The word mother is emotive and a concept that the marketing industry has all too often sought to portray through a series of well-worn cliches and stereotypes both in terms of women's profile and the products in which they are interested.
Yet the statistics confirm that such images are outmoded; women account for more than 60% of new car buyers and 80% of all consumer-goods purchasing decisions, according to business author Tom Peters. In short, they wield control over a high proportion of a household's budget. Mothers are an even greater source of potential income for brands in several key sectors. They spend 20% more on their weekly grocery shopping than the average female main shopper and spent 8% more on their most recent holiday, according to TGI.
It might seem safe to assume, then, that advertisers have taken account of such data and are moving to a wider view of mothers and what they buy, beyond house-cleaning products and nappies. However, according to research carried out exclusively for Marketing in conjunction with parenting community website Mumsnet.com and marketing consultancy Pretty Little Head, this audience continues to suffer those hackneyed cliches of old.
The study aimed to look at a broad range of brands and campaigns, not solely those that clearly target mothers. It invited Mumsnet members to take part in an online survey and discussion forum where they were questioned about marketing and advertising, and asked to identify the celebrities and ads that stood out and more than 1000 mothers responded.
While Mumsnet's members tend to be educated to degree level, fall into a high-income bracket and be in their 30s, this AB demographic is one that many brands chase. One of the site's founders, Carrie Longton, admits that its members are also very opinionated. 'There is a different tone on Mumsnet. It's not pink or fluffy, and it can be quite combative at times,'
she says. A comment from a Mumsnet member illustrates her point. 'One thing that really saddens me is the narrow focus of marketing for women,' she complains. 'That in 2007 women are shown as being interested mainly, or wholly, in
domestic issues is pretty depressing. Women are being portrayed as domestic angels, martyrs and slaves to their families and husbands.'
When Mumsnet's members were asked whether they thought all brands, including cars, technology and financial services targeted them, less than one quarter agreed, but more than half disagreed. More than 80% also thought that brands targeting women believe they are interested only in baby, beauty or household products.
Indeed, those brands and sectors that target mothers as their core audience, predominantly fall into the categories that view them solely as house-cleaners, meal-providers and carers of children. Interestingly, it was these brands and companies, which, in theory, should have the most insight into women and mothers, that came in for most flak during the survey. These criticisms invariably were levelled at those overtly trying to target mothers by resorting to stereotypes that, ultimately, patronised the audience. One comment posted on the Mums-net discussion forum emphasises the point. 'I hate the fact that manufacturers try and make us think that the cleanliness of our loo or how our house smells is important to our identity as women, and that the worst thing that could befall us is a friend thinking our loo is smelly.'
An inherent problem with determining 'mothers' as a target audience is that brands' strategies tend to treat them as a single, homogenous group, which is, of course, inaccurate. 'There is a huge difference between mums with babies and ones with older children. Mothers can be non-working, working or part-timers,' says Helen Calcraft, managing director of ad agency MCBD. In this case, the only common ground might be that all are trying to do the best for their children. Nonetheless, different views of motherhood are emerging - ones that are as likely to be in the mould of Angelina Jolie or Madonna as the more traditional OXO mum. There is also a growing acceptance that women are no longer expected to, or indeed want to, forget about the things in which they were interested before they had children.
'We are too reliant on classic demographics - the TGI view of the world,' says Calcraft. 'It's awful stereotyping and even if you fit the stereotype, you're liable to rebel. It's about mindset rather than demographics.'
The use of famous mothers as brand ambassadors is another bone of contention. Longton at Mumsnet admits that questions surrounding the celebrity issue antagonise the site's demographic. 'I don't think most aspire to be a celebrity parent. They don't say, "I wish I had her parenting style". They look to their peer group for that,' she says.
Boots was one brand that fared well in the Mumsnet survey, ranked by respondents as second, behind Marks & Spencer, as a brand that 'did a good job' of marketing to mothers. Its success will be welcome news to the retailer, given that about 80% of its customers and more than 90% of its Advantage loyalty-card holders are women.
According to Lara Purcell, head of beauty and seasonal marketing at Boots, the brand avoids cliches by building campaigns around genuine customer insight, and ensuring its advertising is honest and straightforward. 'Our approach is customer-led, so we can be confident that we are talking about relevant issues in an appropriate tone of voice,' she says. 'In marketing beauty, it is essential to hit the right balance between aspirational and attainable beauty in terms of the woman we cast.'
Purcell believes many brands fail to demonstrate they understand what women want. 'The bulk of women featured in FMCG advertising have little relevance to the average women. If you are bombarded with images of flawless, super-slim, famous women, it can feel depressing rather than inspiring.'
Perhaps one reason Boots fared so well was because the retailer has not fallen into the trap of sticking with a single formula. 'We review each campaign on a multitude of measures, such as the relevance of the insight, level of enjoyment, clarity of the message and how the ad made the customer feel about Boots,' says Purcell. 'We don't always get it just right, but we do try and learn what to improve on.'
Not surprisingly, the beauty industry came in for a torrent of criticism in the Mumsnet research, with the exception of Dove. Its 'real beauty' positioning and use of women across a range of shapes and sizes in its ads has given it stand-out from the size-zero, flawless models that are the norm.
Indeed, Longton admits that Mumsnet members like to see women 'who look like they eat'. One respondent chided marketers for using 'overly thin women who have had cosmetic surgery, especially when they are pretending they are mothers'.
The common denominator between Boots and Dove is that they have succeeded in treading a careful line so that their communications appeal to all women - mothers and non-mothers alike. This demonstrates an understanding that the arrival of children does not exclude an interest in looking good.
Tamara Gillan, managing director of consultancy SPF15, has worked with Superdrug on marketing that had a similar aim. 'It targeted single girls and "yummy mummies". Both are interested in beauty and we drew them in equal numbers with the same campaign,' she says.
Car insurance is a less obvious female market, which made the launch of Sheilas' Wheels, a brand aimed at women, in October 2005 all the more notable. Its pink image and annoyingly catchy ad theme tune have ensured high standout, but not universal popularity; it was ranked twelfth in the list of brands that have failed to market well to mothers.
However, Chris Bowden, marketing director for Sheilas' Wheels, believes it has avoided the stereotypes. 'From the onset, the brand aimed to speak to women in a way that no other car insurer had done before. We wanted to bring originality and humour to insurance, which is often seen as dull and a somewhat resented purchase,' he says. 'Our research shows that through our kitsch advertising, the brand has on the whole transcended issues regarding patronisation of women. The brand is about the empowerment of women.'
The findings of the Mumsnet survey certainly highlighted an unresolved problem in that mothers continue to feel patronised by much of the advertising aimed at them. So why are brands still getting it so wrong? A common conjecture is that it is the result of the male-dominated hierarchy in agencies and client companies alike. Niall FitzGerald, former chairman of Unilever and senior manager responsible for Persil during the Persil Power debacle of the 90s, once famously said he knew the company had got it wrong when out of 30 of the company's finest brains, who were trying to work out how to handle the rotting-clothes crisis, not one of them did their own laundry. They simply did not understand their consumer.
Gillan, too, gives the argument some credence. 'The industry is staffed by male account planners and creatives,' she says. 'Producing campaigns is not rocket science, but it does make a difference. It's the subtlety of communication that really connects. But there has, of course, been good stuff created by men.'
But Jane Cunningham, co-founder of Pretty Little Head, says it's less to do with the gender of those behind the products than it is to do with a lack of knowledge. 'There's a huge opportunity to target mothers, but a lack of genuine understanding of what persuades them to buy things.'
She explains that when it comes to men's and women's hardwiring, in terms of men it is about being analytical, logical, using competitive claims, product one-upmanship and status, while for women it relates to shared purpose, collaboration, sensory and aesthetics. The latter set, says Cunningham, is not so prevalent in marketing. 'There is a poor understanding of the female audience at this profound level, resulting in a mismatch.'
But there are some brands that elicited positive feedback. Much of the advertising Mumsnet members like best is not overtly aimed at them, such as Sony, Skoda and Honda. Even in the more traditional male markets, some brands are recognising the power of the female shopper. The use of Nicole Kidman in ads for the Nintendo DS being a case in point.
Olivia Johnson, planning director at Hooper Galton, believes that part of the problem is a lack of courage on the part of clients and agencies alike, who become trapped by a formula that works even if it is not particularly liked. 'There are lots of patronising campaigns where the dialogue is arched and staged, and the lifestyles are glib and unreal,' she says.
'The patronising stuff concentrates on nappies, grocery brands and cleaners.'
The challenge for brands is to identify the needs and aspirations of the modern mother and understand the images and messages they respond to. Invest the time to build a relationship with this audience and those needs will become clearer, allowing brands to target campaigns more effectively.
Would the use of a celebrity by a brand usually make you more or less likely to purchase the product? More 16%; Less 46%; Don't know 38%
If more likely, which celebrity would turn you off choosing a brand? Victoria Beckham/the Beckhams 20.8%; Jordan/Katie Price 17.0%; Kerry Katona 15.9%; Jade Goody 12.0%; Anyone from reality TV 6.3%
If more likely, which celebrity would you find appealing? Davina McCall 6.8%; Kate Winslet 2.4%; Fern Britton 3.8%; Jordan/Katie Price 4.4%; Victoria Beckham/the Beckhams 3.1%
Good ad: Marks & Spencer
Respondents to the Mumsnet survey named Marks & Spencer as the brand that markets best to mothers. Indeed, its womenswear advertising has been credited with helping to revive the retailer's fortunes.
'M&S uses celebrities in an empathetic female way. They're not just coat hangers and none of them is perfect. M&S understands the tonality and the importance of context,' says Jane Cunningham, co-founder of consultancy Pretty Little Head.
However, one Mumsnet respondent was less convinced by the choice of models. 'I love the M&S ads but it makes me laugh when people say that their success lies in the fact that women can "identify" with Twiggy, Erin, Myleene et al. I'd identify with the ad if it featured a knackered old bint who needs her roots doing and has baby sick down her top.'
Bad ad: Iceland
Iceland's ad campaign starring Kerry Katona, was widely disliked by the Mumsnet survey respondents. The negative response was no doubt due partly to the AB demographic of the audience surveyed, to whom Katona and her headline-grabbing antics would be anathema.
One comment, posted on the site's discussion board, said that the ads used 'the most irritating woman-targeted strapline of all time: "That's why mums go to Iceland".' It concluded: 'There are not words to convey just how wrong this is'.
'I don't think Kerry Katona is a particularly aspirational person or that women empathise with her. She's a celebrity for the sake of it,'
says Cunningham. 'The ads are about just showcasing products; it's not a sophisticated narrative. It is set up as if it's Katona in her real life, but nothing is shown that feels like that. Women are very good at decoding falseness.'