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Growth opportunities are everywhere—especially when industry sales have flatlined and new prospects look grim.

Sounds impossible? Not if you understand that there's a new breed of adventurous female customer waiting in the wings, ready to experience your products and services.

Every month I get calls from traditionally male-focused industries: fishing and hunting, home improvement, sporting goods, auto aftermarket, marine and boating, online gaming. Executives there are noticing a major shift in their customer base. Many women are diving into activities that were formally the testosterone-laden domain of men, and manufactures and retailers are responding with "for-women" classes, events and learning communities.

While some visible, for-women marketing efforts can lead to pale, watered-down versions of the original, a smart and tightly focused campaign tailored for female newbies can generate incredible results.

Here's the story of one company that got it right, and the lessons we can all take away from their considerable success.

Target your top prospects

In early 2004, Rutabaga (, the 28-year-old Wisconsin retail paddling company, was looking for a way to build its customer base. CEO Jeff Weidman and his staff reviewed the research from the Outdoor Industry Association and identified women (especially those new to the sport or interested in giving it a shot) as the company's number-one growth opportunity for increasing participation and sales.

To champion the new marketing-to-women effort, Weidman promoted part-time Rutabaga employee Carol Lynn Benoit to a full-time marketing position. Together, they created Water Divas—an in-store educational program for new and inexperienced women paddlers. Rutabaga publicized the May 2004 event through a series of radio ads and some savvy grassroots marketing.

At the first Water Divas event, Weidman expected about 10 participants—maybe 15, tops. Everyone was blown out of the water when 120 women showed up for the evening and purchased $5,000 in clothing.

"Many companies are tentative to really focus the time, money and staff power on women consumers, which frankly amazes me," said Weidman. "Our Water Divas are a valuable group of new customers—and they have money to spend."

Nine months later, Water Divas has created a thriving community of new female paddlers, and Rutabaga achieved a robust 10.8% growth in 2004 alone.

Know when to be visible

When you're dealing with a traditionally male product or activity, creating a for-women learning environment can make sense. The Rutabaga Water Divas program draws out tentative, first-time paddlers—the women who've always wanted to try kayaking or canoeing, but who feel overwhelmed or unsure about how to get started.

The Rutabaga team created a comfortable atmosphere that allows amateur paddlers to make mistakes, ask questions and bond with other women. So whether you're hosting an auto repair class, a home-improvement seminar or a rock-climbing clinic, all-female events work best when your customers are trying something for the first time.

Meet multiple needs

Your woman customer is almost always looking for more than just a great widget. She might be...

  • Questing—expanding her horizons by trying something new

  • Connecting—looking to build and create new friendships

  • Going inward—exploring her limits and nurturing her spirit

In a first-time environment, competition and perfect performance are low on women's priority lists. Above all, understand why your customers are buying specific products or trying a new activity. Rutabaga has a sign in its back room: "We don't sell boats. We sell time on the water."

Create community

Build opportunities to tighten your customer circles. Every Thursday, Rutabaga offers free, women-only paddle nights to encourage its new Water Divas to hit the water together.

In return, Rutabaga strengthens its customer loyalty and its reputation as the paddle authority for women. The store also reached out to lesbian customers with a rainbow sticker in the door and advertising in the "pink pages"—a local resource for the lesbian community.

Focus on learning

Most women picture themselves using your products or services long before they actually make a purchase. This is important to remember when you're planning a visible marketing project.

The Rutabaga team found that women ask more extensive, big-picture questions than their male customers. Women want to understand the paddling and safety gear. But they also want to know what shoes to wear in the boat and the best food to pack on an overnight trip, for example. Women might take longer to make a decision, but once their credit card is down they're loyal for the long-term and refer at twice the rate of men.

You'll score even more loyalty by positioning your brand as a credible learning resource, including live events, workshops or educational content in your catalogs and sales materials. Rutabaga also plays against type by having its male staff present cooking information and its female staff teach the heavy-duty, technical aspects of the Water Divas training. And the company walks its talk with a 50/50 staff gender ratio.

Invest in design and materials

Reinforce your visible marketing efforts in all your sales and promotional materials. Rutabaga branded the Water Divas program with an eye-catching logo, a designated catalog and a "Water Divas Approved" product label.

Strong graphic design shows commitment to your programs or marketing efforts, and gives customers a visual sense of your company's personality.

Don't forget the finer points

What do women notice that men often ignore? Details, details, details. Rutabaga made several seemingly small changes that attracted more women paddlers to their store, including these:

  • Woman-specific products (smaller paddles, boats, vests, etc.)

  • More women staff members on the retail floor

  • Right product mix for women, including a new clothing line moved from the back to the front of the store

  • Tidy and organized sales floor with clear signage

  • Better lighting

  • More dressing rooms—with good mirrors and lighting

  • Clean, attractive bathrooms

  • Music

  • Educational materials

  • Inventory that's organized, well displayed, fluffed and folded

  • Fresh lines in the parking lot and a spiffier entrance

Visible is worthwhile

Transparent marketing is still one of the most effective ways to satisfy all your customers in one well-executed shot. But when you've got a clear eye on your best target, your prospects are trying something new, and you want to develop a community of loyal customers, it may be time for some visible marketing.

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image of Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson ( is the CEO of ReachWomen ( She is also a coauthor of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy—And How to Increase Your Share of this Crucial Market (AMACOM, 2004).