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Women love the cars, hate the sell

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There are some women who are looking for the power of a V8, others that prefer to err on the side of efficiency.
There are some women who are looking for the power of a V8, others that prefer to err on the side of efficiency.

In June this year, women in Saudi Arabia will finally be allowed to take the wheel of a car. The Saudi King Salman issued the decree that would grant women a driver's licence for the first time, much to the dismay of the country's religious scholars.

Unlike the application for a passport, they will not need permission from their fathers or husbands to obtain a licence, and neither will they need to have a male relative in the car with them as they explore their new-found freedom. Whether they will actually be allowed to be involved in the purchase of the car is yet to be determined. Heady times indeed.

Here in Australia, where 52 per cent of drivers licences are held by women, the narrative is cloaked in an altogether different hue. Not only are women here buying more new cars than ever before, they are doing so at a younger age and influencing more than 80 per cent of overall car purchasing decisions.

Generalising women's needs, even if it is through unconscious bias is a mistake.

Yet, in one aspect at least, the car buying experience, women in Australia may not be that far removed from their Saudi counterparts.

While they acknowledge the power of the female dollar and a woman's voice in large family-driven purchases, most car manufacturers suggest they are best served by looking at the needs of customer as a whole and market their cars to appeal to those needs.

It is difficult to argue with that logic without instituting gender stereotypes that have long been proved to be just that.

"At Kia we look at the best attributes of the car without suggesting buyer gender bias," said Kevin Hepworth, Kia Australia's General Manager of Media and Corporate Communications.

"We try not to stereotype our cars into a car for women or men. Women want small cars, or powerful cars or large SUVs, just like men do. We just present our cars in the best way to the consumer and have them decide which is for them."

That sentiment is shared at Volkswagen Australia which believes in sharing with all customers the information needed to make the right decisions.

"Female influence in the purchase process (independent or shared) has been the case for a very long time and is rightly acknowledged," said Ben Wilks, General Manager Marketing at Volkswagen Group Australia.

"As the only European brand in the Top 10 in Australia we aim to have our experience match the sophistication of our customers – and the sophistication they demand of us.

"They've made a better choice of car – so whoever they are we offer a better experience to complement that. Interestingly, our model splits are relatively gender balanced – especially in the small car market where Polo retains a close to 50/50 buyer profile.

"That differentiates the Polo from others in the segment.  We reckon we tailor a message to the psychographics of our audience rather than a rudimentary gender difference."

While some manufacturers use clever advertising to make the distinction, others just miss the mark.

It is true that people choose cars for a whole host of reasons including looks, space, practicality, safety, performance and efficiency, irrespective of whether they are men or women. How they come to those decisions, however, can certainly be primarily based on gender.

Women are prudent shoppers. Expecting that you are going to convince them to buy a car just because you have put in a few extra hooks in the boot for shopping, or a handbag compartment under the driver's seat is both condescending and foolish.

Do these features help? Perhaps. But not as much as real practicalities, like the Ford Territory's movable pedals that can be adjusted to suit leg length or programmable driver preferences so you don't have to adjust seats and mirrors each time you swap drivers.

Let's be honest here. Those on-trend features, including safety, technology and storage, that we find in the well-equipped cars that now roll off production lines are useful to men and women alike. How you choose to sell it to each gender is where the finesse lies.

Generalising women's needs, even if it is through unconscious bias is a mistake. There are some women who are looking for the power of a V8, others that prefer to err on the side of efficiency.

While some manufacturers use clever advertising to make the distinction, others just miss the mark. Some 42 per cent of Australian women believe car advertisers don't understand them, that their ads are based on assumptions.

When choosing an advertising company last year to market their new SUVthe EquinoxHolden was insistent the winners of the bid would need a strong vision when communicating with women. After all, according to Roy Morgan Research, it is this segment of the market that is driving overall SUV growth.

"We know that strong, independent, self-assured women are driving SUVs, whether that's family or working young professionals," Mark Harland, Holden's Director of Marketing and Customer Experience, said at the time.

"Yet every single SUV advert is a male, and then a women lovingly looking on and saying ‘good boy, the kids are in the back, the dogs, too, and we're all off to have our picnic on the beach'.

"Or we go off-roading? Because all of us in Melbourne and Sydney like to go off-roading every day in our SUV on the way to dropping the kids at school?

"Jeez, it's crap right? And it's so boring. No one has nailed this space talking to women the way they want."

Women want to feel respected and in control when making a purchasing decision.

He is right. It is often the case that advertisers use what in marketing speak is called a 'push' to entice people into new models. This can take the form of adverts with dramatic backdrops, repeated television spots during prime time, even prominent billboards and extensive magazine spreads, with the intent of impressing.

However, research tells us it's the 'pull' mentality that best engages women, allowing them to feel empowered to make a decision, using established and influential networks to do the heavy lifting.

Most importantly, women want to feel respected and in control when making a purchasing decision. They put great stock in loyalty and the customer experience. What a shame then, that 87 per cent of women report poor experiences at dealerships, 49 per cent actually feel vulnerable, and more than 77 per cent feel they need to turn up with a male friend or partner if they are serious about the purchase.

Despite doing extensive research on the car they have their eye on, asking complex relevant questions, and having the financial power to complete the purchase, women continue to report treatment that leaves them feeling silly, dis-empowered or angry.

"I am dismayed when I hear industry research figures that show that many women, whether young or old still feel uncomfortable in the process of transacting a new car purchase," said VW's Ben Wilks.

"That's awful, because it should be a really exciting and positive experience. Particularly when there is a new Volkswagen at the end of the experience. We actively recruit people from outside of the industry with initiatives like our VW careers site 'I am Volkswagen'.

"We track in granular detail the entire customer experience and we act, strongly, when it doesn't live up to our expectations."

Other manufacturers are just as vocal about working to ensure women have a favourable experience.

"Kia Motors Australia provides an on-going training program for network staff in both sales and service," said Kevin Hepworth.

"The training covers a wide variety of situations, including making all customers feel comfortable and welcome into both the sales and service environment. There is no doubt that it is an ongoing challenge."

It is perhaps more of a challenge than car companies realise. While they all have programs in place – 'The Lexus Difference' – being a case in point, the reality is the culture on the ground, where no thought is given to what women want and how to engage with them, is still strong.

Four of the five dealerships I visited for this piece gave credence to that belief. My list of complaints include being totally ignored, being told to help myself to a coffee while my husband attended to the 'important business' and being shown the one-touch collapsible seats and luggage hooks when asking about performance across the torque band.

Perhaps it would help if there were more women in the auto industry, in design and manufacturing as well as sales. At present, only a quarter of employees in the industry are women.

If car companies are serious about engaging with women in a truly meaningful fashion, then they need to think seriously about methods that stray from the traditional.

Holden and Subaru, for example, are using pop-up shops in metropolitan shopping centres where women can browse, ask questions and are not pressured to make a decision right away.

Women tend to reach out to family, friends, colleagues and social influencers more than motoring experts when they are making a decision about a new car, seeking independent voices rather than invested ones.

Some companies are embracing this, acting quickly to establish themselves as lifestyle brands.

There is still more that can be done, however, to make the car purchasing experience rewarding for women.

Luxury brands like AudiBMW and Mercedes-Benz use ambassadors to good effect, others like VW and Hyundai have invested in travel and lifestyle bloggers, while Kia and Subaru have gone the sponsorship route.

The 'Mercedes Me' stores, where café culture meets the Mercedes-Benz lifestyle, offers a casual, relaxed environment to experience food, art, culture and design, and perhaps even cars.

There is still more that can be done, however, to make the car purchasing experience rewarding for women including in the online space.

Women do much of their motoring research online, and extending those spaces to perhaps offer more interactive online purchases could counteract some of the angst experienced at dealerships.

With more than 50 car brands in Australia, competition is fierce across a number of segments. One would think the female dollar and decision-making influence would be worth courting.

Love or hate? Tell us about your new car shopping experiences in the comments section below.