Thought Leaders in association withPartners in Crime

Why Women-Only Cars Are Missing The Point

Advertising Agency
London, UK
INFLUENCER: Partners Andrews Aldridge's Polly Jones on why brands should be focusing on more than just gender

Did you know that the first ever cross-country car journey took place in 1888? Automotive pioneer Bertha Benz was behind the wheel and completed a round trip of 112 miles. She also monitored, tweaked and fixed the car’s failures along the way.

You can’t help but think that Bertha – a woman whose stunt gained worldwide attention for the Benz Patent-Motorwagen and was ultimately the reason for the car’s first sale – would have been a little disappointed at the launch of the Seat Mii last week.

The Mii is Seat’s first car designed ‘for women’. Created in collaboration with Cosmopolitan magazine, it is marketed as a ‘key accessory’ for women, and comes complete with eyeliner headlights, a handbag hook and jewel-effect rims. Twitter went into overdrive and there were a slew of articles calling the Seat Mii patronising, old-fashioned and even sexist.

Seat and Cosmopolitan had obviously missed the point. Of course brands should be inclusive and talk to women - not least because 46% of drivers are women, and because the number of driving license applications from women has increased by 2.5%, but has gone down for men.

But have we learnt nothing from the failures of Bic’s pinkpens and even closer to Seat, the Honda She?

What makes the Mii’s launch even more untimely is that we’re at such a great moment in advertising right now. Sexist concepts – like the infamous Bayer Aspirin ad that was banned just hours after winning at Cannes – are being called out on their lack of audience insight, creativity and let’s face it, cultural awareness.

Better still, brands are moving towards a more realistic, positive presentation of women. We’re living in the age of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’, of Nike’s ‘Unlimited’ campaign and of Bodyform’s ‘No blood should hold us back’. It’s the age of complex storytelling about women. There’s no one size fits all. The advertising that women feel best represents them is gritty, sweaty and even bloody. Not glossy, purple or sparkly.

But back to Bertha. She’s one of the first in a long line of women who have transformed the automotive industry. Since Bertha, women have been instrumental in marketing, creating and testing some of the best cars of our generation.

The Acura NSX?? Designed by Michelle Christensen - a woman. The Nissan Titan pick-up truck? Designed by Diane Allen – also a woman. General Motors? Their new CEO is Mary Barra, who is – wait for it – a woman.

Way back in 2002, Volvo actually connected these dots. They created the Volvo YCC, a car designed by women, for women. They got it right by using comprehensive focus groups and user testing. At the time of going to market, women made up 54% of all Volvo buyers in the US. Oh, and the five strong project management and three strong design team were all women.  

Have a Google of the YCC. Spoiler - it looks like a normal, practical car. That’s because Volvo found that the things that were important to ‘women’ were important for ‘people’ full stop – like ‘a car that’s easy to get in and out of’ and ‘good visibility’. Man or woman, who wouldn’t want that for their car?

Volvo’s now decade-old discovery is crucial. It is what Seat and Cosmopolitan missed completely. Focusing on usability, not gender, is the way to market a car to women. As convenient as generalisations can be in getting a product or marketing campaign out the door, they are a shortcut to failure.

After all, categorising ‘women’ and ‘men’ as separate audiences is basically rubbish. So if we must generalise, let’s talk to ‘drivers’ or ‘people’, rather than using convenient definitions that can alienate our audience. Or better still, let’s actually drill down into our audiences to find out who they are, what they want and how we can make our products work for them. That’s just basic marketing.   

Polly Jones is the Managing Partner of Partners Andrews Aldridge