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If your marketing plan for women is still focused on the Barbie-days-of-old, you might want to consider taking a page from the sports industry playbook.

A recent infographic published by MBA@UNC, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA program, shows just how much marketing to women has changed, and the sports industry is leading this trend.

In a shift from “shrink it and pink it” to female empowerment, major sports league advertisers are targeting their female fan base, due to their spending power and desire to tune into sports. Though Super Bowl and NFL sponsors have recently upped the ante to advertise to female fans, three other major sports leagues are also investing in women: the NBA, MLB, and NHL.

Recognizing the trends

Women control 70 to 80 percent of consumer purchases, which is why sports marketers have shifted their focus from targeting primarily men.

Globally, the incomes of women are predicted to reach an impressive $18 trillion by 2018, and women are expected to control the reins of almost 75 percent of discretionary spending by 2028.

In addition, women love sports—and follow them with a greater commitment than many may assume. Forty-six percent of viewers for the 2015 NFL championship game were women, which equals 46 million female fans. During the regular season, all four leagues have a lot of female viewers—ranging from 30 to 35 percent of the total.

Women also make up a large percentage of consumers when it comes to products that are advertised during regular season commercials, including beverages, apparel, insurance, and communications.

Trends by the numbers:

  • Beverages: 36 percent of sports drink purchases; 20 percent of beer purchases; and 54 percent of soda purchases are made by women
  • Apparel: 60 percent of apparel purchases are made by women
  • Insurance: 57 percent of women have life insurance
  • Communications: 88 percent of women own cell phones

For sponsors, these insights meant a major pivot in advertising, and a number of new products across all categories created to appeal to female preferences—such as Bud Light’s new Lima-A-Rita—a sweet drink in a faux cocktail package specifically designed with women in mind.

Moving beyond stereotypes

The need for business owners to move beyond stereotypes where women are concerned is highlighted by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and the founder of Lean In—a nonprofit that is committed to providing women with the ongoing inspiration and support they need to achieve their goals.

In an article for AdWeek, Sandberg says that although women control the vast majority of consumer spending in America, they feel that advertisers don’t understand them and continue to promote ineffective and destructive stereotypes.

She says such trends can and should be changed.

“As industry influencers, we have the power to change these messages. Either we continue marketing in ways that perpetuate stereotypes or, instead, we use messages that educate and empower. We can continue to accept images of women being sexualized and subjugated or replace them with images of women with agency and power. Marketing more effectively to women will improve the bottom line of our companies—and lead to greater equality in our society.”

In a foreshadowing of what the sports industry has learned, Sandberg’s article—published in June of 2014—describes the progress that was being made, even then. “GoldieBlox, a small startup that makes engineering toys for girls, won a free ad slot during the Super Bowl after its video about girls building a Rube Goldberg-style machine went viral overnight.”

Using this information in your marketing plan

If there’s a high-level lesson here for your marketing efforts, it’s that you should never assume that you know who your prospects are—or what their preferences may be.

Digging into the data is essential to finding out what the reality is. If the sports league sponsors had stuck to their assumptions and good-ole-boy guns, they’d be missing out on the massive revenue opportunity that women offer.

In addition to these specifics, there are other things that business owners can learn, and an article on Glassdoor’s website highlights just a few:

1. Create a connection.

The quickest way to create a sale is to nurture a personal connection with a prospect.

Just as these sports advertisers used data to better understand their fan base—and targeted their efforts accordingly—so connecting personally with prospects can lead to better results.

Just be sure to understand who your prospects are and what they need, and use the most current data to do it.

2. People talk more about bad experiences than good ones.

It’s certainly not just an old adage; it’s a reality that can cripple your efforts.

It doesn’t matter what type of business you’re planning—this satisfaction dynamic runs the gamut of sales and service. With instant access to technology and the viral nature of social media, every company can quickly benefit from a stellar review, or cower under the pummeling of a stream of negative remarks.

3. Make your brand known.

Brand recognition is key when it comes to marketing success.

With the many outlets available today through various platforms, it’s easier than ever to get the word out about what you have to offer, and you should make the most of every opportunity for increased visibility.

Sports advertisers certainly know how to get this right—though when you’re paying $4.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime, you’re pretty committed to making sure that’s the case.

4. Consistency is king (or queen).

No matter what branding products you’re using, they have to be consistent—which also translates to the individual contacts that your company makes with prospects.

You know what they say about first impressions: you never get a chance at a second one. These sports advertisers certainly get that and make sure each impression is not only consistent but a positive one for their brands.

If the testosterone-infused sports industry can learn to better understand the needs and purchasing power that women bring to the table, it may be a good indicator of that the change Sandberg calls for is indeed evolving from “shrink it and pink it” to female empowerment.

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Molly Greenberg
Molly Greenberg

Molly Greenberg is the community content manager for MBA@UNC, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School's online MBA program. Molly was named one of Washington's 100 top tech leaders by the Washingtonian in 2015 for her in-depth media coverage of the business of higher education, education policy, education technology, and startups across the Washington, D.C., area.