Fara Warner has written about marketing, advertising, and consumer trends for more than 15 years for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Fast Company, Brandweek, and other national publications. She covered consumer trends, media, and marketing for the Wall Street Journal's Asian edition for three years, and then she moved to the Journal's Detroit bureau, where her coverage included e-commerce and marketing. In 2000, she joined Fast Company as a senior writer. Her book The Power of the Purse: How Smart Businesses Are Adapting to the World's Most Important Consumers—Women will launch on October 15. Tom Peters has described it as "the book about marketing to women I've been anxiously awaiting."
Let’s talk about The Power of the Purse. When is your book coming out?
FW: The book officially launches October 15th in New York.
Excellent. Are you having a book launching party?
FW: Yes, there’ll be a party October 17th in New York, at a place called PS 450.
Excellent. Well, good luck, have fun.
FW: Thanks, I hope to.
We’ve spoken with Marti Barletta and Lisa Johnson about marketing to women, but your book takes a bit of a different tack by focusing on case studies and stories about how certain companies—McDonald’s, Nike, DeBeers, P&G—have figured out, first of all, that there is a women’s market.
You write, “These companies had learned that it is no longer enough to know that women are their most important consumers with lots of money to spend. … The future requires a deeper understanding of how the trends in women’s social and economic status will continue to transform women and the world around them for decades to come.”
I latched onto that because of what Tom Peters has been saying in his books for years. He always makes the point that there’s a big difference between men and women, but, as Hyundai’s Donna Kane has said, it’s the nuances that can make a brand relevant to women. So, can you talk a little about what smart companies are doing about tapping into all this money that women control?
FW: I think it begins with a company’s saying, “Who are my customers? If they’re women, great. Now I want to drill down deeper; I want to understand who they are specifically.”
Certainly there are differences between men and women. If you look in the Nike chapter, there’s a great discussion about how men’s and women’s bodies are definitively different from each other. So when you’re making products for women’s bodies, you may focus on those differences.
But Nike also realized that even if they were changing their products to suit women’s bodies, there were similarities between men and women when it came to what they wanted from the Nike brand. Over the past 30 years, because of Title IX, women have become more competitive, more performance-oriented, more interested in athletics. And so they’re actually becoming, at least in their emotion about sports, more like men.
But that didn’t change the fact that their bodies are different. So again, it’s that nuance. It’s not just making overarching statements about women and what they’re like. It’s saying “We understand women are a majority, but where do we go from there?” Recognizing the women’s market is just the first step. Now we have to take the next hundred steps to really understand who these women are and what they need and want.
It does seem that a lot of the case studies in the book happened because somebody in a company decided to really listen to the consumers, and really listen to women. In some ways, it’s a societal sense that women just haven’t been heard. Maybe the big advantage of women having money now is that now they have a voice as well, at least as it pertains to marketers and big corporations.
FW: I think there are a number of reasons why that’s happening. It’s building on the past 40 to 50 years of the women’s movement, the growth of women into industry and companies. Women are earning a lot more money, so we’re not just spending other people’s money. We’re actually spending our own money, and that changes the way we buy and shop.
Also, while there are obviously more women working within companies, I shied away from saying, “We’re going to look at companies that have powerful women inside them and how these women forced change.” There are certainly stories of that in the book, but there are also men who are making great strides in their companies, like John Costello at Home Depot.
One thing these companies really had to come to terms with was, “We’re losing money because we’re not doing this right.” It wasn’t, “We should focus on women because it’s the right thing to do.” It was more a case of, “You know, our same-store sales are down.”
Nike, for instance, realized that 10 percent of their sales were to women, but 50 percent of gym memberships were owned by women. It’s that disconnect where you ask, “Why aren’t we making any money off these people? We must not be doing the right thing.” And I think that drive right down to the bottom line made a number of people sit up and take notice in a way that they hadn’t before.
Right. Well, the bottom line does provide some impetus. I know that Tom’s been howling and screaming about this since 1996, saying there’s a lot of money being left on the table. We’d like to think that may have had some influence, but it has been slow in arriving.
FW: I think it takes a long time for people to begin to understand just how powerful women have become. Virginia Woolf was writing about this so many decades ago, and now I’m still writing about the same thing. Even women haven’t fully realized their power themselves. I know when I would mention my book topic to women they’d say, “Well, I don’t feel very powerful.” And I’d say, “Okay, take out your purse, spread out your credit cards. How much money do you have in your bank account? Okay, now add all of that up. You have a lot of money, and money is power.” They just weren’t thinking of themselves as powerful.
Recognizing their own power is an important step for women—realizing that you can actually make companies do things by taking your business away from them.
Yeah, that thing about power is huge. I know you didn’t want to focus on that in writing the book because it gets into a whole different dimension. But it’s definitely a huge factor. As a man in the middle of the baby-boomer generation, I have this great sense of power now, financially and socially, in a way that I never have. And I think there’s a whole slew of women out there who are going to realize, more and more, the same thing that woman realized when you spread her credit cards out on a table.
FW: I think that realization is part of the maturing process. Let me tell you where the impetus for writing this book came from. I decided I was going to run a marathon, so I went to the Nike store in San Francisco. I walked around in the store thinking, “Okay, somebody’s told me about this Nike Goddess stuff, but I don’t see it anywhere here, and there’s nothing for me to buy.” So I left empty-handed.
I was standing outside the store when a bunch of teenage boys came bursting through the doors with all kinds of Nike bags. And I thought, “There’s not one of them that makes anywhere near the amount of money I make. There’s not one of them that’s going to be spending as much money as I am to run this marathon—buying tickets to Hawaii, training, having the right outfit and all that.”
And I thought, “Does Nike just not see me? Do they not get me? How can Nike get teenage boys and not get women?” So that’s what really drove me to call Nike and to write the first story. So maybe we just have to keep shouting. I think Tom Peters has done a great job of saying, “We need to pay attention.” Yet it never stops; we still need to have that call to attention saying, “Women are here; we are moving forward; we are important.” It’s almost sad that we have to keep doing that. But it’s also kind of fun—and pretty amazing—to look at how far we’ve come.
Absolutely, and we’re all glad for it. My wife’s an artist, and she goes to this hardware store that’s recently expanded. It’s not Home Depot, but it’s TrueValue or some other franchise that’s grown a lot. The other day she said, “They’ve got all these new employees, but it’s all guys, and they’re all semi-Neanderthal. And whenever a woman walks in, it’s like every guy who works there just stares at her.”
She’s going to say something to the manager of the store. And who knows if he’ll even hear that. But now women can say, “Hey, I have a lot of money to spend, but I’m not going to spend it here if I’m going to get treated like a piece of meat.”
FW: Right—or as a second-class citizen or something to just be looked at. I had a really interesting conversation with someone who works for Photo Marketing Association International. He said they have had such a hard time getting their retailers to understand that when a woman comes to shop for a digital camera or whatever, you don’t treat her as if she’s stupid. Nor do you treat her in the same way that you’ve been treating men when they come in, which is I guess to play this kind of one-upmanship game of, “I know more about your gadget than you know about your gadget.”
I said to him, “Sometimes I think men really need to go shop at Nordstrom’s.” If I go to Nordstrom’s and my personal shopper is there, I spend the whole afternoon. I’ll walk away with—I shouldn’t say this, but a couple of thousand dollars worth of clothes. Now you just have to wonder how anybody can look at that and say, “I don’t want to pay attention to women.”
In the right stores, women are treated with great respect, so we’re really not used to being treated with disrespect when we go shopping. If Best Buy or Circuit City or even a home improvement place treats me poorly, that’s just stupidity.
Yeah, who can explain what that goes back to? Maybe all of us guys are still basically Neanderthals. [Laughter]
FW: I think it’s part ignorance, part naivetÃ©—who knows where it comes from? It’s unfortunate.
But let’s move on. P&G’s Swiffer line sounds like a really neat product, although I guess I’ve been oblivious to it when I’m shopping. There seemed to be an interesting lesson for P&G in the development of that. Can you talk a little bit about that?
FW: Sure. what I found interesting about Swiffer, once I started really investigating it, is this idea that even as women progress, even as we move forward and we make lots of money, we carry with us certain traditions that are still very important to us.
One of those is keeping a clean home. And that was P&G’s insight when it was starting out with this “clean” category. They could have easily gone to this idea of, “Oh, you know, the harried housewife has to get stuff done quickly. So we’re going to build a product that cleans okay, but the marketing focus will be that it’s fast.”
But as they started doing research on it, they kept hearing from women that it wasn’t enough to give them a product that did something quickly. It really had to clean, because it wasn’t worth doing if it was going to do it half-baked. And I loved one of the P&G people saying, “You know, our mothers and grandmothers are still inside of us. If you don’t get down and use some elbow grease, you’re just not doing the right things for your family.”
Some people would say that’s an old, traditional view, but I think women are driven by it. And again, there’s nothing wrong with holding on to the traditions in a modern world. I want my house to look beautiful; I want my children to come home and have a comfortable place to be. If you can give me a product that does that really well and does it quickly, that’s great.
I think the crowning achievement for P&G was to say that housework didn’t have to be boring drudgery, that it could actually almost be fun. We all know that’s not necessarily true, but it’s better than those awful commercials of a woman who’s just mopped her floor, and her kids and the dog and the husband run over it. I don’t think that’s really the image we want of ourselves anymore.
I also liked the notion that if women—or guys for that matter—don’t want to spend all Saturday doing this, the Swiffer is the kind of thing you could pull out after dinner and quickly do the kitchen floor. I mean, who can afford a whole day on anything anymore?
P&G seemed to really tap into that notion and have a deep understanding in some ways.
FW: It’s the idea that, while the home is a priority, it’s not our only priority anymore. It’s one of several really important things in our lives. P&G offered us a product that lets us clean the kitchen floor after dinner instead of setting aside a whole day for housecleaning like my grandmother used to do. As you said, there’s just no way you can set aside a whole day for something like that anymore.
Right, there’s too much fun to be had!
FW: Exactly. [Laughter]
There was something interesting in the McDonald’s story as well—and this was the “big news” of the book for me. You write that those burgers, fries, and shakes were created as treats, not as everyday lunch. And McDonald’s, in developing this new line of salads, is tapping back into that notion of a treat to try to make it more appealing experientially for consumers.
FW: With many of these companies, one of the real key lessons was “going back to what we do well.” They asked themselves, “What has been our brand promise for everybody? How might we adapt this to women?” Because if they try to say they’re something they’re not, women are going to see through that. For example, if McDonald’s had come out and said, “Oh, we’re all about health now,” most people would have laughed in their faces. [Laughter]
But when McDonald’s sat down to do the salad, they had two ways they could go. They could have done what they had always done, which is take the five most popular salad items in America and put them in a bowl. But they thought, “That’s not really what we’re about.” Back in the fifties, it was a real treat to go to a McDonald’s or any drive-in, because before that time, average families didn’t really eat out. So this was sort of a once-a-month kind of thing.
Then they started talking to the women who would be eating these salads. And their customers mentioned “that spring mix you can buy in specialty stores.” I admit my first thought was, “Doesn’t everybody buy that? All my friends buy it.” But then I realized that McDonald’s customers were probably not spending $4 a pound on mesclun spring mix, so that sort of salad would be a treat for them.
That reminded me that if you’re trying to understand your customers, you can’t let who you are cloud your perception. Women can have just as many stereotypes about “what women want” as men can. We really have to step outside of ourselves and go back to that ancient adage of “listen to the consumer.” I don’t know how many times you have to say that to people, but maybe it’s the same as saying women are powerful—you just have to keep saying it.
The older I get the more I realize that if you have something important to say, you just have to keep saying it forever. That’s the central message of many leadership books. You don’t say something once; you keep saying it and keep saying it, and live it to the extent that you can live it. Lessons take a long time to be learned.
FW: I agree, particularly with living the message as well. A lot of companies have paid lip service and said the right things about what they were going to do for women. But they never really followed through with what had to be done in terms of corporate culture to get the company to really re-think the way it sees women. Not just how one or two people inside the company see women, but how the whole company focuses differently on this market.
Your book has a very interesting section in the back where you ask and answer 10 questions. One in particular is an old one: “If I start focusing on women, am I going to alienate all of my male customers.” So what do you say to that?
FW: I think the anecdotes and the information disprove that myth completely. Look at Home Depot; look at McDonald’s. Even the financial industry is starting to understand that by focusing on women, they may actually be drawing more men in. McDonald’s sells 40% of their salads to men, and Home Depot certainly hasn’t turned off men.
I think Home Depot is especially interesting in the way they approach what they call “gender inclusivity.” Instead of trying to separate men and women, they asked, “What draws men and women together? How are they the same, but then how are they different? And how do we make stores that actually achieve what both men and women want when they’re shopping separately, and when they’re shopping together as couples.” I wouldn’t say that was an easy thing to do, and I think it’s very, very much an evolving strategy for Home Depot. In trying to keep on top of these shifts we keep seeing in the gender roles, we’re all trying to figure out what happens now.
I think the final, core concept is that these companies have learned to stay in constant transformation. It all comes down to staying on top of what’s going on in the world. It’s about focusing on what’s going on culturally, rather than just “what is this woman’s thing.”
FW: Right. I was talking to some people the other day about the home building industry and how a few companies are really rethinking, “What does the American family look like?” It’s not the nuclear family anymore. I mean, 50% of us live in homes headed by single people, and 26% of households are just a single person by themselves. And so how do you build homes that reflect that?
Most of our homes are based on the notion of mom and dad and 2.5 kids. So I think there is constantly that need to look at consumers in an anthropological way. So many things are changing us, either technology or societal changes, everything.
Like living rooms. My wife and I haven’t been in our living room in months, and I think the same is true for most of the people I know. That’s an antiquated notion of how houses should be built.
FW: Yes, it was the nice place where you entertained, but we don’t entertain so formally anymore. In fact, my boyfriend and I just bought a loft and we love the idea of this big, open space that we can reconstruct all the time. One year, maybe the dining room is going to be in one section of this huge room, and maybe the next year we move it.
And you can have a lot of people in there to dance at one time.
I read that you’ve also gotten a fellowship. So are you working on some new project as part of that fellowship?
FW: Yes. It’s called the Knight Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan, which is a mid-career sabbatical year for journalists. You get to study anything you want at the University of Michigan—which is a truly incredible place. My study plan has changed quite a bit in just the first month. Now I think Iâ€™ve come to realize that I want to look at Chinese culture and women—maybe the next book will be the Power of the Purse—in China.
I’m also looking at the impact of the car on Chinese culture. I’m fascinated by how China has become this culture of just loving their cars, much as Americans love their cars. So I’m taking anthropology classes and business classes, too.
Great. I think the Chinese are going to be making—or already have made—a gazillion cars there.
FW: Yeah, it will be the world’s largest automotive market probably in about 10 years.
Right, and apparently the Chinese are laying down roads like crazy, right?
FW: Yes. It’s really fascinating because in many ways it’s like watching America in the 1950s and ’60s, when we put infrastructure in place. They’ll put I-don’t-know-how-many miles of roads in before the 2008 Olympics, and they’re spending 20 billion dollars on roads. Interestingly, they’re not spending as much money on public transportation. They really have taken on this idea of the car culture. And what’s fascinating is that this culture has been very immobile. The Communist Party required you to have a certificate of residency, and you couldn’t easily move, even apartment to apartment. And now the government is saying, “It’s okay; you can migrate; you can move around.” So there’s definitely a lot of social change there.
Well, there goes all the gasoline.
FW: Yes, definitely. Giant sucking sound from China.
Yeah, holy-moly. Well then, they’ll all be necking in their cars soon. Is that the next step?
FW: Well, apparently there is that whole culture of drag racing on Main Street and parking at Lookout Point, or whatever those places were called.
That’s kind of neat. I’ll be curious to see how it’s similar and then how it veers off from the American experience. We’ll look forward to your reports from the field on that.
FW: I’ve had people say, “Oh, that’d make a great book about cultural change in China,” so we’ll see what happens.
Yes, that would be interesting. Thank you very much for your time, Fara.