The numbers are staggering. Though women make up only 51% of the population, they make 90% of household purchase decisions. Not only is this a massive amount of buying power held by only one gender, women are also more engaged with advertising overall than men are: gender-neutral ads perform 35% better with women than with men. “Women can turn a brand into a market leader, and brands that can't keep up are set to lose out on customer loyalty, and ultimately equity and sales,” concluded Ad Age in a 2016 article.
Yet branding and advertising specifically designed to attract women often backfires with embarrassing results. In 2018, McDonald’s flipped their iconic M into a W to commemorate International Women’s Day; this was criticized for generic “McFeminism” rather than seen as making an authentic attempt to connect to female consumers. In 2012, the internet was entertained with snarky, faux Amazon reviews for “Bic for Her,” an angry rejoinder to the disastrous attempt by the pen manufacturer to appeal to women through pastel-colored writing tools.
Earlier this month, PR Week lamented the predictability of brands that leverage International Women’s Day without actually supporting women: “It's the time of year again, when brands tout their female staffers in photo ops and shout vague messaging about women being superheroes… It's nice to acknowledge your female staff and consumers, but shouldn't you be doing that all year round anyway?”
The good news is that there are brands who are doing that all year round. We took a deep dive into our Facebook data to uncover the advertisers targeting female audiences in 2019 and 2020.
Out of the nearly 300 advertisers who allocated 70% or more* of their 2020 Facebook advertising spend toward women, most of them are within the expected female-centric vertical markets such as women’s fashion brands, beauty, household goods, and baking products. Unilever surprised us, though, with a brand we never guessed would be marketed to women: Axe Body Products. Out of their $1.2M 2019 Facebook spend, 68% of ads were targeted to women. This year they appear to have upped the ante with 71% of their ads targeted to women. Though Axe does sell products for women, their top-performing creatives showcase men’s products. The catch? They’re men’s products marketed to teenage boys, whose mothers are more likely to be shopping for the household than their fathers. “You can't be a successful youth brand today if you're not coed in your approach,” commented the head of strategy at Axe’s ad agency.
Nike has long been known for championing female empowerment through their branding and advertising. A video spot dedicated to this year’s International Women’s Day posed the simple idea “one day, we won’t need this day.” Their three top-performing creatives across all devices and formats in 2019 were also videos and were all geared toward women. Two of them featured feminist icon Ilana Glazer touting their Joyride line, and one was an almost two-minute spot that highlighted some of the company’s actual female employees and the sophisticated process of developing a new Nike bra. Their approach to Facebook advertising deviates slightly. There, creatives depict a blend of male and female athletes and models, but only 37% of Nike’s Facebook ads targeted women in 2019, down to 23% in 2020.
3. Northwestern Mutual
In a 2019 Digiday article, Northwestern Mutual CMO Aditi Gokhale remarked, “In 51% of households, women are the financial decision-makers. The purchasing power of women, in general, will continue to skyrocket.” This informed the decision of Northwestern Mutual to focus more of its marketing on “real women who are reaching their financial goals,” and the company spent 52% of its 2019 Facebook budget on female-targeted ads. Their sixth-ranked site for impressions was the wedding planning site TheKnot.com. So far, their 2020 ad spend shows that only 37% of their Facebook ads target women, so we’re interested to see how they finish out the year.
4. Royal Bank of Canada
Also in the finance category is the Royal Bank of Canada, which topped our list as the brand that has spent the most on targeting women on Facebook in both 2019 and 2020. Though their Facebook spend was less than $1M in the US in 2019, 82% of their ads were targeted to women. In 2020 to date, 95% of their ads have been directed toward women. Their messaging in the US is based on “cross border banking”: financial services for Canadians who own homes in the US or who generally spend a lot of money here. Royal Bank has high regional ad spend in Florida, New York, and California, states where expats are likely to live or invest in property, and prominently feature photos of women in their creatives.
Bumble is a dating app designed by women to make app dating better for women. They launched their very first marketing campaign in 2015 with the slogan “the ball is in her court” and an image of pink tennis balls. By 2019 they had an endorsement deal with Serena Williams, a 30-second ad during the 2019 Superbowl, and made headlines for backing a bill in Texas’ state legislature for criminalizing the sharing of unsolicited nude photos. It makes complete sense that this brand would primarily advertise to women, but as a dating app, they need to build a broad consumer base of men as well. In 2019, 59% of their Facebook ads targeted female audiences, and this number has risen to 66% in 2020.
6. Pernod Ricard
Marketing decisions for The Glenlivet, a scotch brand owned by Pernod Ricard, are led by VP of Marketing Sona Barjaria. In November 2019 she described their media strategy as “trying to break traditions.” A creative introduced that same month interpreted this rather literally, with a woman striding through a hole in a broken-down wall and the voiceover “’Whiskey’s a man’s drink, for men,’ they’d cry. Let them cry,” and “Some traditions are meant to be broken. That’s how we push things forward.” While only 34% of The Glenlivet’s 2019 Facebook ads targeted female audiences, we’ve seen an uptick to 52% female targeting in 2020, indicating that they are indeed breaking traditions.
Target Women Year-Round
Rather than waiting until Women’s History Month or International Women’s Day to target female audiences, savvy brands can tap into this powerful market all year long. To gain a competitive edge, use Pathmatics' marketing intelligence tool to observe the digital advertising trends of hundreds of brands. Schedule a custom insights session and get started today.
*Note: the remaining percentage of the advertising either targets men specifically or is gender neutral.
With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.