Targeting the female market

By Published on .

When Ford Motor Co. was born, American women were second-class citizens without even the right to vote. Few held paying jobs or lived independently. Only a handful had the purchasing power to buy an automobile. The auto market was a man's domain. That latter condition would stand until the late 1970s, when the forces of feminism chipped away at Detroit's ingrained habits.

Nevertheless, early on, Ford and other car manufacturers recognized women's influence in auto sales and dedicated a portion of their advertising and marketing activities to them. Men still controlled the cash, but Ford offered up ad pitches addressing so-called "female concerns," such as ease of handling and fashion. It continued that way until the 1980s, when Ford started to recognize women as a potent buying force in their own right.

J.D. Power & Associates reports that women today make up 40.2% of all light-vehicle principal drivers, but Ford says women's influence in purchases probably exceeds 80%.

Historically, you can't overstate the importance of automobiles as a force of social freedom, particularly for homebound females. The sturdy, low-price Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, was the first car marketed to the masses. It earned the nickname the "The Great Liberator" long before the term "women's liberation" was coined. Proto-feminist writer Gertrude Stein was one of the Model T's biggest fans, driving one through Flanders during World War I while working as a volunteer nurse.

Henry Ford was deeply grateful to wife Clara Bryant Ford, whom he dubbed "The Believer" for her support, long before Mr. Ford attained status as a business genius. So it's not surprising that Clara Ford appeared in an ad for the Model N in 1904 in Collier's magazine.

Ford's 1911 promotional book, "The Woman & the Ford," promised that a Ford is "as easy to drive as the old family horse." Would-be female purchasers, it suggested, might buy a Ford with the funds they'd otherwise spend on medical services and prescriptions. The book contained a breathless testimonial: "When I grasp the wheel my worries vanish," wrote one female driver. "There must be women with checkbooks [or access to their husband's], who love the outdoor life, who crave exercise and excitement, who long for relief from the monotony of social and household duties."

ADS change with the times

Indeed. As women's status changed, so did Ford ads. During the flapper era of the 1920s, there was a new sensibility. In one 1924 ad, Ford showed a professionally attired female (sporting a Louise Brooks hairdo) engaged in a phone conversation. "Her habit of measuring time in terms of dollars gives the woman in business keen insight into the true value of a Ford closed car for her personal use," reads the ad copy.

Until 1925, no-nonsense Ford produced cars only in black, and stuck to a market positioning built around dependability and price. Eventually, the company lost ground to competitors as others promoted images of cars as conduits of excitement and glamour.

But that changed with the arrival of the Model A in 1927. Ford's image went overnight from, "country cousin to country club," as "Ford" biographer Robert Lacey puts it, after the company made the conscious decision to place its cars in the garages of the rich and famous. Ford granted priority availability to influential stars, such as Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, silent screen sweetheart Mary Pickford, who was happily photographed in a Model A. "Mary uses a new Ford in preference to all other cars," Mr. Fairbanks wrote to Edsel Ford.

Ford survived through the challenging years of the Great Depression, then World War II, when women left their homes to work in factories, including those of Ford Motor Co. But after the war, most women returned to their domestic roles, and Ford's marketing efforts reflected that.

Post-World War II, Ford's print ads depict a prevailing vision of womanhood as cheery homemakers, some learning to drive under their husband's tutelage. A common Ford theme was to promote purchases of two cars-one for the bread-winning husband, another for the bread-making wife, toiling in appliance-filled suburbia.

"Ford's out front from a woman's angle," one 1947 ad announced. It depicted a female who lacked mechanical prowess, but knew what she liked aesthetically: "I don't know synthetic enamel from a box of my children's paints, but if synthetic enamel is what it takes to make that beautiful, shiny Ford finish, I'm all for it!"

During the 1950s and '60s, some Ford ads aimed at women focused on fashion. Ford promoted its 1959 Galaxie, for example, as a wedding of line and luxury, comparing the car's beauty to "your favorite mink!" There was a shot of a sultry model in a Galaxie-inspired dress, plus explanations on where women could buy the clothes (at upscale retailers Bergdorf-Goodman and Neiman Marcus). In 1961, there was a Roma Red Ford ad photographed in Italy, showing a model attired in a car-inspired suit.

After the social upheavals of the 1960s and the rise of feminism in the '70s, Ford's ad approach had to change, although like other companies in the Motor City, it was slow to adapt.

rena bartos to the rescue

By the late 1970s, the automaker began its first serious exploration of women as a distinct buying force after influential communications leaders, such as Rena Bartos, senior VP of longtime Ford ad agency J. Walter Thompson Co., attacked the preconceptions business strategists held about female consumers.

In her 1982 book, "The Moving Target," Ms. Bartos took on Detroit's assumptions about the car market-that it was a man's market, and that, when women bought cars, they purchased compacts. She argued that such conclusions were self-fulfilling prophecies flowing from incomplete, flawed research. One of her main points was that women consumers were not all alike, as incredible as that sounds today.

And the automaker itself had weighed in on the subject in 1980, when Anne and Charlotte Ford, great-granddaughters of Henry Ford and daughters of Henry Ford II, wrote a short book. Titled "How to Love the Car in Your Life," it was a practical guide for women drivers, offering tips on auto safety and motoring etiquette.

As the 1980s unfolded, some of Ford's TV commercials reflected women's changing status, although the airwaves still carried lots of images of women as sex objects, particularly in car commercials.

In 1981, Ford put a young woman at the center of a Mustang commercial, depicting the vehicle as a symbol of freedom and fantasy for a young, harried Manhattan clerical worker. "Look out comes Ford," audiences heard, after she put her Mustang on the Staten Island ferry, apparently ready to hit the road when she docked. By 1986, in a Bronco II spot, the company presented a new, more upwardly mobile woman in business, complete with power suit and tie. Two subordinates checked out the car of their new, unknown boss, commenting on how powerful he must be. Then, minutes later...surprise, surprise...they learn that "he is a she"!

uses internal focus groups

By the 1990s, Ford tried to get a better handle on female desires and purchasing patterns. It set up a Women's Product & Marketing Office in 1995; its mission was to make Ford vehicles more appealing to women buyers. Engineers began integrating elements into car design with females in mind, such as adjustable brake and gas pedals on Ford trucks, child-friendly dome lights on minivans, and manicure-friendly door handles on sport-utility vehicles. In 1997, Ford enlisted a group of its female engineers-the so-called "Windstar Moms"-who were also mothers, as internal consultants for the development of Ford minivans. Ford shut down the Women's Product & Marketing Office in a 2001 restructuring, but the company still maintains women-oriented internal focus groups that provide counsel in product development.

In the 1990s, it became harder to reach consumer targets, given the splintering of the media marketplace with the rise of cable TV and satellite programming services. Ford, like other major national advertisers, started shifting marketing dollars into non-traditional venues.

One such effort aimed squarely at the women's market. In the last nine years, Ford has committed $60 million to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure, which hosts fund-raising events in 112 cities around the country. Ford demonstrates good corporate citizenship this way, but also potentially influences women customers locally. "It gives our employees, as well as consumers, something to rally around," says Lisa Owens, Ford's multicultural marketing manager.

Says Cindy Schneible, VP of the Dallas-based foundation: "They [Ford] create additional awareness for the Komen Foundation and our fight against breast cancer by including us in advertising they do. As a non-profit, we are very limited in what we can spend on advertising, so the ability to raise awareness through Ford's advertising is very important to us."

Today, certain Ford lines are particularly popular with women. For example, more than half the buyers of Ford Escape and Explorer Sport and 43% of Expedition buyers are women, according to Chantel Lenard, Ford's SUV group marketing manager. Tellingly, Ford hasn't achieved those numbers by offering models in pink. Nor does Ford produce SUV ads with copy tailored for women.

Instead, Ford's pitches focus on attributes that register with both men and women-versatility, confidence, control and the vehicle's role in an active lifestyle. "Women have told us [in research] they don't want to be talked to as though they're different," Ms. Lenard says. Ford advertises its SUVs in women's magazines and on TV networks skewing female, such as Lifetime and the WB. In addition, it has sponsored female-targeted special events, such as health and fitness festivals, plus an all-female expedition to Mount Everest.

For the Ford Expedition SUV, the company took the fairly unusual turn of hiring a young female as its spokesperson-boxer Laila Ali. She packs a potent marketing punch for her gender and achievement, but also scores points for race, good looks and lineage. Ford's research shows the daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali appeals both to men and women, Ford's preferred approach. But the feisty, empowered Ms. Ali is a far cry from the demure females in Ford's ads of yesteryear.

Most Popular
In this article: