Poor Barbie. For decades she has seemed to carry the weight of the gender inequality issue on her preternaturally narrow shoulders. There was perhaps no greater symbol of Barbie's hyper-feminized existence – besides her 39-18-33 body measurements – than her pink car.
Now, even anatomically correct women can have a rosé ride that Barbie would love. While it is not the first automobile manufacturer to make a pink car, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. attracted scorn last month with the news it is launching the Honda Fit "She's" model. The car features pink stitching on the upholstery, pink gold chrome finishes and a pink key. The front windshield has "super UV cut glass" to block out the sun's crone-inducing rays. Its "plasmacluster air conditioning technology" is advertised as being good for the skin.
While the model is being sold in Japan only, it highlights a recent surge in gender-targeted products that have created marketing headaches for some companies. The most prominent example is the recent launch of Bic "For Her" pens, which were mocked by comedian Ellen Degeneres, received a flood of media coverage, and turned Amazon.com's customer review section into a colloquy on the state of gender discourse.
"My drawings of kittens and ponies have improved, and now that I'm writing my last name hyphenated with Robert Pattinson's last name, I really believe he may some day marry me! I'm positively giddy," reviewer Tracy Hamilton wrote.
Even those who were willing to cut the company some slack had to admit the "for her" message was flawed: One reviewer wrote that the pen was genuinely more comfortable for smaller hands, but her review was still titled "a good pen with bad marketing."
A back-to-school ad for the pens featured a blond student asking her male classmates to borrow a pen, only to be faced with an unsatisfying array of blue and black pens. The eyeless Bic mascot, who has apparently been hanging out at the school, appears to offer up a pink pen and win a kiss from the girl.
"In a lot of these examples, what has gone wrong is it's trying to target women, but with no identifiable need," said Kate Sayre, a partner at Boston Consulting Group and a co-author of Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World's Largest, Fastest-Growing Market. "You can differentiate that from products where they do target women because of needs: skin care, hair care, apparel ... There's no real dissatisfaction with pens."
Women have always been a target market, especially for companies such as consumer packaged goods makers who have always recognized the purchasing power of moms. But Ms. Sayre believes impact of the economic downturn on men has only served to make more companies aware of the rising economic status of women.
"Women are now much more on the radar screen, and an important segment to win. We're naturally seeing some growing pains as companies try to find the right way to engage women and their spending," she said.
Last year, Molson Coors launched a beer for women in the U.K. and Ireland called Animée, including a "rosé" variety in pink. It was the result of a two-year, multimillion-dollar project that kicked off in 2009, called the BitterSweet Partnership, designed "to remove the gender imbalance that exists around beer consumption." As beer sales declined, the company identified women – which made up just 17 per cent of the industry's sales – as a possible growth segment to stem the tide.
The product launched with a $3-million ad campaign. After lacklustre sales, the product was pulled in September.
"Attracting female drinkers remains an absolute priority for the beer category," a Molson Coors spokesperson said in an e-mail, pointing to the popularity of products such as Coors Light.
Carlsberg Group has also launched a female-oriented beer, called Copenhagen. Though it is not pink, its bottle is designed for the lady who simply cannot order a drink that clashes with her outfit.
"There may be situations where they are standing in a bar and want their drinks to match their style," Carlsberg's international innovation director, Jeanette Elgaard Carlsson, said in a release.
The beer industry has a particularly noticeable record for divisiveportrayals of women in its marketing – which is the biggest part of what puts some women off beer, according to BitterSweet's research.
Other drinks, even while targeting women, have continued to use gender images that are narrow at best: In a spot for Carlsberg's Eve, which is sold in Europe, men take one sip of the spritzer drink and promptly lose interest in sports, become obsessed with fashion, and turn into mincing ninnies, embarrassing their friends at the bar. The slogan? "It's a lady thing."
In a 2010 research paper, management consultants Fons Trompenaars and Peter Woolliams suggested that beer marketing has for years worked at fostering an image of "being in control of life" among male consumers – part of which involved showing women in submissive roles. They proposed a shift in marketing tone over product innovation as a solution to courting female drinkers.
But marketing to women that may seem stereotypical to Western audiences may resonate differently elsewhere. The Honda Fit "She's" was received well in Japan in its first limited-edition run in 2010.
In South Korea, female-targeted credit cards such as the LG Lady Card Visa and the United Overseas Bank Lady's Card MasterCard have had success. Female consumers with growing financial independence wanted services targeted at them, and the cards offered extras such as discounts on fitness classes and at department stores. While banks in Western countries have tried this and failed, Ms. Sayre said, the LG card had a 24 per cent share of the female market within two years of its launch.
Last month, Fujitsu Ltd. launched the "Floral Kiss" laptop in Japan, with colours such as "elegant white" and "feminine pink," and a power plug with a little rhinestone nub. A promotional video shows a woman using it in the kitchen, at a café, and in her bedroom. She shops for purses online, checks her horoscope, and publishes pictures of her pink, rhinestone-encrusted manicure to social media websites. There is not a single shot of her at work. In Japan, the commentary has not been as negative as coverage elsewhere, said Pernille Rudlin, director of external relations and international business. The company is looking at rolling it out in other Asian markets as well.
"Part of Fujitsu's product development philosophy is to put yourself in the shoes of various consumer groups," she said.
She proposes that the reaction elsewhere may have more to do with differences in comfort across cultures for gender roles in marketing.
"In the U.K. or Canada, there is plenty that is targeted to women, it just doesn't say 'This is for women,' " she said, adding that there are no illusions that the Floral Kiss will appeal to every woman – including her.
"I don't need more diamanté in my life."
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