When it comes to spending, dad gets the hook

Studies show moms still control bulk of purchase decisions in the home

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A flurry of ads in recent weeks urged us to remember our Father's Day gift-list with such items as bright-colored polo shirts, fashion-savvy ties, sleek power tools and edgy wireless phones.

But it's the one and only time each year that dads get to revel in the consumer marketing spotlight. Come tomorrow, moms once again rule.

Beyond serving as the focus of shopping for a single Sunday in June, fathers aren't considered much of a force in the world of mass purchasing. Some may still get the last word on a new family car or which beer to stock in the refrigerator, but mom remains the power buyer in an overwhelming majority of households, say marketing experts.

Despite the rise of two-income families that has prompted more men to handle traditional female tasks such as grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking and laundry, women still make 80 percent to 85 percent of family purchases, according to several studies. This highly-sought-after female sector spends $1.7 trillion annually, says research by Ketchum, a communications agency.

"[Moms'] influence is being driven by them bringing more income into the family, so they have more to say about how the family spends" even in traditional dad-dominated categories such as automobiles and do-it-yourself gadgets, said Kelley Skoloda, partner and associate director of Ketchum's Pittsburgh office and director of the firm's global brand marketing practice.

"The clients we work with are trying to wrap their heads around how you reach the female purchaser. That's who spends the money."

Among the big brands employing some nontraditional tactics to lure moms are fast-food chains KFC and McDonald's.

KFC created a "Moms Matter! Advisory Board" last year to gain input from 13 women with diverse economic backgrounds from around the country. KFC flies the group to its Louisville, Ky., headquarters twice a year for meetings, where they discuss how to make Kentucky Fried Chicken and its side menu items healthier. They also exchange ideas on ways to reduce stress and how to promote more sit-down family dinners.

Participants in McDonald's "Global Moms Panel" receive a stipend for advising the chain on its products and representing it at official company events. To help combat intense criticism that its products contribute to childhood obesity, the chain also is assembling a group of moms who will take "field trips" to farms and suppliers where it obtains ingredients. Those moms will then participate in public forums, Internet chat rooms and possibly blogs to spread what McDonald's hopes will be favorable reviews to other moms about its food and how it's made.

At least part of what drives moms' growing influence is the Internet, said Ame Wadler, chief strategic officer for public relations firm Burson-Marsteller in New York.

Burson dubbed one highly desirable purchasing group "Mom-fluentials," describing them as both working and stay-at-home mothers who wield enormous power in shaping consumer opinion because they share positive and negative information about products and services through e-mails and blogs, as well as face-to-face conversations.

"We've known that moms are the decision-makers in the grocery store and hold the gate to the family's health-care decisions," said Ms. Wadler. "Now we're finding mom is the decision-maker in a lot more places than we thought initially: family entertainment events, charities the family engages with, education."

Another factor that has contributed to moms becoming the biggest target for consumer marketers, she said, is the number of them who now hold jobs outside the home.

"Marketers had to figure out how to reach them once they left home and got into the workplace. A lot of energy was spent on how to get to mom."

Then there are the millions of mothers who don't work outside the home -- 11 million, according to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That compares with 143,000 fathers who stay at home and run the household.

Ms. Wadler, who works full time and is a mother of two sons, acknowledged that "people have lost sight of dad to a degree. It's unfair. My husband does a lot of the heavy lifting [at home]. I haven't been to a dry cleaner's since I was married. But I know that's not the case with everyone. When I go down the grocery aisle, it's mostly women." Burson has no plans to research "Dad-fluentials." "Our clients are more interested in reaching moms. But marketers who are able to help dad find his voice again will win big," she said.

One group that is paying close attention to dads is the National Fatherhood Initiative. Vincent DiCaro, director of public affairs for the Gaithersburg, Md.-based group, called the overwhelming focus on moms as consumers "short-sighted."

"It's a huge missed opportunity not to tap into a huge market of fathers. Moms may be the primary decision-maker today, but dads are becoming more and more involved."

The group hands out annual awards to corporations that it believes do a good job of portraying fathers positively in ads and commercials.

Recent winners have included General Mills for Cheerios cereal spots that show fathers and grandfathers with kids; and J.P. Morgan & Co. for its Chase credit card commercials, "Wedding" and "Life" that feature a father and daughter at her wedding and a college graduate as he marries and has children and grandchildren.

The Chase commercials might not seem unusual in their characterizations of fathers because financial products are among the few categories where marketers still believe men have more purchasing control.

Other traditional male categories include cars, beer, season sports tickets and luxuries such as fountain pens, cigars and wine, said Dan Droz who runs a Pittsburgh marketing, branding and advertising firm.

"The model where mom stays at home and the guy goes to work and makes the money is substantially outdated. Divorce rates are rising so you have so much buying power in women's control. And as women get older, they control a greater portion of household wealth [because men on average die sooner]."

While's there's plenty of advertising targeted to men, most of it doesn't focus on their roles as fathers, said Bridget Brennan, a Chicago-based consultant who specializes in marketing to women and who co-founded the national Marketing to Moms Coalition.

"You rarely see men interacting with their families, and when you do, the ads are actually targeting the women."

One significant exception, she said, is the "Generations" ad campaign for Swiss watchmaker, Patek Philippe. The black and white ads, which appear in upscale publications such as The New York Times Magazine, include photos of a father helping his son with homework and a father helping his son steer a motor boat.

Those kind of heart-tugging images might actually appeal to women more than men, she said, because "it's the ideal family situation women hope for."

Peter Boatwright, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, worked at Kraft Foods in the 1990s conducting market research on pricing. Although the food giant talked about developing a good strategy to reach more men, it didn't happen.

"They said it would be great if we could talk to the men, but the numbers didn't add up to do it."

Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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