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.

Tackling The Tricky Balance of Marketing to Women
[Image: Flickr user Alex Brown]

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?

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.