Women car buyers just may make or break your company over the next few years. Yes, they are buying cars by the millions. But they don't seem to be particularly happy about it.
As hard as manufacturers say they're trying to woo women, no one seems to be lighting any fires in women's hearts. Yet a huge market appears to await companies that learn how.
The problem is especially big among women in the 35-to-55-year-old age group. 'These women are beyond the point of being open to a brand message,' says Eric Neher, director of marketing services for McCall's and Family Circle magazines, which cater to women. 'Our research shows that they don't believe the claims in ads. They're cynical about advertising messages and much less impressionable than the 18-to-34-year-old group.'
Waiting to be wooed
They're also waiting to be wooed, concludes a Family Circle survey of nearly 3,000 females conducted last May and June. It found 52 percent of respondents prefer domestic models, but 40 percent have no preference. These women, suggests the study, aren't looking for brand messages. They're yearning for personal service and honest feedback from car companies.
That isn't what they're getting.
'Clients are not listening to the consumer,' says Louis Schultz, vice chairman of Campbell-Ewald advertising, whose Chevrolet client is the world's largest automotive brand spender. Schultz says a real relationship does not exist in the auto industry today. 'It is just one-way communication,' he says.
A good place to start might be vehicle maintenance and repair. The Family Circle study shows that, for most of this decade, dependability and reliability are the two biggest reasons women buy a particular vehicle.
Yet a lack of overall service satisfaction irks women more than just about anything else. It's not that women expect a vehicle to be perfect forever. But they do want greater respect when service is required. That may help explain why fewer than 20 percent of survey respondents who bought a car in 1998 purchased the same make they owned before.
Just lip service
'The auto companies won't address what the women want them to address, and that's the dealerships,' suggests James McEwen, senior vice president and group publisher for Family Circle/McCall's. 'They keep telling us they need a different message for women, but all it is is lip service.'
It's not big news that women value personal relationships. It comes up repeatedly in market research. Perhaps the bigger mystery is why marketers have so much trouble figuring out how to capitalize on that key difference between women and men.
'Right now, everyone is just poking at it, but not really opening up the box,' says Carol Larson, partner in the financial services division at Deloitte & Touche. Last year Deloitte researched how to connect with women earning more than $100,000 annually. The conclusion: Build more personal relationships with women. 'It doesn't take much to build that loyalty connection,' adds Larson. 'There just needs to be a greater spotlight on more open communication.'
Market research shows automakers still are searching for an effective solution. It also indicates a sales bonanza for those who do.