When automakers organize events targeted to women they have a clear objective — selling more of their cars. These programs typically involve talking about one brand and generally one model. Not much ground is covered in getting women out on the road for the experiential aspect of driving multiple cars for the fun of it and making real-world assessments of cars paired side by side.
Hence the “chick car stigma” is born. The “chick car” is the vehicle in the carmaker’s lineup that dealers push on women shoppers, but that automakers work hard to make gender neutral in fear of an old industry saying: You can sell a man's car to a woman, but not a woman's car to men, i.e., the soccer-mom minivan.
When I’ve asked marketers about selling to women the response has been that they don’t define customers by gender demographics, but by “lifestyle.” However, most still track the gender of their customers, which suggests that “lifestyle” isn’t the only aspect they think about when they’re building a new car.
But what would happen if women had shopping options handed to them on a silver plate? What if women (who are not mechanics or race car drivers) showed up at an automotive event and had a dozen cars to choose from to test drive?
That’s exactly what happened last month when a group of 30 women gathered in the mountainous desert of central Oregon at the third annual Heels & Wheels event, to discuss how women drive and buy cars. While the name implies a frothy approach to uber-masculine car culture, the mood was decidedly was more Gloria Steinem than Real Housewives by nature. Within the auto industry there are surprisingly few initiatives focused on bringing women in the media together to talk about cars as a broad subject.
The process of covering this business for women is tricky. I’m a woman journalist who has written about cars for a decade for various publications, but I rarely write exclusively for women readers. Several editors of major women’s magazines have told me that women just don’t care to read about cars. (Automotive advertising in these publications suggests the car companies haven’t given up on wooing them.) And statistics show there's a need: More women than men hold driver's licenses in the United States. The marketing departments like to say that women influence 80 percent of purchase decisions and sign off on over half of all car buying.
Heels & Wheels is coordinated by Christine Overstreet, a veteran public relations and event planner in the automotive industry. She invited automotive journalists, mom bloggers, car company public relations reps and one high ranking automotive engineering boss to talk cars for three days. What emerged was a broader picture of how women’s tastes and needs vary, and how much of that ground has never been properly explored.
Automotive sponsors arranged for cars to be driven from Portland to central Oregon and available for an entire day of test-driving on curvy mountainous roads surrounding the cozy cabins at the Brasada Ranch. The vehicles included a manual transmission Buick Verano, a Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, an Aston Martin DB-9, Mitsubishi Outlander GT, Mazda6, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Dart GT, Kia Cadenza, Hyundai Sante Fe and a Mini Cooper Convertible. The car companies wisely left the station wagons and minivans out.
It's hard to talk about women and the auto industry without noting the distinct lack of women in top executive rolls, especially on the engineering and business side. Chris Barman, vehicle line director for Chrysler’s C and D segments, is an exception. She is in charge of defining the engineering requirements in the 2014 Jeep Cherokee that goes on sale later this year. She provided an overview the basic engineering and interior features, but in her walk around of the vehicle she also explained, “I don’t have a deep voice. The quiet cabin enables me to do business, so people can hear me.” Barman also pointed out the needs of single mothers who drive, something I’ve never heard addressed in a formal presentation.
“I like bringing the women together in an environment they’re comfortable in,” said Overstreet. “It’s eye opening, the car ladies look at it from one perspective, while the social media look at it from another. They inform each other.”
There were red-heel shaped ice cubes, but for the most part, Heels & Wheels kept the tone practical and focused on the culture of women and cars. The ergonomics of seats was a hot topic in a round table, but the overall consensus was that real women are all over the map in their automotive preferences – except on one point. At the end of the event, the car that had all the women buzzing was the Aston Martin DB9, as un-chick as you can get.