one explanation may be that marketers just think that their marketing is okay for men and women. They—and “they” are mostly men, right?—just don’t understand that these differences between men and women do affect how marketing messages are interpreted.

MB: Yes, you’re probably right about that.

Last thoughts?

MB: I think what your readers should go away with is the fact that marketing to women is all about market share. I sometimes hear people say, “So your point is that women are already buying most of the cars. So if I market to women, why will I sell more cars?” But they’ve missed the obvious, because it’s, “Well, wouldn’t you rather they bought your brand of car?”

It’s all about building share. Women are already the dominant buyers in the categories, but what this is about is building your brand, and your competitive situation. I truly, truly believe that this is not hard. Because the stuff that’s out there is so weak, for the most part, that just moderate improvement in understanding how to better market to women, would yield significant share response.

It’s not like we’re talking about investing in a five-million-dollar CRM system, or new database, or anything like that. You can do this with your current budgets, and get more money out of your current budgets, out of every single dollar you spend on sales and marketing. Why wouldn’t you do that?

Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.

MB: Exactly.

Thank you.