THE NEWS of Gloria Steinem's marriage last September didn't rattle many Gen Y girls. So, another old person got married â€” big deal. For many young women between the ages of 7 and 24, Steinem's name, if they recognize it at all, conjures up an image of a radical feminist activist from the far-before-their-time â€™70s, who fought for Women's Rights, a movement they recall learning something about in history class. The fact that Steinem finally embraced an institution she's derided for most of her 67 years didn't stir these young women in the least. Times have changed, after all.
Call them the granddaughters of feminism. This is the first generation of young women to have no collective memory of the struggles their predecessors have endured in securing the rights they now take for granted â€” the pill, abortion, and equality in the workplace, among others. While some double standards and glass ceilings still exist on the battleground of the sexes, Gen Y girls see very few barriers ahead. Confident and commanding respect, they are taking with them into the marketplace a vastly different view of their â€œplaceâ€? in society. And their voices are loud and clear. Some 35 million strong, a group almost as large as their Boomer foremothers, they are poised to alter every industry they touch. Just like their bra-burning elders, it seems they too will forever change the practice of marketing to women.
In many ways, Gen Ys could prove more tricky to reach than preceding generations. Four decades ago, advertising messages needed only to tell how a product could make the sink sparkle. In the 1970s and â€™80s, ads like Secret's â€œstrong enough for a man, but made for a woman,â€? were enough to speak to that generation. By the 1990s, marketing to women evolved once again, this time reflecting women's â€œsoccer momâ€? role as head juggler of career and family. But today's Gen Ys represent a more complex target for marketers. They have access, on average, to 62 TV channels, not to mention the Internet, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and mobile phones â€” increasing the avenues through which advertisers can reach them. Most important, they are the first generation to take women's equality for granted. â€œFeminism today is like fluoride,â€? says Amy Richards, co-author of ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an organization devoted to helping young women today recognize and fight for women's issues. â€œWe scarcely notice that we have it â€” it's simply in the water.â€?
Dr. Ellen Friedman, a professor of women's studies at the College of New Jersey, likes to illustrate this phenomenon with a classroom exercise. She starts her first class of the semester by asking a roomful of freshman students, â€œHow many of you are feminists?â€? At most, one or two hands go up, says Friedman. Then she asks, â€œHow many of you believe in equal pay for equal work?â€? and all hands are raised. According to an exclusive study conducted for American Demographics by New York City-based youth market research firm Element, just 34 percent of girls, aged 13 to 20, label themselves feminists. Yet, even if the word is outmoded, the ideas that define it are still alive in the attitudes of today's youth. Ninety-seven percent believe a woman should receive the same pay for the same work a man does; 92 percent agree that a woman's lifestyle choices should not be limited by her gender; and 89 percent say a woman can be successful without either a man or children.
Unlike their â€™70s feminist ancestors, who believed that â€œacting like a girlâ€? was asking to be treated as such, most of today's young women do not feel any disjoint between being a feminist (or identifying with feminist ideals) and being feminine. â€œJust because you want to be treated equal doesn't mean you can't scream when you see a spider,â€? says Karisa Powers, 15, from Soldotna, Alaska. In fact, 56 percent of young women agree that â€œa man should always open the door for a woman,â€? according to the Element study. Only 8 percent disagree (35 percent are neutral).
Just 25 percent of girls identify with the statement, â€œthere are still many inequalities between the sexes and women need to continue to fight for their rights,â€? say the researchers at Element. â€œThese girls are not interested in hearing about organized movements or activism,â€? says Marie C. Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women. â€œThey are feminists by attitude.â€?
That definitely sums up Helen Cheng, an optimistic 18-year-old from San Diego, who wants it all, and expects to get it. â€œIn 20 years I see myself as a career woman working full-time while juggling a family, kids (maybe!), pets, writing, playing video games, avoiding work, and doing my best to contribute to society,â€? she says. â€œI think there are very few things women can't do if they put their minds to it.â€? It's a lesson Cheng learned well from her own mother, whom she describes as her â€œmain guide for how to be female,â€? because she is nurturing and yet aggressive when defending what she thinks is right. Her mother, an assistant manager in a private real estate company, worked throughout her childhood, as did her father, an environmental engineer.
Like Cheng, 56 percent of young women today between the ages of 13 and 20 have mothers who worked full-time outside the home during their childhood, and like them, 57 percent expect to have both a full-time career and a family like their mothers, according to Element. This makes sense considering that 63 percent of these women name their mother as the woman they most admire. Only 9 percent of them agree that â€œa woman's place is in the home.â€? In comparison, 28 percent of all 40- to 49-year-olds; 37 percent of 50- to 59-year-olds; 51 percent of 60- to 69-year-olds; and 68 percent of those over 70 agree that â€œit is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,â€? according to the General Social Survey's National Opinion Research Center located at the University of Chicago.
Gen Y girls' perception of themselves as feminine yet strong is one of the major characteristics that will shape their consumer preferences throughout their lives, says Ann A. Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, a consultancy in New Orleans. â€œMost marketers see young people as younger versions of themselves, but that's not right,â€? she says. â€œEach generation has very distinct characteristics that are driven by their own history.â€? Gen Y's view of their role as women grew from the culmination of several factors, she notes. Those factors include (but are not limited to): their mothers' influence as capable, hard-working leaders; increased participation in organized sports (a result of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sexual discrimination in activities at federally funded educational institutions); and interactions with the Internet, where all gender, race, ethnicity, and social status are equalized, and their exposure to cultures beyond their own is expanded daily. â€œThe nice part for marketers is that what works with Gen Y today will work with them when they are 60,â€? Fishman says.
What does work for these young women? Right now, marketing to female consumers is based on a very male model, says Lisa Johnson, director of client development at ReachWomen, a Eugene, Oregon-based consultancy specializing in women's marketing. Marketers today tend to preach, telling women exactly what is so wonderful about their product without acknowledging women's individual interests or needs as consumers. Johnson cites the sporting goods industry as an example of a market that has already been transformed by the feminine mystique, and says the financial services, insurance, and health-care industries will be next. When sporting goods manufacturers started developing products for women about 10 years ago, she explains, most created lesser quality merchandise or slapped a pink label on the men's products and labeled them â€œfor women.â€? But what started to happen was that young women began to buy the boys' merchandise because they wanted better quality. Companies felt the heat, and changed accordingly.
Burton Snowboard Company got the message earlier than most. While the company had been making woman-specific boards for 10 years, it has recently begun to offer a wide range of quality clothing and other gear specifically made for women. Interest has soared, especially among 15- to 18-year-old girls. The company even redesigned its Web site last summer after consulting with female riders. One change: In the women's section of the site, photos of models wearing the clothing and gear are shot from the bottom looking up, making the women look larger than life, empowered, and respected. For the men, on the other hand, photos display the gear up close, since Burton's research showed male riders to be more concerned with the technical detail of the merchandise. â€œThese young women want respect. They want things that are designed to their body shape and work the way they work,â€? says Dennis Bajec, creative director of interactive services at Resource Marketing in Columbus, Ohio, which handles the Burton account. â€œAnd they definitely don't want pink.â€?
Displaying respect for this generation is key. Honda, for one, has lost the business of 17-year-old Jessica Anderson â€œfor lifeâ€? because it failed to do so. After a full summer of working long hours with her mother cleaning vacation homes, the teenager from Pacific Groves, California finally had enough money saved to put a down payment on her first car. Always looking for the best deal, she conducted her research online, consulted Consumer Reports, and finally decided on the Honda Civic. But when she went to the dealer to put her money down, she says she was ignored, then talked down to. â€œThey looked at me and saw I was a kid and assumed I didn't know what I was talking about,â€? she says. â€œI knew they could sell me the car for the price I wanted, but they kept changing their story.â€? After visiting four different auto malls, with similar experiences at each, Anderson gave up on Honda. After doing more research, she bought a 2000 Nissan Sentra. She liked the car, but appreciated the company's attitude even more. â€œFrom the first time I visited the dealership they took me seriously even though I was young. They treated me with respect from the very beginning.â€? Since then she's convinced her best friend to buy a Nissan too.
Beware the power of a Gen Y woman scorned. Word of mouth is intense among this group, and will continue to be so as they mature, thanks to the Internet. And while Gen Y is more concerned with price and quality of a product â€” 63 percent say that quality is what makes a brand â€œcool,â€? according to research firm Greenfield Knowledge on Demand â€” they still care about what others think. â€œEven after I've done a lot of research I can be talked into wanting or not wanting something by reading on the Internet what other kids have to say about owning the product,â€? says 13-year-old Mandy Bundy, from Soldotna, Alaska. â€œPersonal opinions from owners of a product are available worldwide.â€?
For Gen Y girls, it's all about connecting â€” to each other and to a greater purpose. That seems to be why sites like ChickClick.com are doing so well. The 3-year-old Web site invites its more than 7 million unique visitors each month â€” many between the ages of 13 and 17 â€” to chat about everything from going to college to starting a business. Girls flock to the site to participate in polls and projects that â€œmake a difference.â€? For instance, in September, young women got involved in Election 2000 by nominating Vicki for President, a fictitious character representing all the female voices of their generation. A survey of Vicki's platform found that, when asked about the â€œsingle most important issueâ€? in the election, young women named education (17 percent), abortion (11 percent), and school violence (8 percent), as the top three. ChickClick's â€œMillion Chick Marchâ€? in November invited girls back to the site to discuss how they voted. A report on young women's views about the issues was later sent to elected officials in Washington. â€œMost Web sites for women, such as Oxygen and iVillage, are still duking out the â€˜busy women's syndrome,â€™â€? says Caroline Frye, network director of ChickClick.com. â€œBut that's not what this generation wants to talk about.â€?
Marketers can nix the overused â€œwe understand you're busy and have we got the product for youâ€? message with the next generation of women, says Janine Lopiano Misdom, a principal at Sputnik, a New York City-based marketing firm specializing in consumer insights and trend forecasting. This generation knows they are busy; they thrive on it, and expect it to continue. In fact, 75 percent of today's kids' time is filled with activity, according to a 1999 University of Michigan study. Between soccer games and homework, the average 12-year-old has less than three hours of free time a week, 10 hours less than their counterparts had in 1981. Gen Y, more than any other generation, has and will continue to have to sort through and deflect ads not only on TV, radio, and in magazines, but on their cell phones, PDAs, and MP3 players. In the future, women will have so many messages coming at them, they will have to choose who they let in. â€œSo far, advertising has been so prepackaged. Marketers haven't let the consumer think, feel, or finish the story for themselves,â€? says Misdom. â€œBut the marketer that does â€” the one that lets her become an interactive part of the advertising and be connected to something greater â€” will own the category.â€?
One way for a brand to connect with Gen Y women is to stand for something. A full 94 percent of teen girls report that, when price and quality are equal, they are likely to switch brands to one associated with a good cause, compared with 83 percent of their male counterparts, according to a study by Boston-based consulting firm Cone, Inc. These young women are also more likely than young men to consider whether a company makes a donation to a cause (77 percent versus 66 percent) or supports a cause (74 percent versus 62 percent) when deciding what to buy.
And axe the sexual innuendo. Today's marketers slap Britney Spears' face and belly button on all things girl-related, and sell big. But sex and glamour may soon cease to be the hottest buttons, say some experts. Bundy, for one, is sick of all the stereotypes: â€œI hate all the commercials that think all teen girls are into guys, gossip, and makeup.â€? Boomer women respond well to the aspirational: They want to see pictures of what they could be, they want Oil of Olay to tell them â€œyou can look younger too.â€? But the biggest turnoff to Gen Y girls is being told what is beautiful, according to Sputnik's latest â€œStreet Trends Youth Report.â€? The most hated ad: Maidenform's â€œBecause inner beauty only goes so far.â€? Cheng says she too is completely turned off by all the sexual imagery. She cites the Candie's shoe ad from a few years ago that portrayed former MTV icon Jenny McCarthy in a series of explicit poses. â€œI think advertisements like that are vulgar and not funny at all,â€? remarks Cheng. â€œAre we supposed to be enticed by scenes like this? I think it is very crude and ineffective in convincing me to buy products.â€?
Some companies are already working to send a different message to their target market. Take the Get Set Club, Inc., a toy company in Philadelphia. Owner Jenny Baker, a former stylist for Tyco toys (now owned by Mattel) has designed a collection of multicultural dolls which can be combined with five career-based activity sets. â€œWe believe it is the responsibility of the companies who make products for girls to convey the message that they are valued as people and not only for their looks,â€? says Baker. Popular culture can be a tough nut to crack, however. In focus groups with 7- to 11-year-old girls and their mothers, both groups said they wanted a larger, more realistically shaped doll than the slim, busty Barbie. But when the true-to-life doll was presented, the moms hated it. They were concerned that if their daughters played with the bigger doll, they too would get fat and would, as a result, have a harder time being accepted by men and other women. The girls' reaction to the new doll, however, perhaps represents the potential for a shift in the marketplace. They preferred the heavier doll, saying that it reminded them of their teacher, mom, or someone with whom they'd be friends. Barbie reminded them of someone intimidating, a movie star, or someone with whom they would not be friends.
In the end, the answers to reaching Gen Y women lie not in data reports and focus groups, but in listening to them on a constant basis. Dick Nye, cofounder of U30 Group, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based marketing firm, has built a business strategy around that realization. He hires Gen Y women (and men) from around the country to be hands-on consultants in the development of both product and marketing strategies for clients like Levi's and Pizza Hut. â€œGen Y is the â€˜Participation Generation,â€™â€? explains Nye. â€œThey are used to choosing and manipulating their experiences â€” creating their own CDs on the Internet, for example. You can't just take a snapshot of them every six months. If you aren't inviting them in and including them as collaborators, you're missing the boat.â€?
FIGHTING THE TYPECAST
While only about one-third of young females (aged 13 to 20) consider themselves feminists, the overwhelming majority of them agree with traditional feminist values.
|% AGREE||% DISAGREE|
|Feminists believe strongly in women's rights||86%||3%|
|Feminists believe in equal rights for everyone||59%||16%|
|All feminists are women||23%||56%|
|Feminists aren't feminine||12%||63%|
|Feminists hate men||9%||70%|
|Feminists are homosexual||6%||77%|
|Being a feminist is a positive thing||56%||6%|
|*Numbers will not add up to 100 as â€œneutralâ€? responses are not included.|