Johnson, Lisa

JohnsonLisa.jpgLisa Johnson and Andrea Learned are the coauthors of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy—And How to Increase Your Share of This Crucial Market. Today we're talking with Lisa, who is CEO and co-founder of ReachWomen, a marketing consultancy focused on Gen X and Gen Y women (ages 18-40) Before starting ReachWomen, Lisa worked in the sporting goods industry and became an independent business consultant and public relations specialist. She has worked with companies as diverse as Kohler, Mercedes, Starbucks, Office Depot, and Panasonic, and she has been quoted in a variety of publications including the New York Times Magazine, American Demographics, AdWeek, Men's Health, and others.

dontthinkpink.jpg asks …

What’s the significance of your title, Don’t Think Pink?

LJ: We found that in the arena of marketing to women, the one topic that really was confusing to clients but not often covered was how to position their brand. People would read about marketing to women and hear words like “doing a pink campaign” or how to make it “transparent.” But no one really ever defined what that meant. At least, I’ve never read a single article on what it meant to market transparently.

So we set out to define “What does it look like when a company thinks pink?” In a nutshell, it’s when they do a kind of stereotype-driven campaign. It’s when they just scratch the surface of what a woman really wants, or, in many cases, miss the boat altogether. For example, in the sporting goods world, it might be taking your men’s golf clubs and making them shorter, smaller and putting them in a floral bag, instead of really looking at “How is a woman’s grip different? How does this club need to be weighted differently for her needs? And what kind of packaging would appeal to her besides defaulting to floral?” Because floral (pause). Pink is a color, not a marketing campaign or approach.

Does anyone out there really still think that women are just smaller versions of men?

LJ: I get asked that a lot. I don’t think anyone’s sitting around in their boardrooms saying “How can we piss off women? How can we belittle them?” But what I do think is true is that companies are running the numbers. They’re realizing how important woman are to them, but they get into a pink fog because they’re overwhelmed.

I also think that initially there’s a sense of “How can we do a quick fix? How can we capture this woman’s attention?” And even though they live with women at home or have sisters or work with really sharp women, this pink fog is still happening. We see it all the time. Companies think it might work to make some cosmetic changes, modify the language, and put a lot of women in the pictures. I think we’re still seeing a lot of it.

I don’t think they really understand that there are a lot of different options for positioning. We outline several different ones in the book.

I’ll give you an example from the home improvement industry because the whole do-it-yourself movement will give us a sense of all these different approaches. In terms of pink, there is a little toolset that came out. Lillian Vernon has it on her site right now. It’s a little pink, 96-piece toolset with a little pink hammer and a little pink screwdriver and like 86 nails. There’s a group of college women who think it’s hilarious and they buy it. No serious do-it-yourselfer is going to buy that kit, but it’s out there. Someone thought women would want a pink kit, so they put a few tools in a pink case and threw it out there. We’d call that a “pink campaign.”

Then what we call “visible” is when there is a for-women campaign or for-women product line that’s done well. The Barbara K Tool Kit is a great example. Barbara K, former head of a major New York City construction firm, realized that there’s a whole group of do-it-yourselfers that we would call “tentative.” They’re just getting started, and they’re looking for maybe a starter kit of high-quality tools that really fit their hands well…and have some design sense. Her packaging reminds me of an iMac. It’s really cool whites and blues.

Yes, I’ve seen that Barbara K thing actually in the window of my neighborhood Tru-Value hardware store, and it looks very appealing to me.

LJ: I think they’ve done a great job. Her website is very well done, too. It educates on a lot of the questions a do-it-yourselfer might have. The tools are really well made. They make sense. They’re customized. That’s a great “visible campaign.”

Then you can look at what we call “transparent marketing,” which we believe really is the future. That’s when you tailor a brand, a product line, a marketing campaign to truly resonate with women’s shopping styles, whether it’s their body shape, their specific needs, or whatever, without necessarily calling it “for women.”

You can see that with what Home Depot and Lowe’s have been doing. They’ve widened their aisles because women don’t want to feel all cramped in the store. They’ve made really bright, showroom-like settings. They’ve even taken the concept of putting, for instance, entire kitchens on display, so you can say, “Oh, I see what those cabinets look like with that granite top. I can see what that fixture would look like with that sink.” So they’re really showing customers the end result.

They’re doing a great job. Women are leading the do-it-yourself charge, and places like Home Depot and Lowe’s are turning those warehouse-style environments into places of inspiration and education. Women are responding, and so are men. As they’ve catered to women, men are responding as well and finding those changes helpful.

I was looking through the recommended reading list at the back of your book, and everyone on there except Mary Lou Quinlan is a Cool Friend of ours. So we’re getting very well versed in the literature. That’s one thing that I really noticed. It’s starting back with a survey Deloitte & Touche did within their organization about why women were leaving. And it turned out it wasn’t to go have babies.

But whenever they did anything woman-friendly, the guys loved it just as much. Whether it was flex time or some other changes they made to make it a more workable environment, it turns out that the guys love it, but they’ve never asked for it. And we’re not sure why. Of course, they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable in the workplace. It’s probably going back to, “I don’t want to look like a sissy, but I really would like that!”

LJ: Exactly. We designed our company around listening to the customers and then translating that back into strategy for our clients. What we found is that women have a great ability to articulate how to make things better for them.

They didn’t just know, “This isn’t working for me,” but they were able to pinpoint a specific change that would be better for them. I think the problem with a lot of companies is they sit down with their customers and, first of all, they put them in a very uncomfortable, unnatural environment, which changes the way they would normally interact with each other. Secondly, they ask them marketing questions instead of customer questions.

The best thing to do is ask your customers customer questions. “Do you really understand them?” Then you use your marketing mind to translate that into strategy. I think many companies are not really understanding their customer experience. They’re asking the wrong kinds of questions in the wrong setting in the wrong way.

One thing I really feel is that when you put a group of women together, they are such a powerful force in how to make a brand more compelling. For instance, we did a tour called “Reinvent Menopause.” We did it in day spas. I try not to over-orchestrate how women interact with each other, so the room gets into a major buzz with lots of those “that’s me” moments. They’re thinking, “Oh my gosh. That’s what it’s like when I’m with my kids,” or something like that. That’s some of the most important information a brand can have about how to become more compelling. If you take away the energy factor from the room, you really cannot tell what’s important. So I think there are so many incredible ways to access women as a marketing resource, but too often we put them in such weird environments that we’re really not letting them be themselves.

We see ad campaigns where companies try to reach out to women but the images don’t really apply. They just don’t seem to understand.

LJ: Yes, it’s like the same cast of overused characters every time. You know, there’s the soccer mom, the carpooling mom, the fanatic cleaner, the hip 20 year-old with the cute little wire glasses and the flip skirt.

When we go back just a few years to our interview with Faith Popcorn about EVEolution, there seemed to be no cognizance of this women’s market.

Tom says he’s been talking about it since 1996 when he sat down with this group of 10 or 20 women who told him horror stories about how they’re treated by banks and car dealerships and such.

It seems now maybe we’ve come around a small turn. Now you see places like Lowe’s and Home Depot that understand that women are a big factor. I go to a Home Depot nearby and the place is just filled with women.

LJ: Yes.

And I’ve seen what you were describing where they put a whole kitchen together, which seems to have changed within the last couple of years. So they are tuned in to this.

LJ: Absolutely. I think the key is when a company decides that they’re willing to make what Faith Popcorn called a cascade of small changes that will reverberate throughout the entire organization instead of looking for one big idea. We work with the clients who are hoping they can have one big isolated idea that will really grab women’s attention without having to penetrate the rest of the company. And that’s just not the case. It’s going to take changes in your customer experience. It’s going to take changes in the layout of your stores potentially, maybe the copy you use, bringing forward your brand personality. A lot of times it will take solving problems, challenges, time-wasters, making the woman customer’s life easier by the way she can interact with your brand. I think that can seem overwhelming.

So a lot of times people want to try the one big idea, last-ditch effort before they say, “Okay, we’ve really got to commit to reaching all our customers.” But I wonder why companies are so tentative to jump in there if 80% of their customers are women, or at least 50% in a lot of cases. That’s a huge amount of money that’s being left on the table.

I don’t want to spend too much time referring to other people, but we’ve also talked with Marti Barletta, who had some thoughts along that same line. It’s obvious these women are spending a lot of dough. Why aren’t people going after it? Marti said she spoke to a guy at a big firm where they know their audience is women, and yet they still just don’t see the actual numbers.

It’s such a guy point of view. They just can’t intuit anything about it and the numbers haven’t been broken out. You know, like a computer company selling computers doesn’t keep track of the difference between male and female shoppers.

LJ: I think the big umbrella fear is that committing to reaching women is going to require them to do a pink campaign. That is what I experience when I’m working with clients. I was working with a major financial services company, and you could just tell that throughout their entire organization, they felt like they had to protect the company from the inevitable pink campaign.

There’s also a fear internally from staff feeling like they’re going to get attached to an isolated division with no budget that’s going to be despised by the rest of the company and that will ruin their career. It just makes me think, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got to change this.”

So, what’s the most important first step in marketing when a company does realize there are a lot of women ready to buy their product?

LJ: I think “all women” is just too big of a group to go after. It’s better to try to really understand one group of women, whether they’re divided by age, attitude, lifestyle, life-stage, confidence, or some other characteristic. What is true about the group of women that are most easily and quickly going to respond to your brand or your product? What’s true about your core market? What is it about your customers and your brand that can create great synergy and narrow your focus?

I think there is this very false sense that if we want to reach women, we need to make things more universal. But instead of giving a woman vanilla every time, we should be serving up her favorite flavors. Be willing to understand and focus on that key segment. It’s a basic marketing principle that’s used in any other area. We need to use it with women.

If you can reach that core group well, they in turn will take the brand message to a larger audience. An example of that would be the Yoga fitness movement. You’ve got this core group that is really experiencing the benefits and ascribing to a certain lifestyle. Over time, as the boomers aged and their knees started to go, they realized, “Oh, step aerobics and running aren’t what we need any more.” They turned to things like Pilates and Yoga, as did a lot of celebrities. And then they took it to the mainstream.

But it was reaching that core faithful initially that worked. I think it is especially true with Gen X and Gen Y that trying to make these universal blanket brands is not resonating at all. You have to stand out. You’ve really got to define your brand personality, understand your market, and then solve their problems, make their lives easier.

We also know that women, once they’re convinced of something, are going to talk to a lot more people about why they love that brand, right?

LJ: Absolutely. I think Marti said in her interview that women will tell an average of 26 people about something they’re excited about and men, 13. Brand enthusiasm and that referral trait in women are so under-utilized. I think especially if you’re solving a problem, women are very excited to share innovative solutions with each other. I’m working with a client right now called Dream Dinners.

What’s it called? “Dream Dinners”?

LJ: Yes, Dream Dinners. They understand that working women and busy moms are fed up with the dinnertime dilemma of trying to get a meal on the table after they got home from soccer practice at 7 o’clock.

So their stores are like convenience kitchens. You register for, say, 12 different entrees, each to feed four to six people. You go in with your buddies and, within an hour and a half, you assemble 12 delicious, gourmet meals that freeze well.

Everything’s fresh, raw ingredients. You just assemble them in these pans, ready to freeze, and then you take out your Chicken Cordon Bleu or your Salmon Oriental or whatever and just throw it in the oven. And so you have 12 things checked off your to-do list within two hours.

So it’s a sort of do-it-yourself fast food set-up?

LJ: Pretty much. The customers are assembling fresh entrees for their freezers. It has taken off like wildfire. It went from a smart concept to a chain of about 60. They’ll have 200 stores in the next two years.

It’s all across the nation, and there are a ton of copycats, too, because it is solving a major problem for women: how to get a dinner on the table that you feel good about. Not McDonald’s and pizza all the time. Statistics are showing that having dinner with your family around the table is one of the best things you can do to help your kids academically and socially, to help them stay off drugs or alcohol, and prevent eating disorders. It’s like a high-impact habit. And so, what a great solution, you know?

Is there one near me?

LJ: Where are you?


LJ: I imagine there’s one in Boston. You can find the locations on their website ( It’s great, definitely. I’ll tell you another innovative solution I think is interesting.

There was an article that just came out—I think it was on the AP—about how boomer women right now will spend as much time taking care of their aging parents as they will their children. They’re watching their maturing parents, even those in upscale retirement communities and homes, and realizing that’s not what they want for themselves. They want to prolong their freedom for as long as they can.

So women in friendship circles are entering into agreements with each other saying, “Let’s get a common house together. I will agree to take care of you with all the facilities I have left if you will do the same for me. Let’s try to keep our freedom as long as we can.”

They are initiating a whole new way to age based on the fact that they’ve seen up-close what’s currently available. But this is going to open up new avenues for lawyers and financial services, and there will probably be different-looking residences. A whole industry is going to pop up around this innovative solution. People that get in on that early can really be leaders. It’s really looking to “How are women solving problems, and how can we support that?”

One thing I’m always aware of is how differently women shop. I’ve come to understand that they do a lot more research than guys. How does somebody accommodate that?

LJ: I think there are different touch points to look at. There’s your in-store environment, your website, your sales staff, and things you send in the mail. You have to really look at how you can make each one work the best for her.

For companies that have products that require more in-depth research such as a high-ticket item, you want to make sure your website in particular is really rich in information. You can go as far as to provide a comparison matrix of your products with the other things they’re going to check out anyway, and you’ll become the industry resource. Don’t be afraid to include reviews of other companies and such. Maybe that sounds risky, but if she’s going to buy a riding lawnmower and John Deere has decided to make themselves the center of comparison information and peer reviews for riding lawnmowers, she’s going to go to that site first anyway. Because she knows that’s where all the information is stored, so John Deere has saved her a lot of time by providing a lot of information in the form that she wants.

Another thing is to really educate your salespeople. In financial services, there are a lot of comments like, “Gosh, women just cannot make up their minds.” Well, she might take longer to make up her mind, but the fact is, once she does make that decision, she’s making decisions not just for herself but also for her aging parents, and often for her husband. She’ll be influencing her children. She’ll be referring her friends.

If she’s pleased with your service, she can become a huge evangelist for you. So you’re going to spend more time on the upfront part of that sales process, but there’s a really long dividend from her loyalty, referral rate, and other things on the back end. So you have to understand that the investment is worth it, and not rush her or push her or give up on her.

That’s reminds me of something I noticed when I was looking at Progressive Insurance one day. You can put in your car information, and what you need, and they list insurance quotes from something like 10 other companies.

LJ: Don’t you love that?

Yes, and I just thought, “This is so brilliant.” You know somebody really had to be courageous in that organization, even though they are forward looking as an institution. It does seem very woman-centric in a way to say, “Let’s put all the information out there in one place.” You know, because there are quotes that are less than the Progressive rate.

LJ: But there’s just something about what they do that makes you trust them.

Oh, absolutely.

LJ: It makes you think, “Well, maybe those quotes are less because they’re not as good.” There’s that sense that they’re willing to be a filter and an insider for you. Those are two huge traits. When women are going about purchasing something, they’re looking for the insider. The person who’s either used the product, or who will give them a non-biased review of it. “Was it good? Was it bad? What would you change about your buying experience?”

But they’re also looking for the filter. “Help me narrow down all these choices so I don’t have to shuffle through all this information.” And so if you can play that role as a brand, that’s powerful.

It seems that it’s a natural extension of what the Web can do.

LJ: Exactly.

And it seems to me as providing a model moving ahead that if a company won’t do this, then it’s like, “Forget it.” Because everybody’s going to gravitate toward the company site that solves a lot of problems in one place so you don’t have to go to eight different sites.

LJ: If a woman customer is wearing a sign that you want to read, it’s “Make my life easier.” As companies think through that, I think it will help clear the pink fog. It’s not about “Make my products pink.” It’s “Make my life easier.”

Right. Yes. What I like about your book is that you really go into all these different, I guess you’d want to say niches, but they’re not niches any longer. I mean, you have a chapter on Hispanics, Blacks, and Asian-Americans, and then you talk about—I think you called it their “buying filters.” Can you talk about that?

LJ: Well, it’s related to what we talked about earlier about how you narrow your market. There are a lot of different ways to segment. Besides generations, we also looked at things like roles, such as a single woman, a business women, a mom, even the role of being a purchasing agent for the home. We also looked at the importance of taking an in-culture approach.

But something that’s not discussed very much is the segmenting by tentative versus confident. This differentiation would be important for, say, a technology company or somebody who’s offering a brand new service that people aren’t familiar with. You may have a group of tentative people that are just getting used to this new language, this style of computers or whatever, this style of thinking and operating with technology. Then you also have a very confident group that is very fluent in the language. They’re moving very quickly. You need to be able to help them speed along with their process.

There’s also the concept of life stage. Where are you? Are you just getting a divorce or just entering college? Did you just adopt a baby? That can be a filter, too.

And then the last thing we look at is values and attitudes. It might be your parenting style or your commitment to the environment. There are many ways to segment.

So we looked at a lot of different ways to capture women’s attention and make a brand more compelling by considering how she’s seeing the world. What’s important to understand is that women are often many of these things at once. It depends on what hat she’s wearing when she’s interacting with your brand.

If you’re a technology company, has she got her businesswoman hat on most of the time when she’s interacting? If you’re a grocery store or a certain line of food, does she have her mom hat on, is she looking at the nutritional elements? You have to understand what lens she’s looking through when she’s interacting with your brand. And then what are the elements that are affecting that? So we look at that in terms of the filters.

So first it’s important to equip brands to begin to understand their customers. From there, we try to really put together a lot of research to say, “You know what? If your customer is a Gen X woman, these are things that she has experienced. These are things that are common about that woman.” It’s not true of all of them, but in general, research says these are ways that she sees the world, the ways that she evaluates priorities.

Those commonalities can help form a picture, a starting point. Then as you spend more time listening to your own customers, they can add information and help you get a strong idea of what’s important to those women.

And what do you hope to achieve at your website? (

LJ: Our website does two things. One, we have an extensive archive of articles on the women’s market. They go back three or four years. There’s free access to a lot of information on how to reach more women more effectively.

Secondly, it outlines our services and how we work effectively with women by listening to them. We’re really trying to be a resource for the industry, and we do that with our newsletter as well as our website. Our newsletter Reaching Women goes out once a month.

I recently received the newsletter, and what I liked was that story about the Lillian Vernon pink toolbox. It was a very useful story.

LJ: We’re trying to help people see real-world examples. One thing we did with the book was to illustrate almost everything we talked about. I think one thing that’s going to help wipe that pink fog away is to start seeing brands that are implementing these tactics.

To say, “Oh, okay. Get in her peripheral vision. Okay, I see how Starbucks did that.” They are showing up on grocery shelves. They’re an ice cream. Their cups are in our peripheral vision. Their coffee maker’s in our home. You know, they’re showing up in airplanes. “Okay, I get the concept of peripheral vision.” We’re helping people see how other brands have done it.

I think that’s a great strength of your book, actually, because it makes it very real. The thing I always hear from people out there in the world is, they read a book, they get some new idea, and then it’s always “What do I do next?” You’ve taken a big step in that direction. Do you also do speaking engagements on these issues?

LJ: I do speak and I always like to be working with clients as well, because that keeps me on a very strong learning edge. I used to teach a three-day course on marketing to women for the American Management Association, but I’m not doing that right now.

Oh, really?

LJ: Yes, and it was the first intensive course ever offered that taught these principles. How to transparently market, the different ways to position, how to segment, how to understand women’s shopping and buying styles.

It was extremely well received, and it was so valuable for me, too, because it gave me access to incredible Fortune 500 marketers to learn what their challenges were. I discovered that their number one challenge was positioning—positioning and the challenge of pink thinking. And so that’s what really helped shape the book.

Where did you do that?

LJ: I did it all over the U.S., but the American Management Association mostly hosted them in large cities like Atlanta, New York, Chicago. AMA, AMACOM is a publisher for our book so I’m approaching them about a one-day seminar on the most cutting edge tactics around transparent marketing, which will be the subject of my second book.


LJ: One thing that I wanted to mention in terms of generations is that I think that’s a very traditional way to segment. But with women, it’s more important than in a lot of other arenas. When women entered the workplace in the ’60s and ’70s, they really began to change, not just their earning power and their spending power, but the way they interacted with the marketplace, the roles they played in their homes.

Then you have the role of Title 9 in generating equality in sports opportunities for our younger generation. That began to change the way women were seen by their male peers, as well as the way they saw themselves. What we found is that never in history have the generations of women been so distinct and so differently shaped in how they see themselves, how they see their opportunity, how they see their whole buying power, their entitlement. It’s very different because of the experiences they’ve had in school and the workplace.

That’s one reason we decided to segment that group and give a lot of detail. You could probably do a visible or even slightly pink campaign for the mature generation. They were part of a generation that did not have a lot of products and services tailored for them, so they might receive it okay.

If you bring that out for Gen Y, unless it’s a sophisticated, wink-wink, nudge-nudge embracing of all things girlie and pink, it is going to fall completely flat. It’s like oatmeal for women. Why would they buy oatmeal for women? The response would be something like, “This is stupid.”

One important factor in positioning is understanding your market’s tolerance. Boomers have some tolerance for visible positioning, but the early 20s have very little unless it is humorous or very ironic. That little pink tool kit, for instance. It’s going to be in a lot of dorm rooms because they think it’s funny.

But there’s a sort of retro component to that as well, right?

LJ: Totally. And it’s kind of a girl power thing. The companies that are doing it really well have pitch-perfect humor with it. They know what they’re doing. What’s kind of sad is when a company’s is doing it sincerely and they don’t know what they’re doing. Some people are going to grab it just because they think it’s funny, but it’s often a missed opportunity.

Well, okay. I think that covers it.

LJ: It was really fun talking to you. And I have a question for you. I’m doing a section called “Brand Candy” in my new book and really looking at the role of design. I know Tom’s done quite a bit of writing on that.


LJ: What book of his would you point me to? Or maybe some of the people you’ve interviewed that you think have some really good resources on that?

Well, you can get our book Re-imagine! There is a chapter on design, but there are things about branding as well that wrap into that, and it encompasses marketing. So I would recommend that.

When I think of design, I always think of IDEO, ( the product development folks in Palo Alto. They were highlighted on Nightline once in a half-hour segment on their re-invention of the grocery cart.

LJ: Really? Oh, I’ll have to do a case study on them.

Tom Kelley, their general manager, is also on our website. He wrote a book on innovation, but of course, there will be design stuff in there as well.

LJ: In fact, I just skimmed that one this morning. Okay, great.

That’s a lead or you can always send an email to these people and just say you’ve spoken with me and you’re interested in some more information. We’re all good buds and we like to help our Cool Friends connect with each other.