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The 1955 Dodge La Femme. Photo: FCA
The 1955 Dodge La Femme. Photo: FCA

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The Auto Industry's Play for the Female Driver

How to capture the hearts (and wallets) of women is a challenge car companies are just now beginning to take seriously.

When I began writing about the auto industry over a decade ago, I was ambivalent about cars. Though I lived in Detroit, the ultimate car town, I was married to an abusive man who had hidden my keys for several years. I worked as an arts reporter, but the shrinking Detroit newspaper economy meant that opportunities were slim. All the major car magazines, however, had a substantial presence in the local area—and I needed a job.

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I applied for a paid internship at AutoWeek Magazine. After a few weeks of moving cars for the editors, I was hooked. The thrill of driving shiny, brand-new sports cars was empowering; it added a dizzying spring to my step. Then I left the violent husband, moved to New York, and began to cover cars as one of my main beats. In less than one year, I went from being intimidated to brazen at the wheel.

Very few women are privy to the adventures I was afforded—driving on racetracks, traveling to the glamorous Grand Prix of Monaco and the posh Aston Martin Centennial in London, meeting car collectors who told incredible stories about their vintage vehicles. Knowing about cars gave me a cool edge in New York City. It meant that I was fun at parties, offering car-buying advice to friends and answering questions about horsepower that would impress even the most cynical (usually male) gearhead in the room.

BMW 7 Series

A female designer at BMW headquarters. Photo: BMW

I had learned quite a bit about cars from my many years of interviewing executives and test-driving hundreds of vehicles. I became something of an expert. Though I wasn't the first, nor am I the only, woman to write about cars, that doesn't mean there haven't been bumps in the road, so to speak. Like in most male-dominated industries, sexism is alive and well in the auto business, and I have collected my share of harassment stories. Early on, I decided to see threatening or rude behavior as a sign I was making waves as a feminist in an old-school patriarchal corporate culture.

I also quickly realized that the women I knew were similarly interested in cars, and that auto companies were largely missing out on the opportunity to speak to these potential customers. The people who asked me the most questions about cars were, without fail, women. They asked me about design, how fast I drove, and reliability. They obsessed over details and features. They liked the fantasy of driving a powerful car and possessing insider tips, even if as New Yorkers some didn't regularly drive or even have a driver's license. Here was a space I could make an impact.

How to capture the hearts and wallets of women is a challenge that the auto industry is just now beginning to take seriously. Women are key consumers in the contemporary automotive market: A 2013 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that, as of 2010, there are more female drivers than male ones in the US. Millennial women buy more than half of all cars. Women are also responsible for influencing more than 80 percent of all household purchasing decisions, which means that even though they may not fit the profile of the average Ferrari driver, their endorsement is what seals the deal.

How do automakers engage female customers without patronizing them?

As this data spreads around the industry, car companies are rethinking how to reach women. How do automakers engage female customers without patronizing them? In 1955, Chrysler introduced the ridiculous dusty-rose Dodge La Femme in an early effort to sell cars to women; during the post-war period, women were starting to drive in larger numbers. By the 1970s, in the wake of the women's movement, female drivers were commuting to work alongside men. Yet, the enduring images of women with cars from that era are of bikini-clad pinup models posed on the hoods of hot rods.

Women's purchasing power has risen in the past 30 years, but the recognition of women as equal drivers has not. At some European auto shows, it's still common to see models in skimpy clothing posed as automotive accents. Very few advertising campaigns show women behind the wheel, unless there happen to be a couple of kids in the backseat. As arcane as it seems, no car company wants to have a vehicle that's perceived to be a "woman's car." No one wants to risk losing men for women, despite the fact that it might be the more savvy business choice.

Cadillac introduced a special Saks Fifth Avenue edition of the ELR as part of its plan to reach female drivers. Photo: Cadillac

Some automakers are hesitant to discuss their efforts to target female drivers, at least publicly. In fact, several companies—some that rank high on women's shopping lists—declined to comment for this article. Of course, there is no typical woman driver: the preferences of all customers, both male and female, exist on a broad spectrum. What this means is that car companies must reconcile that there are many different kinds of women with a wide variety of tastes. It's less about constructing a car for a singular idea of a woman, as it is about acknowledging that she exists in many forms.

"Over the last few years, we've discovered that efforts to target women fell flat," says Melody Lee, brand director for Cadillac. "We needed to find a way to appeal to women that feels like we're not pandering to them. Women are much smarter than that. The strategy turned around. It's about widening the appeal of the brand overall and building its cultural relevance. Where women's interests lie is where the brand needs to be."

"What we really want to do now is not to find a demographic, but a mindset—what is aspirationally appealing to people across all ages, across both genders."

At Cadillac, that includes rethinking traditional ad efforts like a much-maligned Cadillac ELR commercial that aired last year. "We [used] the archetype of who might drive an ELR—a confident, affluent man standing by a pool talking about how hard he works," she continues. "We realized that we needed to stop trying to pigeonhole customers into a certain kind of person that looked a certain way, made a certain amount of money, and lived in a certain kind of house. What we really want to do now is not to find a demographic, but a mindset—what is aspirationally appealing to people across all ages, across both genders."

The complex process of wooing customers to buy a new car starts long before the first trip to the dealership. It's about showing up on their radar, early on. Cadillac's most recent partnership programs include a holiday campaign with Saks Fifth Avenue. "It's not to say that women just like to shop, but during the holiday season, women are doing the majority of the shopping," Lee says. "They might not have time to go to a dealership, but if they happen to be passing the Saks Fifth Avenue holiday window and see an Escalade coming out of it, that makes it a little more convenient for them. It catches them in a moment where they're not thinking about purchasing a car."

Cadillac's new strategy is to make the brand subtly resonant with potential consumers. To little fanfare, Cadillac hosted both J. Mendel and Public School's spring 2015 runway shows at a downtown space that is now the brand's corporate headquarters. They also announced philanthropic support of the CFDA, foregoing a more overt presence as title sponsor of New York Fashion Week, formerly held by Mercedes-Benz. Last year, Cadillac also created pop-up dining events in which potential customers drove a Cadillac product to the restaurant, dined on multiple courses, met the chef, and then got a chauffeured ride home in an Escalade, no strings attached.

The Toyota suite at Oprah's "The Life You Want Tour." Photo: Toyota

Automakers have long engaged in experiential marketing to attract customers, but in the last decade or so, these programs have started to be implemented where groups of women congregate. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey gave away 275 Pontiac G6 cars, courtesy of GM, to the entire in-studio audience at her show ("You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!"). Her fan base is still lucrative for automakers. Toyota offered tickets for Oprah's "The Life You Want Tour" to selected Camry owners, as well as staffed the event with product specialists. Toyota's Twitter follower count increased by 40 percent as a result of the tour sponsorship.

It's clear that companies are focusing on fashion, design, arts, and entertainment initiatives to target women. Nissan cites its sponsorship of last month's BET Awards, a show with high female viewership, as a key strategic component. Nissan was also the title sponsor for an event held by literary publisher The Feminist Press. Last year designer Zac Posen designed a custom interior for a 2014 Infiniti Q50 that was auctioned for charity, while this year, Rolls-Royce awarded a $10,000 scholarship as part of the Pratt Institute's "Women of Influence in the Business of Style" program; Rolls-Royce also introduced a special "fashion-inspired" Wraith.

A vehicle is the second most expensive purchase people make (a home is the first), and when women do start shopping for one, they tend to do so more carefully than men. Women take an average of 75 days to purchase a car, while the average man makes a decision in 63 days, according to a 2014 study by Kelley Blue Book (KBB). This extra time is spent doing online research.

The biggest hurdle that car companies face is what's happening at the dealership level. Only 13 percent of salespeople in dealerships are women.

"We're not sure if they detest the dealership experience and want to get as much done as they can before, or if they want to make a more thoughtful approach when they buy," Lee says of female customers. "They are spending a lot of time online. We know that's a place where we need to enhance the experience. It's endemic to our entire industry. Their shopping behaviors are very different."

This is true. When it comes to cars, women tend to focus their search on features, whereas men are more likely to be brand-loyal shoppers. Women are more likely to want SUVs and non-luxury sedans; men are more likely to prefer trucks, coupes, and luxury vehicles. Women also seek opinions from friends and family.

But, as Lee alluded to, the biggest hurdle that car companies face is what's happening at the dealership level. Only 13 percent of salespeople in dealerships are women. It's been well-publicized that car dealers have long quoted women higher prices than men, as first identified in a 1991 Yale University study. A 2013 Northwestern study found that women also tend to be quoted higher prices for repairs; this is significant on the dealership level because most customers get repair work done at dealers' in-house repair facilities. Part of the problem is that dealerships are generally independently owned and operated. Automakers train their dealers, but don't control them, especially if they sell multiple brands.

Photo: Getty Images

Men feel more confident walking into a dealership than women do by a margin of 20 percent, according to KBB. "One thing that we need to work on, and I think this is true of the entire industry, is that once we reel people into our world, we lose a lot of them at the point of sale," says Lee. "It's that dealership experience that really turns people away. I read that women hate the dealership more than anything, more than the dentist. That's really meaningful and we cannot afford to do that."

What's changing the process is that female customers now have more knowledge when they walk in the door. "With the online shopping and the research that consumers are doing, they are now armed with so much information going into the dealership that it takes some of the intimidation out of the process," says Becky Blanchard, director of Ram Trucks. "They are much more informed than they have ever been."

"Once we reel people into our world, we lose a lot of them at the point of sale."

KBB says that reliability, safety, and affordability rank high among women. Fuel efficiency and reputation are also key factors in the their purchase decision. "For female consumers, some of the top purchase considerations are safety, convenience, ability to meet their families' needs, versatility, and style, so as we redesigned the Nissan Rogue and Murano, we took those factors into consideration," says Fred Diaz, senior vice president of Nissan sales and marketing and operations. "Research shows that 72 percent of women say that 'style is reflected in everything that I buy.'"

When the vehicle in question tips into the luxury segment, style becomes even more critical. The Wall Street Journal reported that Aston Martin intends to target female customers by appointing an advisory board made up of women for its new DBX model. "We characterize ourselves as the Hermès of automobiles," CEO Andrew Palmer said in an interview.

BMW hired Annabelle Coffinet, a nose trained at a French perfume school, to join the 7-Series design team and develop a unisex fragrance package. She says she consciously sought out scents from nature, but avoided anything with floral notes: "For the larger public, we try not to be too specific." It's an approach that presents features that could score high with women, but do not read as for women only.

The women of Ford's Mustang team. Photo: Ford

Across the industry, carmakers are starting to focus on wooing women into vehicles that don't read as traditionally female. Ford, for instance, has made a push to get Mustang in front of women. This process began early on in product development and in the design studio, where women played a prominent role. Susan Lampinen served as the chief color and materials designer on the 2015 Mustang. "Mustang represents freedom," she says. "It's very sexy. What woman doesn't want to be sexy at some point? It's about independence, it's about breaking free from the pack, it's about grabbing attention and expressing yourself. It's a vehicle that embodies a culture. It's a way of life. Mustang in itself is like its own brand."

"Women use cars very differently than men. It's much more utilitarian the way they use space and environment."

To create buzz around the Mustang launch, Ford partnered with OPI to release a line of nail polish inspired by Mustang lore. Last year it worked with Anna Sui, Cote, Pamela Love, Paula Cademartori, and Rogan on T-shirt designs inspired by the pony car. Ford has even toyed with the notion of gender in a recent viral ad called "Speed Dating," in which a woman stunt driver fools men into thinking she can barely drive before taking them on a wild drifting adventure. The choice to include women in the Mustang push was backed by market research that showed it had cultural cache with women.

"The first thing we learned is that women use cars very differently than men," Mustang brand manager Melanie Banker says of the data they gathered. "They use features differently. Women have all kinds of things in cup holders—cell phones, a hair tie, a pen or a pencil. It's much more utilitarian the way they use space and environment."

Half the fun of driving a car that registers as male is the reaction of strangers. When I first moved to New York, I drove a small four-door pickup truck, which caused many an incredulous comment. Today, women are growing consumers in the uber-masculine and uber-profitable pickup truck market.

Ram Truck teamed up with Miranda Lambert to connect with female customers. Photo: Ram

Marissa Hunter, who heads Ram Truck brand advertising and serves as the director for brand advertising at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), says that Ram light-duty pickup trucks have become more popular among women, particularly in Texas, where the number of female buyers has doubled in recent years. Ram responded by launching a stirring ad campaign that celebrates women.

"We want to broaden how we can appeal to this very empowered, strong, accomplished, and influential female audience," Hunter says. "We don't necessarily want to speak to them differently, because we understand that they have some of the same wants, demands, and desires in their vehicles as men do." Ram has also partnered with country singer Miranda Lambert and commissioned her to write a song designed to resonate with her heavily female audience.

"We want to broaden how we can appeal to this very empowered, strong, accomplished, and influential female audience."

The most significant change at car companies may actually be what's happening behind the scenes, as women are slowly taking on more management positions at car companies. Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, has become a symbol for the rise of women in the auto industry. Currently, only 3.3 percent of auto executives are female.

There are some jobs at car companies that have always attracted more women, such as color and trim design. "Many of the women in the color and trim group have a fashion background," says Sandy McGill, an industrial designer at BMW Designworks. "Germany has some of the best fashion schools in Europe, and our designers have done stints at fashion houses and now work in the automotive industry." But McGill has noticed a shift as gender lines blur in the design department. "Now we're getting more men that are becoming interested in the opportunity. We've also got a lot more women going into interior design at BMW." In fact, an all-women team designed the interior of the BMW Z4.

This year, Michelle Christensen, exterior designer of the Acura NSX, became the first woman to lead the design of a supercar. At FCA, Chris Barman heads up the company's system and component engineering division. Barman, along with many of the industry's high-ranking female engineers, are involved with mentoring organizations to help grow women's influence in product development.

Sandy McGill at BMW Designworks. Photo: BMW

Still, the women of the auto industry are finding they must prove themselves to the general public. "Mythbuster: Women don't design cars for women," says Lampinen. "We're not thinking pink and small and designing for women. We're thinking of all of our customers. If you have great design, it transcends. I think that's the biggest mythbuster. Great design transcends anything. You're thinking about the cup holder, your cell phone. These are things that are just a part of your life. A car is a mode of transportation that you express yourself in."

Cars will continue to change in order to reflect the desires and demands of consumers. Women are essential to this evolution. Our impact on the transportation landscape cannot be ignored, and yet we still have a long way to go until we're treated as equal by the auto industry. We still have a long way to go until they realize that we care about what we drive.

Even after writing hundreds of articles about cars, I'm still discovering the myriad ways that the automotive has influenced our society. I'm never bored. And when I reflect back on this strange life in cars that I stumbled upon a decade ago, I think about that sensation I still get when I pull away in a new car, that feeling that overrides the reality of a price tag and reminds me of dancing. It's a flutter in my stomach that I associate with being independent, wild, and free.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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