What makes women spill the beans?

Michael Barnett

New research examines what prompts women to recommend products and which media channels they prefer.

It is a well-worn cliché that women are more sociable than men, and in a world where brands’ reputations are increasingly formed on social media it is becoming more important to earn women’s approval. A new study by marketing agency Haygarth has now quantified how important word of mouth among women is for brands and what prompts them to tell friends about their favourite products.

Haygarth head of planning Anthony Donaldson says US surveys have found women control around four-fifths of all spending decisions, so persuading them to pass on their endorsements to others could be crucial to brands’ fortunes. According to Haygarth’s study, incentives such as free trials and promotions are important cues for recommending brands, as is the quality of the product.

The study looks at three categories that have high numbers of recommendations from women: food, alcohol and beauty. The majority have given positive reviews of brands in these categories at some time: 80 per cent have recommended a food, 58 per cent an alcoholic drink and 68 per cent a beauty product. Donaldson says it is not a surprise that food is commonly discussed: “The media has encouraged us to look for interesting ways of feeding ourselves, so it’s a category where there is lots to talk about.”

Beauty, Donaldson argues, is a “more personal category and marginally less social”, so it gets fewer mentions, while alcohol is an industry that struggles to create differentiation between brands, even though most women say they have recommended a product.

Haygarth also asked respondents in which other categories they are likely to recommend products. Restaurants are most popular, with 52 per cent of women saying there is a good chance they would tip off friends on the best places to eat, and fashion brands also perform well on 44 per cent. Cars and utility companies are less likely to be mentioned, with only 18 and 12 per cent respectively saying they are likely to talk about them.

When it comes to why women make recommendations, quality is the top answer in both the food and beauty categories. Branding and advertising rank low as influences, although survey respondents rarely admit to being influenced by marketing in any context. But an exception is beauty products - 40 per cent of women say they have recommended a product because they trust the brand. Donaldson also notes that “there tends to be a stronger emotional connection within the beauty category” than other sectors, as 45 per cent say they have told friends about a brand because it makes them feel good.

But promotions and deals are often the key reasons for recommendations: in all three categories around 60 per cent of women say they have urged friends or family to try a brand because it was on offer. Price promotions and free samples are the most effective tactics, according to the survey.

Promotions should be thought of not just as a way of pushing up sales volumes, but also earning future loyal customers, says Donaldson. “Brands that use promotional activity to take the risk out of trying a new product make it easier to drive [people to trial it], but it also engenders a warmth about the brand if it then goes on to meet their criteria in terms of price, taste and quality.”

He says promotions are particularly effective when the product is quite expensive and is not often discounted. Irish liqueur Baileys is given as an example by respondents. “When you can get access through a price promotion to an alcohol brand that’s fairly expensive, that has a currency that you want to pass on,” says Donaldson.

The trap to avoid is using price promotions excessively so that they become a brand’s only selling point. This is a problem that has developed particularly in the commoditised lager and wine sectors, as Marketing Week reported recently.

When asked what actions brands can take to increase their chances of recommendation, there is no strong majority view. Price promotions and free trials again register highly, although less so in the alcohol category, suggesting drinks brands will not get much more value from greater activity in this area. Half the respondents say they are more likely to speak well of a food product that has improved in quality, while more than a third say being given a food or beauty recommendation by a friend makes them more likely to recommend the product themselves.

The role of marketing in encouraging word of mouth will always be limited by the product itself, and most women say they don’t keep in touch with consumer goods brands outside of stores. But regarding methods of communicating, brand websites, email and social media are women’s preferred options in that order, according to Haygarth’s research. Direct mail is given short shrift by comparison.

Of these communication channels, it is social media that marketers are perhaps most excited by, because of the potential to widen the reach and accelerate the spread of recommendations.

Donaldson says: “There has been a perfect storm, whereby budget restrictions have meant that marketers like the idea of enabling existing customers to recruit new ones. It’s even more appealing now and social media provides the technology to pull some of those levers.”

However, in general women prefer to decide on their own terms whether they are going to chat with friends about brands. Businesses cannot use marketing to cover up the bad qualities of a product and hope customers will still recommend it, so the most effective course of action is to ensure that a product’s best features are those most valued by women and that these are always kept in the front of their minds.

According to Donaldson, marketers must ask: “What is the back story, the provenance that creates a reason for her to give her endorsement to a pasta sauce, or a lipstick brand or bottle of wine? More importantly, why should she care about this, why is it relevant to her, how does it fit in with her lifestyle?”

But the data also suggests that in order to get women talking the quality of the product must speak for itself.

The Frontline

We ask marketers on the frontline whether our ‘trends’ research matches their experience on the ground

Caroline Harris
Marketing director
Costa Enterprises

Our research shows that at Costa we have high recommendation scores from men and women; however, women are significantly more likely to recommend us to friends and family than men. Our December YouGov study shows a recommend score for women 10 percentage points higher than for men. Women are more engaged in the whole coffee shop experience and are likely to visit for a social, relaxing occasion and have longer dwell times.

Our YouGov study also shows that women are more likely to recommend soft drinks and online takeaways, while there is no significant difference in recommendation scores between men and women in the smartphone handset and mobile phone retail chain categories.

Costa’s top three drivers of recommendation are the quality and flavour of the coffee, as well as the feeling people can stay as long as they want. Service is also very important. Coffee brand choice and recommendation are becoming increasingly based on emotional factors rather than functional convenience and price. So while value, price and promotions will all be important, they are not the key drivers.

Our Listen and Learn programme generates more than 40,000 comments every month. We use the ‘net promoter score’ and verbatim comments to inform what we do from a marketing and operational perspective. Customers who use multiple Costa propositions are more likely to feel warmth towards the Costa brand. This insight has helped inform our strategy to grow beyond the coffee shop.

Anita Kaushal
Founder
Swisscode (skincare brand)

Primarily, women notice detail and nothing shows detail more than a woman’s face. It is clearly visible for a woman to see when her peers’ eyelashes look longer, or their skin clearer, and she won’t be afraid to ask why. Women also socialise in a more collegiate fashion than men and are happy to share tips with friends, and in part this is a show of solidarity.

Although women want value for money, it’s the efficacy of the product that is paramount. Our customers like the reassurance of knowing Swisscode is backed by science and test results. Above all, it is recommended because using it has a visible positive effect on the skin, which leads women to comment and question what their friends and colleagues are using.

While we use many forms of social media, our customers prefer personal email communication. Emails are answered within two hours with a personal, detailed one-to-one response. This leads to trust, a sense of community and more repeat orders.

A limited budget means we rely heavily on social media and PR. That said, no amount of PR could compare to the word of mouth recommendations we receive, which are the lifeblood of our brand.

We’re a niche brand and can’t compete in advertising and promotional spend with the big boys. Our approach is to do one thing well and cost effectively. Our customers receive a free sample on their third order and we find a majority return to buy their first product, the sample and ask for recommendations on a third.

Sam Lindo
Winemaker
Camel Valley Vineyard

The only money we spend on marketing is on leaflets in Cornwall where we’re based; the rest is word of mouth, and the good things are picked up by the press.

We do tours for up to 50 people - people to whom you can give the message you want.

We’re located in a busy holiday area, so we get visitors who have heard about us in the wine world and those who see a sign for our vineyard.

We have never considered targeting men or women. We have a broad appeal: on the one hand we make good wine that experts and enthusiasts appreciate, but on the other we like to think we can introduce it to anyone.

In recent years, a few English producers have done well in international competitions. That has allowed people to write about English wine not just as a curiosity but as a serious thing.

We speak to people through Twitter, but we have never used mailshots, emails or newsletters because readers can get saturated with things like that. Customers look us up on the website or read about us in a newspaper and they might order, but generally they like to come here and look around first.

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