The increasing irrelevance of gender-based marketing

john lewis never knowingly undersoldAfter years of campaigning, petitions and studies, many retailers last year removed all gender specific marketing in their toy departments, thus consigning ‘boy’s toys’ and ‘little miss’ ranges to retail history.

While the repercussions of this are yet to be quantified one way or another in terms of social and commercial benefits; what can be certain is a burgeoning trend towards understanding people as individuals rather than segments based on age or sex.   Indeed the old maxim ‘men buy, women shop’ seems to be an increasingly uneasy distinction in the postmodern world: I can now say with confidence that I know just as many women as men who consider a day spent at a shopping centre to be a thoroughly repugnant activity.  The issue of gender behaviour in the context of 21st century marketing, therefore is to ask all the wrong questions when trying to decipher how and why people buy.

For the purposes of this article then, we will attempt to change this archaic vernacular and consider the traditionally female shopping characteristics – browsing, window shopping, shopping as an activity in and of itself – to be the ‘pleasure’ mindset and that which employs traditionally male shopping behaviours – dispassionate, shopping-as-a-mission, results driven – as the ‘utility’ mindset.

Before we continue, it’s important to clarify further that these profiles are not different types of people at all, but forms of behaviour apt to be employed by any person depending on the purpose they seek and their relationship to the product offered.  We are complex psychological beings, and do not often fit into crude silos for the commercial convenience of marketers.  Even the most impassioned shopper can purchase without enjoying themselves, while the utility shopper is ripe to be lured into a pleasurable shopping experience if the right conditions are met. To give a practical example, if you guide a video game fanatic through the doors of Game, they will likely shop with the same zeal as somebody with a love of shoes might in Jimmy Choo. Often it is passion for the product which drives the ‘pleasure shopping’ behaviour rather than an unbridled passion for shopping as a whole.

Playing to your audience
Retailers selling goods that have a strong following of one mindset often neglect the virtues the other may afford them.  In fashion particularly, stores are designed for the pleasure mindset and persistently fail in creating an environment which caters for the utility mindset.  Shop assistants are routinely asked “where the cardigan section is”, for example, which of course rarely exists.

In his blog entitled How Technology Made Me Love to Shop, Dan McGinn of Harvard Business Review identifies himself as a ‘typical male shopper’[1].

He cites the possibility of making a bad decision to be his biggest concern when shopping, often leading him to second-guessing, paralysis, and buyer’s remorse. Indeed bricks and mortar – built for browsing – is not a comfortable home for the utility mindset. eCommerce meanwhile, with its searchable products, reviews and price comparisons, is often too prescriptive for the pleasure mindset, who long to enjoy the experience of buying the product beyond the process of click-and-collect.  To succeed in the first instance, it is crucial for brands and retailers to understand what proportion of their customer is shopping with the utility mindset and which with the pleasure mindset and adjust their presence in each of those spheres accordingly.

Persuasion or seduction 
But decisions on channel are only one example of how brands and retailers must react to this shopper dichotomy. The mindsets will be susceptible to markedly different types of marketing and knowing which mindset a brand’s audience uses most will inform marketers on where best to strike along the purchase decision loop. Utility heads are ripe for persuasion.  They need – as Dan McGinn points out – to be armed with better information; a wider variety of choices, easy price comparisons, and previous buyers’ reviews.

Those in the pleasure mindset meanwhile are primed to be seduced by brands.  They want to be reassured that they are making the best possible decision in the best possible way. This is no more evident than people’s polarised shopping habits close to Christmas.  While Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, Aldi and Lidl languish in the black, appealing to the pleasure and the utilities mindsets respectively; what we are seeing is not a greater divide between rich and poor but a switch in decision making rules when shopping for goods.

John Lewis, by contrast, is a great example of a retailer which caters for both types of mindset which it demonstrates beautifully across both its in-store and marketing activity.  Through its ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ campaigns it speaks to trust, free shipping and hassle free returns thus reducing the risk of and minimising the cost of making a bad decision: perfect for the utility mindsets.  Through its high profile all-singing-all-dancing TV campaigns, it looks to seduce its customers with a promise of enjoyable experience, attentive sales staff and above all, relevant, quality and tempting products to whet the appetite of any browser.

As we move into a more channel neutral age, and the lines between on and offline merge with the growth of mobile, the challenge will be making sure there is provision offline for the utility shopper and online for the pleasure shopper.  In short, there is an ever decreasing space middle ground and to appeal to both faces of the post-recession shopper, retailers need to either pick a side of the fence or perform a fantastic balancing act atop it.

John Saxon is Shopper Marketing Director, EMEA, Momentum UK.


[1] (by which we must take to mean that he mostly operates with a utility mindset)