In an age of increased gender fluidity, blurred gender roles, and "femvertising," it can be a minefield to market specifically to women—especially young women. I discovered some interesting takeaways firsthand when working on a contraceptives project aimed at that target audience. Here are some lessons I learned.

Marketers talk of Millennials—a group ranging from Malala Yousafzai to Miley Cyrus—and how they are a tricky group to target, especially when a gender-specific product is at the heart of the sell. After all, many young women don't want to be targeted by gender at all.

However, there are ways around those obstacles; they just require a more sensitive and thorough methodology to discover exactly who your audience is and what they will respond positively to. The best approach is to "walk in their shoes" before offering any solutions.

Essentially, by understanding your audience and connecting on a deep level, you'll benefit from using a more human-centered design approach. Then, based on your findings, you can start to capture the right attitude for the subject you're tackling, and you can plan everything from tone of voice to the overall message.

While I was working on a campaign aimed at connecting with hard-to-crack young women, I learned four ways to engage and get our positive message across to that group.

These four methods can be used across that demographic more generally.

1. Use design-research tools

Focus groups can quickly uncover consumers' reactions to an ad or product you might want to trial, but people may not be comfortable airing their emotions or needs—particularly on sensitive issues—in that type of environment.

Thinking beyond the traditional focus group is a positive start in tackling sensitive issues, and it's a method that can be applied to any campaign. For example, when I worked on the contraceptives campaign, we asked the women to draw how they felt about their current birth control. That alternative method of research led to some very informative pictures, and it helped the women open up and engage more in a fun, relaxed way.

So, too, did asking the women to write break-up letters to their current birth control, explaining why they were done; that naturally led to a rich pool of insights on how they felt—and, essentially, what they would prefer.

Ultimately, a more sensitive, nuanced approach can reveal valuable insights and point you in the right direction to ensure your message hits home.

What's more, unlike marketing research—which tends to present consumers with ready-formed (and possibly biased) concepts and ideas—those tools, which are used frequently by designers, cut out assumptions. That means they can help marketers make more authentic observations, which lead to more valuable insights.

A similar design-led approach could work for personal finance brands, for example, looking to help Millennials and/or couples work through their financial challenges and goals to eventually decide on the best loan or savings account.

In short, more information on your audience can only help to reach them better.

2. Don't create, co-create

The role of co-creation should not be underestimated. To get to the core of an audience, it's essential that you create a dialogue with them, which ultimately allows that audience to open up enough to be honest and authentic in their dialogue and become part of the creation. Young people particularly value transparency and trust.

A good example is the line, "His ninja sperm can't touch this!" which came up in our research on the contraceptives campaign. Although it wasn't used verbatim, it did help our team understand and focus the language, imagery, and tone of voice of the campaign to make sure it resonated with the audience.

Whether you are Urban Outfitters or Oreos, co-creation is an increasingly vital tool for brands targeting young women (or all young people) who, thanks to the growth of social media, want and expect a much greater say in a brand's story. That approach generally results in increased brand engagement and trust.

3. Consider context to increase relevance

Young people today are savvier about marketing than any previous generation. If they like a campaign, they'll engage; but if they don't, they won't. As a result, you must understand the context of the audience and grasp the issues they face in their lives—something designers always consider in their work.

For example, we discovered that young people don't want to be merely bombarded with stats or medicalized language. They also do not want to see fear tactics that try toscare them into taking contraceptives. They revealed to us that those approaches only alienate and confuse them. And that can lead to an overall negative brand effect and association.

Ultimately, we must understand who the audience is and the issues that concern them.

Whether it's cultural or political, context nearly always requires brands to be brave. Get it right, and the rewards are brand relevancy and standing out from the crowd.

4. Use physical objects to help dispel myths

A design-led approach is a good way to dispel myths around brands, products, or both. For example, does leaving a tooth in a glass of Coca-Cola overnight dissolve the tooth? (Before you Google it... no, it doesn't.)

Our research revealed that misinformation had led to myths around contraceptive products, such as those having to do with size, as well as culturally ingrained fears, such as the government's supposedly tracking the devices. It really helped our audience to physically hold products and to see for themselves.

As the age-old adage goes, showing is better than telling. Imagine a health food company that actually showed people the impact that sugar or fat can have on the body. And think about laws that stipulate that graphic anti-smoking photos must be displayed on tobacco products. They do that because showing ultimately has a strong impact.

* * *

A conventional view is that design and marketing are mutually exclusive. However, an approach that blends thorough, innovative research and smart design can result in marketing that's relevant and has an "attitude" that's bang-on.

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Four Ways Design Can Help You Market to Women

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image of Stephanie Yung

Stephanie Yung is design director at Smart Design, a strategic design company. When she's not helping brands establish their long-term vision, she is a design advocate for social impact and women's issues.

LinkedIn: Stephanie Yung