A woman and her horse: the pairing that GM hopes will persuade female consumers to consider the Chevrolet line of trucks. At a time when truck ads are pushing masculinity to absurd heights, it’s a bold move. Even so, it’s a fundamentally conservative approach to a difficult marketing problem.
How do you sell pickup trucks to women? For a long time, the answer has been that you don’t. Close to 90% of pickup buyers are male, a ratio which hasn’t changed much in decades. Making the business case for attracting more women to the pickup market isn’t hard. Full-size trucks have been the prime moneymakers for Detroit for years, a market that the Japanese would like a bigger piece of as well. A skewed sex ratio means that valuable female consumer dollars are gravitating towards other, less profitable segments. In GM’s case, CUVs like the Equinox, Terrain, and Enclave have proved popular with female buyers. But pushing those consumers towards the loaded pickups on the other side of the showroom is even better news for the bottom line. Brand strategists have realized that the full-size truck is now the de facto top of the model hierarchy, at least for the Detroit 3. Upselling women into pickups and SUVs is a natural evolution of an age-old marketing scheme: turn in your smaller vehicle for a bigger, more luxurious one.
If only it were that easy. The thorny dilemma that immediately rears its head is how to market trucks to women without compromising their masculine image in the eyes of male consumers. As long as strong, rugged maleness remains the accepted paradigm for truck ads, the hands of agencies and marketing departments are tied. For the dominant manufacturers in the truck game, there’s no need to shake up the status quo on a product that already sells in droves. The companies with a smaller slice of the pie seem content to ape the strategy of the more successful brands in the hopes of gradually elevating sales. The result is an echo chamber of advertising which intentionally minimizes the role of women or excludes them entirely.
However, there are three factors which might motivate companies to pursue female truck buyers more aggressively. The first is the already-discussed temptation to upsell and broaden the pickup market generally. The second is that for a major product with such lucrative margins, the 10-15% of women who already buy new trucks is “not an insignificant number,” as Chevrolet truck marketing director Maria Rohrer explained to Business Insider back in July. Thirdly, advertising campaigns that incorporate women or themes relevant to women may influence purchasing decisions regardless of who signs on the dotted line. Although women are the direct buyers in a relatively small portion of truck sales, they influence countless more as the wives, daughters, business partners and girlfriends of male truck purchasers. Chevrolet’s “Strong” music video seems to take this influence into account. Although there’s a single female driver at around the 2:46 mark, there are many other women interspersed throughout the ad. The lyrics to the song are a paean to the sturdy blue-collar man who puts work and family above all else, a move away from the kind of brashness that characterizes Ford’s current ad series for the F-series. It’s one thing to give women a nod by putting them in the background, but how do you sell to them directly?
Chevrolet’s solution is an ad featuring a woman that explicitly eschews traditionally feminine themes. There are no kids being buckled into car seats, no painted fingernails tapping touchscreens, no group of women disembarking from a quad cab at the beach or the mall. It’s the opposite of the (in)famous Porsche “school bus” commercial, which dropped Porsche vehicles into a variety of mundane scenarios. Instead, we get a tough, independent woman hurling hay bales into the back of her new Silverado. She’s thin, youngish, and attractive, but not “pretty” or delicate: her hair is loose and wild, she has a tattoo on her wrist, and she looks at home in her cowboy boots, flannel, and sunglasses. She’s the only woman in the entire ad, outside of a quick crowd shot at the rodeo. She handles her horse and her truck entirely by herself; independence is the clear message. At the end of the day, she wins “a ribbon that goes on her wall, not in her hair.” As the author of the Business Insider piece astutely observed, and ad chief Rohrer confirmed, the narrative is designed to be “something that everyone could relate to.” And therein lies the fundamental conservatism of this approach: it seeks to attract female consumers within the existing, male-centric paradigm. There’s no serious risk of the masculinity of Chevy trucks being watered down from this ad, even though the main character is a woman. It engages women within the context of an open but overwhelmingly male-dominated activity. This is the safe approach, but is it the right one?
The issue with this spot is that the direct appeal is ultimately very narrow. Even among the women who already buy pickups, the number of rodeo-competing horse enthusiasts is tiny. And it is very remote from the lives of the small business owners, industrial professionals, and affluent suburbanites who might form the core of a new female class of truck buyers. In other words, the appeal of the ad is deep within its narrow target, but not broad. Were I asked to design my own ad campaign for pickup trucks that targeted women, I would try to choose a widely relevant situation. A woman loading up home improvement supplies would be an example. So would a female contractor visiting a job site, or a business owner making a delivery. It might be worthwhile to toss a few kids into the ad as well, but not as the main focus. A woman and her horse is a step in the right direction, but it’s not likely to get many more women to consider a truck than those that already do. That’s probably what Chevrolet was going for, but expanding the market should be a long-term strategic goal.