The Case of the Missing Female Carbuyer

Automotive marketing is reaching a fork in the road as governments set dates for banning the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles, and the public’s appetite for electric cars grows. For manufacturers whose lower-cost petrol models still make up a high proportion of sales, striking the right balance when it comes to messaging is becoming an ever more delicate affair, as they strive to appeal to consumers with a growing eco-conscience, and at the same time remain mindful that we’re living through a cost of living crisis. But while getting this balance right is undoubtedly important, I have to ask: doesn’t the fact that the industry as a whole still tips dramatically towards ‘default male’ in its marketing provide the most obvious example of a need for an equilibrium reset?


A uniquely gender-blind industry?

Today, according to the DVLA, women make up 48% of all motorists in the UK. Research by our female-focused studio WMN suggests that just over half of those – 8.5M female drivers –  believe that the auto industry doesn’t understand them.  Another jaw-drop stat from our research: 8 out of 10 British women can’t name a single car brand they feel does a good job of marketing to women. And if that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, think of this: women currently buy 54% of the cars in the United States and are set to make up the majority of purchases in the UK within the next decade. As Camilla Ellerton, consumer marketing director for AutoTrader, succinctly puts it, “Forget, for one moment, the sexism: it’s just financially bizarre and isn’t replicated in any other industry today.” 

It goes without saying then (but I will, and I’ll put a positive spin on it just because I’m feeling generous): the opportunity for the entire auto industry – and specifically marketing – to better serve women is immense. 


It goes without saying then (but I will, and I’ll put a positive spin on it just because I’m feeling generous): the opportunity for the entire auto industry – and specifically marketing – to better serve women is immense. 

So, where does the challenge lie if we’re to grasp this opportunity? With retailers? Manufacturers? Marketers and advertisers? The media, more generally? Ultimately, of course, we need a multifaceted approach. For one, women feel unseen in part due to widespread social stereotyping, which unsurprisingly tends to play through to advertising – but also shows up when journalists myopically default to male drivers as their audience (of approximately 250 automotive journalists in the UK, about 10 are women so … go figure.) For another, there just aren’t enough women in senior roles in the auto industry who can help chart a better path – just 20 per cent of the car industry’s workforce in the UK is female, falling to just 10 per cent at board level and car dealerships.  

Getting media right

And finally, there’s the issue of how automotive brands have yet to really get to grips with where they should be showing up if they’re trying to reach women. (Big hint: it’s not in legacy media. This is one of the reasons why there’s a lot of love for the Vogue partnership that premium Korean brand Genesis created, to promote its electrified GV70 model – a delicious piece of road trip-meets-marketing content, fronted by automotive journalist & Auto Trader’s editorial director Erin Baker). Meghan Sinclair, brand and communications director at carwow, whose 2023 research confirmed it’s these three core areas driving women’s belief that the automotive industry is geared more towards men, agrees that the problem – but also the solution – is wide-ranging: “I think the challenge really touches the entire industry. There’s no one part of it that’s untouched… or can say it’s ‘job done’”.

Of course, the tendency to default to stereotypes isn’t only about female misrepresentation. Think of the hypermasculinity that dominates so much car advertising – all moody mountainscapes and powerful machines dramatically conquering icy roads, which, as AutoTrader revealed, even 58% of men find off-putting. Think too of the absence of older drivers who, as Sinclair reminds us, are more typical car buyers simply because cars are expensive purchases, “Where are the drivers in retirement, taking their EVs to go and do their hobbies in retirement – that’s inspirational. But then yes, where are the dads taking their daughters to football practice on the weekend or doing a weekly shop?” 

Ellerton goes a step further, suggesting that the auto marketer’s idea of what it means to break stereotypes is incredibly baseline, “When you see a woman behind the wheel of a car and a man in the passenger seat, it always feels like a brave subversion of expectations, which is frustrating to see when the nearest industries, such as the tech world, wouldn’t consider such a  campaign to be breaking any boundaries.”  Jade-Elise Taylor, head of marketing at Genesis Motor UK agrees, “I honestly couldn’t say that any brand has managed to challenge the male as a default idea successfully yet in broadcast media, although many brands are taking steps. Challenging a decades-old approach will take time and careful consideration to ensure it feels genuine,” adding that for broad-scale advertising to land as authentic with the female audience, it needs to be backed up with a purchase and ownership journey that has evolved to consider their actual needs, she continues.

EV marketing – a chance to start over?

So, if the rise of electric vehicles represents a turning point in more general marketing terms, could it also be an opportunity to address the proven gender bias in the category, to get auto marketing to women right, finally? Referencing carwow’s recent research, which revealed the number one concern around EVs for women was cost – hello money gender gap? – while for men, it was tech reliability, Sinclair throws down the gauntlet: “We need to make sure we’re taking women with us too and not just marketing EVs as we did petrol or diesel cars in years gone by. Importantly, brands need to be mindful of different consumers’ reasons for not going EV and really invest in comms that address those challenges differently, rather than treating all potential EV buyers as one homogeneous group.”

Echoing this sentiment, Taylor describes how the company is committed to incorporating public feedback off the back of the Erin Baker Vogue article, and Genesis’ series of women-focused EV events, as it continues to learn more about female car buyers, what motivates them and how they want to interact, “It’s something we aim to use to further inform our approach to broad-scale media, creative and messaging at a deeper and more genuine level.”

As a whole though, Ellerton worries that the industry still has a long way to go to demonstrate it’s learned its lessons. Pointing to evidence in AutoTrader’s recent report, which reveals both manufacturers and retailers are still using car jargon in their content and marketing and still relying on car-legacy media platforms to broadcast their messages, she says, “You would think the consumer gender gap would naturally be narrowing, now that we have a product with a narrative around lifestyle and sustainability rather than engineering and powertrains. But actually, it’s widening because women are being left out of the conversation.”

So does that bring us back to representation – the small percentage of senior women in the industry as a whole and in marketing more specifically? Will getting more women into auto make a difference? The range of roles that span the automotive sector is vast, from R&D to design, sustainability, engineering, PR, marketing, journalism, and, of course, ultimately, vehicle sales. Given that it’s well understood a more diverse leadership will help ensure a brand can connect authentically with a diverse audience, it does stand to reason that getting more women into those senior decision-making roles is key. The same is true for consumer-facing female employees – the industry needs more, and to give them more visibility, one of the reasons Auto Trader champions this kind of change through its igniting Change initiative, supporting women to overcome barriers to growth in their organisation.  

Genesis’ Taylor recognises the auto industry is lacking when it comes to female representation, but cautions that that, in itself, won’t fix the auto gender gap, nor will box-ticking exercises when it comes to representation in advertising, Whilst I’d love to see more women in leadership roles in the industry, this shouldn’t land on laps of women to solve. And, unfortunately, simply having a female protagonist in marketing and advertising isn’t enough. What we absolutely need to do is to work together to understand what women feel is important in their purchase journey, cut out the jargon and then find authentic ways to address this in our marketing and advertising.”

Helen James for the MarketingWeek, CEO

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