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What Are Automakers Doing for Women? Part I: GM Reaches Out

Say you're the world's largest automaker — selling 9 million cars and trucks in 2004, with iconic brands like Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC, among others. Now let's say you wake up one day and find that women are buying 35 percent of your vehicles, influence around 80 percent of all purchases and make up 65 percent of service customers.

What do you do?

You pay attention. You start figuring out what women want in a vehicle, how to let women know about your cars and how to bring more women into the company. General Motors is doing all that, and more.

In May 2001, the company formed the GM Center of Expertise on Diversity, a marketing and sales organization. Its mandate is to deliver products, services and programs that appeal to women and minorities.

Cynthia Price, women's marketing manager within the Center, ensures that GM takes advantage of the ever-growing power of women car buyers. She has a three-tiered approach to targeting women: right features, right message and the right dealership attitude.

"Female-Friendly" Features

GM conducts market research to find out what features women want in a car. Not surprisingly, GM's research shows that women are extremely interested in safety — five-star ratings on minivans are critical — and visual appeal. Other draws include easy entry and exit, heated leather seats, remote starting capability, adjustable pedals and steering wheels, child-friendly seating configurations and unique storage capabilities.

The company then incorporates these "female-friendly" features into vehicle design.

"Our standards are higher than a man's," said Price. "If you appeal to women's needs and wants, you'll appeal to everybody."

Reaching Out to Consumers

Then, it becomes about the "right message." GM gets the word out to women about these key features through mainstream media and women's specialty magazines, e-mail, the Internet and direct mail. When GM added the OnStar emergency communications system and the StabiliTrak stability control system to every new retail car and truck sold in the United States and Canada in early 2005, it was big news.

Last year, more than 900,000 women received GM's "Women in the Driver's Seat" booklet in the mail last year. The service and maintenance guide, designed to fit into a glove compartment, included a sweepstakes entry and contained checklists, tips and answers to questions like, "What do brake noises tell you?" and "What is the difference between a recall campaign and a voluntary recall?" GM has also developed a Women in the Driver's Seat micro Web site devoted to women's concerns; it covers additional subjects, such as the purchase process and safety. When sending a message specifically to women, companies run the very real risk of alienating the very people they are trying to engage. Price says it's a difficult balance to strike.

"We might have a female racecar driver in an ad, which will appeal to women yet not be off-putting to men," she said. "The women who are interested in the information will take it, and if they find it offensive, they can walk away. It's a fine line."

Making Dealerships More Hospitable

Finally, GM spends significant energy training its dealers to work with Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and women, whose expectations may differ from those of the typical white male buyer. "This is a big challenge," said Price. "No one wants a dirty waiting room. But women make up a higher percentage of service customers. So should your waiting room be full of Playboy magazines?"

What are dealers taught about accommodating women? Price says, "Don't patronize. Talk straightforward about financing. Talk about the female-friendly features, J.D. Power ratings, safety and services you might get from the dealer, like free oil changes or loaner cars. When a man and a woman walk into a dealership together, don't focus just on the man. Engage the woman as well."

That's good advice, but it's up to the individual dealers to incorporate those practices into their everyday sales environment. "Dealers that get it, get it," Price says. Those that don't, she acknowledges, are likely to see women's dollars go elsewhere.

Supporting Women

The Center for Expertise is also involved in GM's company-wide effort to team up with organizations that support women. In January 2005 GM announced an alliance with Women in Film, the leading non-profit organization dedicated to women in the global entertainment industry, to support programs such as a college lecture series, film festivals, the Women's Film Preservation Fund and mentorship and scholarship programs, among others. The Chevrolet division joined forces with the National Safe Kids Campaign to sponsor the "Safe Kids Buckle Up" program, checking nearly 600,000 child safety seats for proper installation — and finding about 80 percent of them incorrectly installed.

GM is also succeeding in making itself a better place for women to work. In 2004, Working Mother magazine voted GM one of its "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers" in the U.S. for the 12th time, including eight out of the last 10 years.

Helping Women to Become Dealers

A feature unique to GM is its Women's Retail Initiative (WRI), which is the first and only program of its kind, according to General Director Pat Roberts. Begun in 2001, the initiative recruits, trains and places women entrepreneurs as GM dealers. It also provides financial assistance.

"We have about 7,500 dealerships; half of them are family owned and are very small. Because there's not a large opportunity for someone who isn't connected to the automotive industry to get their foot in the door, and because we need more diversity within our dealer body, we created this program," Roberts said.

Applicants don't need to have automotive experience; business acumen and drive are more important. "They've owned Taco Bells or Mrs. Fields Cookies or McDonald's franchises," Roberts said. "We look for people with an entrepreneurial spirit.

"One of our goals is to be at parity with the general dealer population in terms of profitability, customer satisfaction and market effectiveness. The women dealers are at parity." The program has more applicants than it can place: There are more women entering the formerly all-male automotive world, and there are more women with money to invest.

The WRI has appointed 111 female dealers since its inception four years ago. Once each year, graduates of the program attend a retreat to receive training on maximizing profit, but they also spend time networking and sharing strategies for managing the work/life balance.

"Typically, the gatherings for meetings are mostly male," Roberts noted. "This is the one opportunity we have to help women look at their lives and to help balance it, so we aren't one-dimensional."

Roberts finds that female dealership owners are generally more receptive to their employees' need for a work/life balance. As working women, many with children, they have often borne more than their fair share of responsibility on their own climb up the career ladder. "They have to keep all those balls in the air," she said. "[As a result], they have a sensitivity to their employees' needs, whether it's taking their child to little league or the dentist."

One Company's Approach

Although its outreach efforts are extensive, General Motors isn't the only automaker that understands the value of focusing on the role of women in everything from the car-buying process to the management of dealerships. In future months, we'll report on how different manufacturers design cars that appeal to women's needs, market those cars to the female audience and work to make their company "female-friendly."

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