Tackling The Tricky Balance of Marketing to Women

Lululemon's founder got it so very wrong. Here's how some male executives are striking the right notes with female colleagues and consumers.

Some brands get it wrong. Really wrong.

Chip Wilson, the founder and chairman of yoga wear empire lululemon, stepped down last week in the aftermath his offensive comments blaming women's bodies for the company's recent product issues. Wilson's follow-up apology on YouTube left us scratching our heads as to how a brand with an overwhelmingly female customer (men's athletic wear makes up less than 20% of its sales) base could be so tone deaf—especially since the brand had done such a stellar job of stoking the devotions of legions of yoga enthusiasts with its community-building efforts.

While many women-focused brands such as Avon and Victoria's Secret are helmed by female CEOs, there are still plenty like Lululemon, that are led by men. In light of Wilson's missteps, we thought we'd examine the practices of some male executives who are striking the right notes with their female audiences.

Scott Kerslake, CEO of prAna, founder of Athleta—You Must Have Humility and Make An Emotional Connection

"There is a crazy amount of information that defines beauty in a harmful and superficial way," says Kerslake, who notes that the majority of his staff at Athleta was women. "The scales already tilted in wrong direction."

He says that running a company that's both focused on women and staffed by women takes what he calls "human operating principles 101: humility, respect, empathy, and sensitivity."

Being mindful of the fact that women process information and a brand and by extension, colleagues process performance feedback very differently. I’m always trying to get our leaders to strive for self awareness. You’ve got to have a decent radar for how your behavior is affecting others.

Irrespective of gender, as a leader if things are off track, you end up being directive. But the issue around feedback is making a distinction between what you say and how you say it. I try to be very aware how I affect people and try to put my ego aside. It’s kind of counterintuitive to being a leader but I believe trying to lead from consensus builds a more healthy and a more soulful organization.

Jed Paulson, director of Marketing and eCommerce at Free People—Tap Into the Power of Community and Brand Loyalty

As a man working at a women’s specialty brand, it is not unusual for me to be the only male in many of my meetings throughout the day.  I work closely with my marketing team, the majority of which is female, to ensure our messaging stays on point for our customer.

We don’t necessarily hire more women, but with Free People being a women’s brand, there happens to be many women working here. On the marketing team specifically, we do have many women who are die-hard fans of the brand, and have similar style, aesthetic, and interests as our customer, so they connect naturally to our customer and this shows throughout all of our marketing communications.

We have been able to take our ability to build brand loyalty a step further with the launch and development of our FP Me program. Through this online community, our customers actually interact with one another, providing each other with styling tips, sizing/fit recommendations, and more. FP Me has been a great tool for us to understand our customer on a deeper level, and have them engage more with the brand.

Jack Calhoun, president, Banana Republic Global—It's Your Job to Understand Your Customers No Matter How Different You Are

Throughout my career, I’ve always believed that you don’t have to be the target customer to be effective in your role, but you do have to fully understand your customer. I make it my job at Banana Republic to constantly learn about our female customers – what they want, what they need, and how they like to shop. I’m also fortunate enough to work with smart, amazing women – in fact, our company across our brands at Gap Inc. is 70% female – who help us bring our customer’s perspective to life each day, both in stores and online.

Mickey Drexler, CEO, J. Crew—Learn to Speak the Language of Your Customers

A self-professed micromanager, Drexler presides over a staff of nearly 5,000, many of whom are women. It’s his constant collaboration with executive creative director and president Jenna Lyons has brought the brand to new heights—equally focused on design and the bottom line.

For Drexler, no detail is too small as each and every one is the key to cementing customer loyalty. If a customer writes in with a complaint, they’re likely to get a note or a call back from him personally.

If you don't care about the lapel or the buttons or the fit, then you are doing a disservice to the consumer. We're all inside the tunnel, speaking the language of business, but we need to speak the language of customers. How many companies actually talk about the product?

[Image: Flickr user Alex Brown]

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  • Anne-Cecile Bertrand

    Thank you for the article Lydia. I couldn’t agree more with Scott Kerslake’s ‘human operating principles 101’. In similar vein, we’ve recently written this thoughtpaper which I thought you might find interesting. It talks about how organisations can get better at designing great experiences not just for women but using feminine values to
    attract deeper emotional connections as well as embracing feminine values in
    leadership: http://www.tmi.co.uk/reading-r...

  • Laura

    Kerslake hit the nail on the head with "human operating principles 101: humility, respect, empathy, and sensitivity". Marketing to women is not a "tricky balance". If you truly have respect for women, and sensitivity to the fact that women face a lot of double standards and sexist dialogue (especially in the clothing industry) then marketing to your fellow human should not be a daunting task.

  • diana

    Interesting post and response. As for me, really it is simple, demonstrate benefit. You will attract me if you employ humor in this as in the case of the baby commercials for E-Trade. Forget the beauty, superficial analysis and hype to me this is very tired.

  • Robert Craven

    The situation is as follows:

    Women are the Number One business opportunity. As Tom Peters says, ‘they buy lotsa stuff…’ ;

    Men and women are very different…;

    Men are (still) in control… and are ‘totally, hopelessly, clueless about women’;

    Not enough ’stuff’ is designed for women or communicated in a way that appeals to women;

    Most stuff for women is, to be frank, pretty patronising;

    We are witnessing changes in America but little seems to be changing on this side of the pond (the UK).

    So there’s your opportunity.

    Do I have to spell it out to you? I don’t think so.

    This is not a feminist thing but a straight-down-the-line commercial argument. Women are not a niche market or a minority – they have wallets, and for many businesses, women as decision-makers and consumers hold the key to future success.

    What are you going to do about it?


  • Marta

    Reading this as a woman, I felt like I was overhearing a demeaning conversation about me while I was in the room.

  • Alex

    I ask this only to learn more, and it is not my intention to challenge your statement. What specifically led to your impression? Was it the specific subject matter they are addressing, the tone in which they address it, or something else?

  • Marta

    It's the idea of "let's take a look at how male CEOs deal with female customers." it made us seem like the problem audience: customers unfortunately aren't all men, so here are some best practices in handling women. This simplifies both genders (men are easy to understand whereas women are complicated to figure out). But no matter who a brand is trying to reach, all it takes is asking them the right questions (and then actually listening).

  • Wisconsin Badger

    If the target reader for this article is men, then yes, it was approached in the right way. Men DO find women hard to figure out...naturally so, since men and women are so very different and, generally speaking, perceptiveness is not as natural to men as it is to women. So, yes, I think Marta did a good job on the article.

  • Lydia Dishman

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Marta. It was not my intention when writing this piece to cast women as a "problem audience." Rather, I wanted to offer some counter examples to lululemon's chairman's insulting remarks. You'll see especially in the cases of Scott Kerslake and Mickey Drexler that their philosophies are irrespective of gender, just best practices for all customers.

  • TraderJoesSecrets

    I have to say that Chip's latest (of many similar) pronouncements doesn't come as a surprise to me. But that's because I knew him before, in a different context. You see about 30 years ago, I spent hundreds of hours cooped up in small basement room with him. Here's one additional insight into the world's least-likely billionaire: https://medium.com/health-fitn...