Sex on the brain: Why women buy differently to men

Researching and talking about biological gender differences in regards to marketing has often been labelled as politically incorrect in the past. The fact is, however, that although a lot of things can’t be explained purely by gender, there are many significant differences that simply can’t be ignored.

Over the last couple of years, brain research has found more than 200 differences between the male and the female brain in terms of structure and neurotransmitter mix. Women think, feel and buy differently than men do. They also handle more than 70% of the disposable income in most cultures. Any brand which seeks success with both genders needs to throw away their unisex approach, accept and embrace the differences.

Why women give their car a name

When we look closer at the differences in the brain, we find that (for example) hormones that are responsible for care and bonding but also softness (namely oxytocins and oestrogens) play a much more prominent role in the female brain than the male brain.

So how does this impact on their purchase behaviour?

These bonding and caring hormones typically make women more interested in building a nest and, accordingly, social topics like family and wellbeing are of higher importance when compared to their male counterparts. In retail terms this means women are the ones making purchases that directly relate to their homes and family. They are also usually the main grocery buyers in the household and 85% of all presents are bought by women.

So why do many young women give their first cars a name? Because they don’t define their car as a cold, technical product, but as a partner they want to be able to rely on.

Conversely, men typically have a higher concentration of testosterone in their brains. Although this hormone, and its impact on behaviours, has caused many controversies in the scientific and political discourse, its effect can be illustrated with some simple facts: 95% of all prisoners are men, 95% of Nobel Laureates are men and 90% of Porsche buyers are also men.

Testosterone causes an optimistic drive, euphoria and risk-taking attitude, and also more one-dimensional, straightforward, structured thinking. Men are more likely to be “step-thinkers”, taking one piece at a time, and women are more likely to be “web-thinkers”, tending to think of more things at once, in a networked fashion.

To continue the example of car purchase decisions:

If the salesman announces to the male customer with shining eyes, “Due to the 250PS motor, the car accelerates from 0 to 100 in six seconds”, it takes only some tenths of a second until the male sexual and aggression centre and the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) in the limbic system light up. On the contrary, the female brain stays cool and bored. If the salesperson modifies his pitch, e.g. by saying, “Due to the 250PS motor, the car accelerates from 0 to 100 in six seconds, which ensures that you and your family can accelerate and merge safely in traffic”, the female brain cheers up.

How to win over women’s hearts and minds

In many industries and organisations, the marketing function is still a largely male-dominated space, and marketing is often still addressed to the male target markets. There is a need to catch up with understanding and targeting women more specifically, especially in a business scenario.

The American hotel chain Wyndham, for example, multiplied its ratio of female business travellers by introducing more female-friendly services. Instead of having to deal with the occasional awkward situation in hotel bars of being approached by an admirer, women are offered to take their after work cocktail or coffee in the hotel library. There, they also find the books and magazines they are really interested in.

Implications for retail and marketing

The above differences have many implications for retail and marketing. One certainly is that the product communication needs to adapt to the different emotional and motivational cores of potential customers.

As so often in life, there are already plenty of brand champions who long ago have developed strategies that cater to these differences, while others just start thinking about them. But certainly for many there is a lot of potential tapping into the differences and drivers of the female market in a far more explicit way.

I welcome your feedback and comments below or by email to

Katharina Kuehn is director of RDG Insights, a subsidiary of Retail Doctor Group, which provides retailers and brands with the missing link between understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviours and informing the strategic branding and operational implications at the point of sale. “Innovative consumer insights are vital to the development and implementation of a truly differentiated brand strategy. How we as humans interact with brands in a meaningful and loyal way underpins the growth and profitability of all businesses.”



Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
SmartCompany Plus

Sign in

To connect a sign in method the email must match the one on your SmartCompany Plus account.
Or use your email
Forgot your password?

Want some assistance?

Contact us on: or call the hotline: +61 (03) 8623 9900.