From telling women they’re too fat to fit into their yoga pants to equating women’s body hair with "dudeness," there have been some pretty misguided messages sent to women recently.
How can the leaders of companies with so many women customers be so out of touch with how to market to them?
Is there a secret formula for striking the right note with female customers? Do you need women in the executive suite to get it just right, or can male executives strike a chord with women with a mix of research and good sense?
To find out, we went right to the source and asked the leaders of eight different companies that have one crucial thing in common—their users, consumers, or customers are a majority female—how they get it right.
Manish Chandra, CEO and founder of Poshmark, a mobile marketplace for women to sell and swap clothes, says that more than 70% of his staff is female, including many top positions. He acknowledges that one of the best ways to connect with his female customer base is by hiring more women.
Can you imagine starting a company in a foreign country and not having anyone who spoke the native language on your team? Of course not. If you want to build a company that caters to women, you have to truly understand their needs and wants in order to effectively address their problems and pain points and build real solutions. What better way to ensure this than by having female leaders in your company?
Leah Busque, founder and CEO of TaskRabbit, a site that lets you outsource tasks and errands by posting them on the site for bidding, believes having women on the team is incredibly important when you are targeting and marketing to women.
She says it’s not only much easier to market to people with whom you share the same or similar demographic profile, but this understanding informs all facets of the business, from product design to the overall TaskRabbit experience.
At ModCloth, an e-retailer of indie clothing, accessories, and décor primarily geared toward women, cofounders Susan Gregg Koger and Eric Koger say about two-thirds of the site’s 450 employees are women and half of the executive suite is made up of women.
Given that we’re serving a primarily female customer base, having a large amount of women on our staff and an equal number of female to male executives has definitely made a difference. We’re able to tap into the mindset of what our customers are likely to love and want from their shopping experience, because many of our employees are our customers.
Debbie Stoller, editor-in-chief of women's magazine BUST, says that without women at the top level, organizations are prone to make sweeping and incorrect generalizations about women. She believes male executives's tendencies to belittle their female audience and see them as "the other" dehumanizes women somewhat and can lead to dishonest, disrespectful, and off-base business practices. "I don't think that a man can ever fully understand the experience of being female, no matter what Tootsie may have told you," she says.
As women we try very hard not to buy into stereotypes about women. We know the image we get of women in pop culture is way off the mark, and we know what the experience of being female truly is in this male-dominated culture. That's something that no male would ever be able to get a real handle on. . .
But women in the C-suite isn't the only way to strike the right chord with female customers. Social commerce site Polyvore's CEO Jess Lee says having leaders that understand the user is not guaranteed simply by having women on staff. "It's also possible to find men who can understand female users," she says. "You would be amazed by the women's fashion knowledge our male engineers have picked up."
Naama Bloom, founder and CEO of HelloFlo, a feminine products subscription service, says that while it is absolutely critical that women are represented on the executive level of all companies, she doesn’t believe you have to be a woman to make or market women’s products. "What you need is an understanding of research—both quantitative and qualitative—and an ability to internalize that research in a way that resonates," she says.
Bloom attributes her company's success to having an authentic voice. "The voice of our brand is my voice and the voice of the women in my life. What we do at HelloFlo is reflect a conversation that we know is happening because we ourselves engage in that conversation."
The ModCloth cofounders have made it their goal to portray women as they truly are. The site was the first retailer to sign the "Truth in Advertising Heroes Pledge," pledging not to materially alter the models used in their campaigns and ads. "We’ve always celebrated diversity, and we’re committed to continue doing so," they say.
Stoller says BUST Magazine has a lot of don’ts: Don’t focus on encouraging readers to achieve any sort of physical ideal. Don't assume that their main goal is to "find a man." Don’t publish stories about how to lose 10 pounds in 45 hours, or how the dryness of your heels might be turning off Mr. Right. Don't talk down to readers and never underestimate their smarts. Basically, don't see women as stereotypes of any kind.
There is so much in pop culture that makes women feel like they are not good enough, and many women's magazines (owned by men) do this as well. We really want to be the antidote to that; to make women feel good about who they are.
Christene Barberich, cofounder and editor-In-chief at Refinery29, a fashion and lifestyle site, also has a don't worth mentioning: Don't preach some cookie-cutter idea about what women want. Instead, the team at Refinery29 do strike the right note with its largely female audience by giving them stories that speak to their lives across various platforms, Barberich says.
We speak to them like smart, savvy human beings (with a sense of humor and a sincere desire to always be learning and improving). We know that our readers bring something meaningful to the site and to every conversation we start.
Poshmark uses data to better understand its community’s shopping behavior and inform the kinds of features that its customers want. Poshmark also uses firsthand accounts from customers by inviting users to events at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
Busque believes TaskRabbit’s success comes down to truly understanding women’s mindset, lifestyle, and needs. This understanding doesn’t come from female staffers alone—Busque says TaskRabbit validates its starting assumptions with customer research by directly talking to the women who are using the product.
Of the users that post on TaskRabbit looking for help, about 65% of them are female, and Busque says a majority of them are mothers. This is why she says it’s important to have working moms like herself, TaskRabbit's COO Stacy Brown-Philpot, and VP of Marketing Jamie Viggiano. on the executive level.
It's much easier to build products for and market to a group with whom you share the same or similar demographic profile. We definitely have a good understanding of the working mom mindset here at TaskRabbit.
Hackbright Academy is a training program for women who want to become programmers and boasts a mostly female staff and an evenly split leadership team, says cofounder and CEO David J. Phillips.
Software engineering is a tough industry to get into, Phillips says, which is why he says the Academy works incredibly hard to make sure all of its students have the best experience, education, and opportunities on their journey to becoming software engineers.
We want to help lead the industry to a point where more and more teams are staffed with talented women engineers, and women are no longer a minority in the field. This shared energy and motivation is always at the top of mind when we are designing our programs, and I think our students appreciate that.