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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 5:14 pm

Wooing women behind wheel

Drew Harwell Washington Post

DETROIT – Women are the auto world’s fastest-growing audience. But in the marketing for luxury coupes and high-octane supercars at the Detroit auto show, you’d find that women, instead of driving, were mostly confined to model heels or passenger seats.

Even as women rise to power at the country’s biggest automakers and help set new sales records for cars and trucks, the auto world still struggles to represent anyone other than just car guys.

"It’s somewhat transformational. (The industry is) seeing women aren’t just getting in the side doors of these trucks. They’re buying them, driving them, using them," said Marc Bland, a vice president for IHS Automotive, an industry research group. "The manufacturers have recognized it’s time to change some of the stereotypical approaches.  But change, as always, takes time."

Women bought nearly 40 percent of the more than 16 million cars and trucks sold nationwide last year, up from about 36 percent five years ago, J.D. Power data show. Citing a study that said women spend $300 billion a year on vehicles and maintenance, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group of top automakers, called women "the engine of the auto economy."

But men’s influence on autos is still strong. Nine out of 10 car salespeople at dealerships are men, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, and women account for less than a third of the attendees at auto shows, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Female focus groups routinely tell surveyors they feel misunderstood by the grit and machismo of modern car marketing. "The automotive industry is an old boys’ club in many respects," said Melody Lee, a director of brand and reputation strategy for Cadillac.

In an industry where only 3 percent of the executive positions are filled with women, they have also taken on higher profiles at the automakers’ top ranks, led by Mary Barra, the first female chief executive of a major car company, taking over America’s largest automaker, General Motors, last year.

Women also power one of the biggest truck brands (Ram, which Becky Blanchard took over as director this month), oversee the best-selling truck line in North America (the Ford F-150, run by lead engineer Jackie DiMarco, who started at Ford as a designer of 3.8-liter engines) and are credited with some of the truck world’s top designs (the Chevrolet Colorado, led by vehicle chief engineer Anita Burke, was named Motor Trend magazine’s 2015 truck of the year). One of the stars of the show, Acura’s stylish NSX supercar, was designed by Michelle Christensen, the company’s first female exterior designer.

After a strong year for auto sales, this year’s show has focused largely on performance, sports and supercars, breaking away from years of recession-era focuses on smaller sedans and green vehicles. But to keep the momentum going, analysts said automakers will need to pay attention to vehicles that sell better with women, including the compact crossover SUV, which now commands 12 percent of the country’s auto sales, about the size of the market share for full-size pickups.

Unlike trucks, crossovers’ sales volume has grown nearly 80 percent since 2007, according to data compiled by Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. And IHS Automotive records show most registrations for top SUV and crossover models, like the Toyota Rav4 and Nissan Rogue, are in the names of female drivers.

That has led some of the auto world’s top players to expand their focus. Tesla’s billionaire chief executive, Elon Musk, said in June that the all-electric carmaker would be "paying more attention to the needs of women" for its SUV-minivan mix Model X.

Tesla designers also convened a panel of women at the company’s Palo Alto, California, headquarters last year to survey which aspects of the Model X women found most appealing; more than half of its orders so far have come from women, Musk has said.

A Nissan executive said last summer that women make the final decision in more than 60 percent of new-car purchases. And reaching young women is even more crucial for automakers looking to lock in lifetime drivers: 64 percent of women between ages 22 and 30 said they had bought a car or truck, compared with 44 percent of millennial men, according to a 2011 nationwide survey by communications firm Capstrat.

Automakers have tried different ways to keep their female audience involved. Buick partnered with the Food Network to display cars at food and wine festivals. Ford launched a sweepstakes with clothing-rental company Rent the Runway.

Still, marketing specifically to women carries the danger of talking down to a highly varied national audience.

Miss the mark, analysts said, and your brand risks characterizing all of America’s more than 100 million female drivers as minivan soccer moms – or worse.