When I teach the brand management elective to MBA students, we explore case studies of companies getting it right and wrong. One of the most common observations that keeps coming up has nothing to do with strategy and everything to do with gender. In a remarkable number of case studies, female marketers seem to outperform their male counterparts. It has become almost a running joke in some of my classes: senior male marketer produces an average or horrible marketing result; female marketer repeatedly seems to deliver a superior approach.
It might be something you have noticed, too. Chances are that the most senior and best-paid member of your marketing team is a man, but it’s equally likely that the best marketer in your team is actually a woman. If I list the top 10 marketers that I have been lucky enough to work with in the past 10 years of my consulting career, women outnumber men, even though the vast majority of my clients were male.
Why are women apparently the superior marketing sex? It’s easy to use the offensive stereotypical explanations: women like softer subjects such as marketing and are good at design and packaging. Fortunately, recent advances in our knowledge of the differences between male and female brain functions now provide a far more robust explanation for their superiority in this arena. To put it bluntly, women have a massive genetic advantage when it comes to marketing: their brains are better designed for it.
Women’s brains are built for empathy
Imagine walking into a laboratory – in front of you are two human brains, one male, one female. It would not be hard to identify which is which. The male brain on the table is about 10% larger than the female brain and has 5% more brain cells. That sounds like good news for men, but in terms of pound-for-pound processing, the female brain more than makes up for its disparity in size in other ways.
For starters, women’s brains are the default for all of us. For the first eight weeks of our existence in the womb, we all have a female brain. Then genes and sex hormones take over. In the case of boys, a huge surge in foetal testosterone results in the destruction of cells in the communication centers of the brain and the growth of cells in the sex and aggression centers. Meanwhile, the female foetus, devoid of the surge in male hormones, continues to grow unaltered.
The results are drastically different brains. In particular, women’s emerge as superior organs for communication and emotional understanding. From an early age, girls display much greater sensitivity to the suffering of others than boys, and in adult life have a far greater ability to under-stand the thoughts and feelings of others.
Girls as young as 12 months old respond more empathically to the distress of other people. When they are asked to judge when someone might have said something potentially hurtful, girls score higher than boys from the age of seven years old. Women are also more sensitive to and better at decoding non-verbal communication, picking up the most subtle nuances from tone of voice or facial expression, and judging character.
In contrast, men struggle much more with the challenge of understanding others. One recent study from Cambridge University has shown a link between the amount of testosterone a boy receives in the womb and his inability to establish eye-contact with others as a small boy. The inference is that men, having had their brains bathed in testosterone for seven months, are much less able to establish an understanding of, and connection with, others.
There is, perhaps, no more important skill for a marketer than empathy. While the media and outsiders tend to perceive marketing as a matter of spin and persuasion, the reality has always been different. It is fundamentally a challenge of understanding. Yes, later on we create advertising and packaging and other rhetorical tools, but the primary issue for all marketers is to understand their consumer and bring that understanding into the organisation. Without this basic empathy for the target market, our marketing efforts are probably going to be in vain.
It’s clear, therefore, why women have such a biological advantage when it comes to marketing. Their brains are simply better at understanding others. Male marketers are more likely to make the crucial error of assuming that their own thoughts and reactions can be extrapolated to those of the market. Female marketers, in contrast, are more likely to truly get inside the head of the market and base their strategies on the real needs of consumers.
Women’s brains produce better market research
If we were to cut a brain in half, we would discover a large mass of fibers connecting the right and left hemispheres. This connective pathway is known as the corpus callosum. It is made up of more than 200m of nerve fibers and acts as a super-highway between the two sides of the brain. These hemispheres offer very different types of processing. The right side of the brain is associated with more holistic and intuitive thinking, while the left is typically concerned with more logical and analytical functions.
In marketing, and especially in market research, there is a clear need for both types of thinking to be successful. Marketers must be able to use both qualitative and quantitative research in combination to generate insight from the market.
If a marketer uses only qualitative research, for example commissioning a series of focus groups, the results are fuzzy and unrepresentative, and should never be used as the exclusive basis for any marketing strategy. At the same time, other marketers are equally compromised by relying on only quantitative data – a major internet panel survey, for example – to understand the market. The problem with quantitative research is that it may measure precisely the response of the market, but only to the options presented by the researcher. The analysis might provide strong statistical data that variable A is more attractive than variable B, but what if variable C, which was not included in the questionnaire, was the most important one?
The secret of great market research has always been to start with qualitative research and then use the inductive insight that is generated in a more deductive, quantitative piece of subsequent research. It is a simple lesson, but one that evades many senior marketers who appear content to use either one type or the other.
Here, again, the female brain is in a superior position. Most studies of the brain have concluded that women have a larger corpus callosum than men, and therefore show a more bilateral representation of function, which decreases specialization but better integrates the two halves. Put more simply, women are able to combine and integrate their thinking between the intuitive challenge of great qualitative research (understanding what is important to the consumer) and the analytical challenge of quantitative work (measuring how important the variables are). In contrast, male marketers are more likely to use one approach or the other and thus fail to generate superior marketing insight.
Women’s brains work better for brands
One of the biggest challenges in branding is ensuring that you understand the unique issues associated with each brand. Every one is different from the next. That is why a brand is the opposite of generic. In brand management, you cannot take strategies and approaches that have worked for one brand, apply them to another and expect to be successful. Each brand has a distinct equity, different market segments and contrasting reasons for purchase. One of the biggest mistakes a marketer can make is to apply general rules to specific brands.
Once again this is a challenge to which women are far more likely to rise than men. One of the most pronounced differences between men and women is in the way that each sex processes information. The differences are clear from childhood. If you ask girls and boys to draw a picture, the girls’ drawings will be much more detailed and focused on specific elements of their subject, part by part. Boys, in contrast, tend to use more sweeping lines and less detail.
The differences stem from the male and female brain. Women are much more likely to delve into the intricacies and specific details of a problem. Men, in contrast, are more likely to rely on global rules and generalized principles.
These differences would present themselves clearly with two marketers, one male, one female, put in charge of a big brand. The male brand manager is likely to review his experiences and successes to understand his new brand and apply existing rules and strategies that he has found to work elsewhere. In contrast, the woman is better able to compartmentalize her experiences and understand the current brand and its unique elements and intrinsic features.
Women’s brains are better at brand positioning
Another key distinction between the male and female brain can be found in the way we approach problems. Women’s perceptual skills are oriented to quick, intuitive thinking. Men, in contrast, construct rules-based analyses of the natural world, inanimate objects and events. According to Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, men ‘systemize’. That is why boys are more interested in cars, trucks, planes, building blocks and mechanical toys – systems. They love putting things together and prefer toys that have clear functions.
In adulthood, this presents another problem for male marketers and another big advantage for female marketers. Perhaps the toughest challenge in branding is articulating a clear positioning statement for the brand. I have seen a plethora of brand positioning attempts, most of them amazingly bad.
One of the main reasons for the lack of traction for a brand positioning is that it is simply too long and complex. The bog-standard approach to positioning is a series of complicated levels contained with a circle or triangle. The problem with this is that it simply does not work. While the marketer feels good about their super-complex approach with brand essence, brand personality and so on, the result is far too complex and dilute to affect staff or drive any meaningful marketing strategy. In my experience, anything more than three words to define the essence of a brand renders the result pointless.
Women’s brains are more attuned to the competition
Another important challenge that faces marketers is competition. We must identify the main competitors in the market and devise strategies against them. Again, the recent discoveries about differences between the male and female brains suggest that women may also be in a superior position to perform this marketing task. Ironically, the reason for their superiority in this area stems from two things that men are better at: focus and aggression.
The most noticeable difference between the male and female brain is the amount of grey matter. Recent studies suggest that females have about 20% more grey matter as a proportion of their brains than males do. Grey matter, made up of the bodies of nerve cells and their connecting dendrites, is where the brain’s heavy lifting is done. The female brain is more densely packed with neurons and dendrites, providing processing power and more thought-linking capability.
Male brains, in contrast, are filled with more white matter made of the long arms of neurons encased in a protective film of fat, which helps distribute processing throughout the brain. It gives males superiority at spatial reasoning. White matter also carries fibers that inhibit ‘information spread’ in the cortex. This allows a single-mindedness that spatial problems require, especially difficult ones. The tougher the challenge, the more the male brain can exclude other things and focus.
Another difference between men and women is the degree of aggression they exhibit. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania claim they have evidence that shows there is a physiological reason why men are more aggressive than women. Their research indicates that the part of the brain that modulates aggression, the frontal area around the eyes, is smaller in men than it is in women. Both genders have the same ability to produce emotions, but men struggle to keep them in check as much as women can.
Combining these two differences, evolution provides us with the perfect hunter: a man who can stoke up aggression easily and focus that aggression on a particular target to the exclusion of all else. But in marketing, this is exactly the kind of response to competition that can leadto disaster. Too often, marketers fail to see the true competitive set because they fixate on a single rival that they deem to
be their main threat. Mobile brand Nokia’s current woes, for example, partly stem from its inability to see Google and Apple’s encroachment, because the Finnish company was too focused on its existing, classic competitor, Ericsson.
Women don’t talk as much about themselves
Another advantage of women over men is that they are considerably less ego-centric and talk less about themselves in public settings. The classic male leader is exemplified by Jack Welch or Steve Jobs – men who like to get into the center of the stage and speak for the brand.
In reality, the chief executive is rarely the best person to represent the brand in front of the media or consumers. Female marketers are more likely to avoid the center stage and allow the right spokes-person to represent the brand to consumers.
Take Rose-Marie Bravo, the fantastically successful chief executive of Burberry. In 10 years at the helm of the British luxury brand, Bravo gave virtually no interviews. Instead, she hired a young British designer, Christopher Bailey, as creative director, and let him represent the brand to the media. This is an approach that most male marketers struggle with. They seek the limelight and view press and PR releases as a natural place for them to step forward.
Marketers are the last people on earth that the media want to write about and are deeply unpopular with consumers, too. Founders of a brand or the people who actually make the products are usually much better received by the media and generate better PR. Female marketers are more likely to grasp this fact, whereas male marketers will reach for their jacket and tie as soon as the words ‘press launch’ are mentioned.
Women’s brains age better
Women have one final cognitive advantage – they have faster blood flow to the brain and this offsets the cognitive effects of aging. Men lose more brain tissue with age, especially in the left frontal cortex, the part of the brain that thinks about consequences and provides self-control.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine have observed tissue loss in the brains of men in their mid-40s, while women of the same age remained untouched by the ravages of age. This means that as a male marketer passes 45, his ability to control emotions and impulses gradually declines.
The implications for marketers and managers are obvious. Most people reach their most senior and influential position within an organization in their late 40s and early 50s.
The average chief executive, for example, is 55 and male. Irrespective of their former glories, these men are now likely to be experiencing significant reductions in their ability to control their impulses, just when they need that skill the most. Women, in contrast, who already had a gender advantage in being able to control anger better than men, will only increase this advantage as they age.
There are, of course, a couple of important caveats that come with any argument that women are the superior gender when it comes to marketing. First, it is, clearly, not fair to claim that all women are better than all men at marketing. Obviously we are dealing in the imprecise world of averages, and there are some very good male marketers out there.
The chances are, however, that many of these superior male marketers will possess a brain that has more female traits than the average male brain. It is also important to remember that we are discussing marketing skills exclusively. Just as I hope to have made a persuasive argument that women’s brains make them better marketers, it would be just as easy to suggest than men’s brains, with their respective differences, would make them better finance people or logistics analysts. It’s a matter of fit.
Nonetheless, I remain convinced that when it comes to marketing, women add considerably more skill, potential and overall value to an organization. Of course, many of my arguments are relative. Women are superior when it comes to marketing because their brains are better suited than their male peers.
So perhaps a fitting place to end this blog post is to ask a philosophical question: am I really arguing that women are better at marketing, or is it more a case of men being worse at it?