It’s easy to launch a product for women, right? Make it pink, add some sparkles, work the words “shopping” and “girlfriend” into your marketing copy… The ladies will come running.
As these three examples prove, targeting female clients is a dangerous undertaking. One misstep, especially in the social media age, can create a PR nightmare — or even ruin your brand entirely.
If you’re planning on selling to women anytime soon, don’t forget these cautionary tales.
In late 2010, Bic launched a line of pens “for her” — and it wasn’t long until snarky Amazon users pounced. The site’s product page for Bic Cristal For Her ball pens (which feature pastel colors, diamond-engraving and “a thin barrel designed to fit a woman's hand”) is now a gold mine for sarcastic user reviews like these:
“When I saw these I just had to have them, so I asked my Husband to buy them for me. He refused, as he said that owning a pen might make me Think, and then have Ideas Of My Own. Then I might start to Write, which would take time away from my wifely duties such as Cooking, Cleaning, and Bearing Children. Of course he was Absolutely Right, none of these tasks require a pen, and so I have to give these one star.”
“Oh my goodness — where have these been all my life? My hands are tiny, delicate and perfectly formed. I have to admit that they're more suited to activities such as petit point and kitten stroking than writing; in short, they are nothing like a man's fat, hairy mitt. Up until now I've spent countless hours sobbing that there was no writing implement designed especially for ME. I haven't actually tried one of these BIC beauties yet as they're just so adorable all I want to go is gaze at them and lick the pink one from time to time.”
It wasn't long before Ellen was skewering the pens on her talk show. Bloggers complained. A spoof @BicForHer account launched on Twitter. Media outlets picked up on the story and spread it even further.
Bic responded by … doing absolutely nothing. The pens are still on the market, and in the midst of the backlash, the company even launched a Bic For Her promo video on YouTube, which — of course — drew its own scathing comments.
On the plus side, PR 101 teachers now have a new what-not-to-do case study to teach.
Toy stores have long been divided into his and hers sections — action figures on the boys’ side; Barbies on the girls’. Where the two met in the middle — the Switzerland of toys — there were Legos, those cherished, gender-neutral blocks that can be snapped into unicorns just as well as Army tanks.
In late 2011, though, Lego decided to break its neutrality and launch a line of predominantly pink and purple blocks and miniature figurines specifically for girls. Lego Friends is built around five girlfriends and various large-eyed woodland animals. Emma’s an “expert at makeovers.” Stephanie tells girls to “dance like no one’s watching!” And Olivia busies herself by looking after a new foal. I’m not making this up.
Despite Lego’s attempt to give the girls a handful of non-female interests (Andrea cooks and plays computer games, you guys), a backlash ensued anyway. A petition on Change.com with an aim to "Tell LEGO to stop selling out girls!" gathered more than 55,000 signatures. The company’s Facebook page took a beating. Bloggers complained that the mini figurines, unlike the traditional “minifigs,” couldn’t move their body parts. "That sort of sends a message about what we expect women being able to do physically," one told NPR.
Unlike Bic, Lego acted quickly. In press releases and media interviews with senior officials, it made clear that it didn’t mean for Lego Friends to be its only option for girls.
It also backed up the products with numbers. Despite the toy’s gender-neutral rep, the company said, 90 percent of its pre-Lego Friends customers were boys. And the Lego Friends product was built using years of input from multiple focus groups made up of parents and daughters.
The company’s executives even held a meeting with the Change.com petition organizers to discuss their concerns.
The able-handling paid off. Lego Friends was the company’s fourth bestselling product line in 2012 and sales to girls tripled that year.
(AP Photo/Good Housekeeping)
In August, Bryan Goldberg, the founder of Bleacher Report, announced he had raised $6.5 million to launch Bustle, a website for women that “puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips.”
Not that big of a deal, right? Except Goldberg didn’t just announce it. He issued a lengthy statement on PandoDaily (that has since been edited) in which — while interviewing himself — he proceeded to claim that the saturated women’s publishing business was “neglected and underserved.”
He asserted that websites like Politico and Business Insider were meant for men.
And he actually said this: “Yes, we believe that a partner-track attorney can be passionate about world affairs and celebrity gossip. On the same day. During the same coffee break. And there is nothing wrong with that. Welcome to the year 2013.”
Oh, and this: “My job, as CEO, is to hire the right people. My job is to know a lot of engineers, editors, venture capitalists, and salespeople — and to bring them together. Knowing the difference between mascara, concealer, and eye-liner is not my job.”
The Internet erupted in laughter. One of my personal favorite tweets from the jeering that ensued:
@EmilyGould : o no i mistook mascara for concealer again! My eye sockets are black and greasy also idk what's going on in Eritrea. Can a website help plz
Elizabeth Spiers, a founding editor of Gawker — another website Goldberg deemed as being for men, issued a beautifully scathing open letter that criticized the announcement as well as the site’s not-so-intelligent content:
“It’s duplicative of much of the low-end women’s content and aggregation that’s already out there […] This isn’t surprising because, as Goldberg says himself, he believes it’s not his job to 'know the difference between mascara, eyeliner and concealer.' God forbid he understand the things the audience cares about while attempting to produce a publication for that same audience. It says something about his condescension towards women’s media that he thinks he doesn’t have to learn those things.
“In what other scenario would that be acceptable? Would any entrepreneur be able to get funding for a site about business in China and unequivocally state that he knew nothing about Chinese culture or business regulations in Beijing and still get funding? No. But Goldberg gets funding because these investors figure anyone can start a women’s site, because how hard is it to figure out what women want? Obviously, they want stories about obscure, confusing lady products like mascarliner and eyecealer.”
Ouch. No surprise, then, that a couple of days later, Goldberg published a second, way more humble blog apologizing for his original post. It might not have been enough, though. The young site has struggled to get off the ground, apparently. In a recent post lamenting the negative press at the site’s launch, one of the site’s contributors said that it “might not make it past tomorrow.”
For more on selling to women, see: