Juliet Potter and her startup AutoChic was ahead of the game when the automotive industry was busy focusing on men
The automotive industry is one of many that have historically failed to connect with women. According to Fast Company, only 3 percent of women are creative directors, so until we achieve gender parity, ads will, for the most part, continue to have a male sensibility.
Aussie entrepreneur Juliet Potter says that even back in 2000, car commercials were being targeted at men: “It was all about the grunt, fast car driving, swinging around the corner of a mountain, all that jazz. At the time, the ‘golden rule’ of marketing cars was never target a woman as it would become a girl’s car and men wouldn’t buy it … Cars were perceived as man’s domain.” This is one of the reasons why Potter started AutoChic.com.au – a female-only car website. At the time, ecommerce stores weren’t as prolific as they are today. Potter was ahead of the market.
Interestingly, Potter was never too enthralled by cars herself. Her stepfather used to work at a car dealership; and after school, Potter would have to wait patiently in the waiting room for a ride back home after school. She says, “It was filled with car mags and grease, and I loathed it!” Ironically, despite her childhood disdain, the automotive industry is where she ended up.
About 15 years ago, she had created denim car seat covers called ‘Jeans for your Car’ with the slogan, “the only jeans that won’t make your bum look big”. Potter says these seat covers had a mobile phone pockets on the side, and came in a reusable denim bag. But there weren’t any retailers willing to sell them. Only automotive stores were willing to stock those seat covers; but that didn’t work out so well because apparently, there weren’t many women walking into those stores.
“I found this fascinating, that because they were an automotive product, they were perceived as a ‘male’ product. I simply didn’t have any other options for retail sales and so AutoChic was initially created as an online store to sell them,” says Potter.
But then two things happened: Potter’s seat covers got editorial coverage in both CarsGuide and New Idea magazine. She was inundated with purchases by women who saw the seat covers featured in New Idea. But this wasn’t the case with CarsGuide, and Potter realised that women simply weren’t reading it.
In her search for a retail environment, she approached every car company in Australia and enquired if she could her car seat covers at their dealerships. She thought it would be a perfect tool to drive women into their showrooms – but no-one saw this as an opportunity. Potter then started fielding car questions directly from the website – questions about green slips, finance, insurance and trade-ins, but the biggest question was ‘which car should I buy?’
“I realised women were inundated with choice when they were in the market for a car and found the choice confusing. Also, they had no brand loyalty, which I worked out was because car companies weren’t making a real connection in order to build a relationship,” says Potter.
“They treated women like a one-night-stand – they wanted to know all about you when you were directly in the market for a car, but otherwise ‘cue the crickets’.”
But then Potter discovered an interesting fact – women were buying more new cars than men, with women being the primary decision maker in 85 percent of all purchases. Despite statistics suggesting that women make up the dominant consumer bracket, the multibillion dollar automotive industry (valued at $21.5 billion in 2013) still paved its road to car sales with sexist and heteronormative advertisements.
Car advertisements selling to men portrayed women as sexual objects, whereas men appeared to be powerful, wealthy and dominant. Advertisements targeting women weren’t much better; it was the smaller, safer, and more affordable cars that targeted women, as they were considered not strong or intelligent enough to handle the intricately-designed, high-speed luxury cars.
But women are fully capable of negotiating the automotive world, as argued by American scholar Deborah Clarke. In her book, ‘Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America’, she stated: “if women are less invested in cars, having less of their egos tied up in them, that might explain why they are such acute observers of cars.”
Whereas many say men and women are the same in many respects, Potter insists men and women are different and that this isn’t a bad thing: “We have different emotional processes when it comes to many things and certainly within the buying process. It’s a fact. Girls read ELLE, men read WHEELS. Girls know who the latest IT girl is. It has always seemed obvious to me to let the boys be boys in their love of cars, but let women be women in a separate environment.”
This may seem like a problematic suggestion in a world that still separates men and women in various industries including technology, but equality is not the point, inclusion is. Businesses have every right to decide who their target market is. The fact that some automotive brands specifically target men isn’t an issue in-and-of itself. It becomes a problem when the dominant consumer market is ignored – there’s a lot of money to be made by appealing to women.
This means that brands should avoid letting men make the final decision on what appeals to women. The overarching purpose of AutoChic is to understand women and cater to their specific needs, the same way many brands cater to men’s needs.
“Women are inherently disinterested in cars. This creates a dilemma in marketing cars to them; so how can we engage them in something they don’t care about until they need one? This is where we come in. AutoChic makes it easy to navigate, palatable and engaging in a female-friendly environment. Plus, we listen. We were first to market with a green car of the year award because women were asking what the best car was for the environment,” says Potter.
It should be noted, however, that the importance of making adverts pique the interest of women is being recognised by some big brands. Back in 2000, Potter predicted this would happen, eventually. According to Marketing Magazine, Nissan’s global marketing chief Andy Palmer said the rise of the ‘empowered female’ is the biggest consumer trend affecting Nissan’s worldwide marketing plans.
If cars are associated with the notions of power, freedom and control, it might explain why today’s empowered women are the dominant consumers of cars. But the main problem with automotive adverts is not necessarily that it stifles the opportunity of equality between men and women, but that it doesn’t relate to modern female consumers.
“I have waited for this for many years. In the past it’s been hard to difficult to convince the industry of the power of the female market, trying to educate a male-dominated industry or to even garner a simple test-drives or an invite to a car launch,” says Potter.
“I’ve always been convinced women are a significant market for car purchases and now that’s been accepted, it’s time to start to market the site aggressively. To women. Of course.”
In a recent online survey conducted by AutoChic, 73 percent of women said they simply don’t have time to go to the dealership, even if they wanted to. AutoChic’s tagline, ‘I can’t wait to get to the car dealership. Said no woman. Ever.’ rings true for today’s busy working woman.
According to Potter, today, there’s less word-of-mouth recommendation from boyfriends, husbands or fathers. Thanks to the internet, women have the autonomy to decide which car they want.
Capitalising on this trend, AutoChic.com.au currently facilitates a car-buying service, delivering cars directly to the home or the work place for test-drives. The site arranges everything from the purchase and delivery to finance and insurance.
When it comes to design, the website doesn’t have an overwhelming presence of pink, a colour that is considered stereotypically ‘feminine’. Potter says she’s never been a fan of pink and that “there’s a fine line in being demeaning when targeting women – painting something pink isn’t the answer”.
“Women relate to cars within their lifestyle, it represents who they are and their needs. The colours and design [of the autochic.com.au] are representational of this. It’s easy to navigate, clean and simple,” says Potter.
“The forward growth of the website seems inevitable, with many roadblocks now dissipating in acceptance of women as key targets in the auto sector and within this, her concept.”
Like many entrepreneurs, when she first launched AutoChic, there was scepticism and resistance. Potter admits that there was also “a big fat enormous dose of ridicule” – something that still exists. But there is an upside
“The gender card of course got us traction; and without a marketing budget, we rode the wave. You’d be stupid not to,” says Potter.
One of the reasons why she started AutoChic by selling information, not seat covers, was because online shopping was yet to be readily embraced.
“I actually made a conscious decision to stop pushing shit uphill with this business; I realised it was pretty ahead of its time and so I had to let it tick along for a few years until we gained confidence in online shopping and until the industry really couldn’t deny that, although car enthusiast and men have a great interest in cars and kick a lot of tyres online, that women were an exception market and they were always going to turn to the internet over visiting a dealership,” says Potter.
It may have been well over a decade since Potter launched AutoChic, but she’s still moulding her revenue model. Initially, she saw AutoChic as something Drive or Carsguide could simply white label – that is, promote, stick their existing inventory or dealership behind it and hit the ground running. She knew advertising wasn’t going to be a good financial model for the long-term: “campaigns need to be integrated and AutoChic was always a branding platform. It’s a platform for car companies to engage with women directly”.
“Now, as women, particularly mums, are so time-poor and really don’t relish dragging the kids to the dealership, I see the models revenue more as a finance/insurance and car buying service. These two revenue models are currently in play along with integrated ad packages,” Potter adds.
One thing she feels would benefit the automotive industry is to add more products in dealerships.
“We (women) love a good add on – forget the fries, give me the shoes, dress, handbag and earrings. Car companies would do well to extend into on-trend products. Here we are back full-circle from the car seat cover idea! [There should be] more cross-promos with fashion or lifestyle at dealership level. I would love to work with them in doing this.”
Potter admits that she has faced adversity as a female entrepreneur operating in a male-dominant space: “I would feel completely rejected by the industry that I decided to work in.”
One of the biggest challenges for Potter has been finding external funding. She says all angel investors she has come across have been hesitant males. Added to that, she’s found it difficult to be invited to car launches or get test-drives.
“If you can’t see a brand on our site, its because they’ve refused us test drives completely,” says Potter.
The biggest non-gender-related challenge Potter has had to face is finding the time to work when there are family commitments to attend to. Her eldest son, who is 15, has been ill with a kidney disease since the age of four; and Potter has had to build her business on a laptop from the Randwick Children’s Hospital. Then again, as a mother of three, she believes she wouldn’t have been able to hold down a regular 9-to-5 job. Working for herself was the most feasible option.
Although international expansion could be on the horizon, Potter laments that AutoChic has already been duplicated in many countries: “ironically, they saw the idea and it caught on a lot faster than Australia … There’s also a lot of men who have been in the industry for years and their sons and so on [who are] at the very top signing off this stuff.”
Her advice to aspiring and budding entrepreneurs is to know that entrepreneurship is incredibly hard.
“I hate reading how easily things come to entrepreneurs. All this hearts and flowers and it happened so fast thing does not sit well with me. Sure, it does happen this way for some (most I have noticed who have funding or connected families or money) but I want the others to know when bad things happen, they happen to us all. It’s not exclusive to you although you may think it is!” she says.
“I used to think most entrepreneurs had a dream run as they never like to disclose all their mistakes in those ‘you’re so successful now’ interviews. It’s really disheartening when you’re personally pushing shit up a hill to hear that someone else has achieved so easily. I want them to know it is freaking HARD. You can meet bad people and bad stuff happens to everyone. It’s just that not everyone likes to talk about it.
Aside from networking with successful people and getting a good lawyer and accountant, Potter recommends staying upbeat: “I found it a good reality check to sit in that hospital ward. As a result I have such a great, positive approach to everything. Your ability to bounce back and be positive is key.”