Why marketers need to get to know SWANKs

Non-traditional choices for women, such as not having kids, are becoming more mainstream, which is something the industry needs to recognize, writes Mullen Lowe's chief growth officer

It was one of those advertising get-togethers where the talk gets increasingly boisterous and people air their pet theories, swap their favorite one-liners, bandy buzzwords and mine the memes of the moment: Big Data, Native Advertising, Content Marketing, Brand Storytelling and, of course, Newsjacking. So far so normal. Then amid the lively chat I heard something unfamiliar coming in my direction. "You’re such a SWANK, Naomi." SWANK? The word itself sounded like a dig but the tone was good-natured, so I dropped my customary English reserve and asked straight out: "What do you mean, SWANK? What’s SWANK?"

"You know, SWANK, S-W-A-N-K," came the answer. I must have looked a bit puzzled, because somebody spelled it out for me. "You know, Single Woman, Affluent, No Kids". 

Yes, true enough, I ticked all those boxes. It wasn’t the first time one of my ad industry co-workers had pigeonholed me as a prime candidate for some hot new segmentation. Our industry loves playing around with catchy acronyms that conjure up behavioural groupings in a pithy word or two. The all time winner must be Yuppies, which started life over 30 years ago as a way to describe young urban professionals and has turned out to have amazing staying power. It was so totally on the money that it’s long since become a normal everyday word in English and other languages. It’s just a shame other variants haven’t caught on so well yet; Who has heard anybody on TV using buppie (black urban professional), chuppie (Chinese urban professional) or guppie (gay urban professional)? HENRYs (high earners, not rich yet) and WOOFs (well-off older folk), are also yet to enter the wider conversation.

Some acronyms are dreamed up for a laugh over a few drinks, but most of the ones we come across in the advertising industry are more than just jokes. They can be a handy way to refer to real groups of consumers, especially when working on a campaign that targets a specific demographic. Most of us in the industry know examples of all the groups I mentioned above and we’ve probably even targeted them. On the other hand, while the groups they label may be recognizable, they’re too specific and sometimes too crass to gain much traction for normal everyday use.

The term SWANK might not enter mainstream media for a while yet, but you will definitely see a lot more of us in society. This is because we’re a growing phenomenon shaped round the world by some massive social and behavioral changes. What’s most striking, and most gratifying, is that SWANKs are the polar opposite of most adult women in most countries over the past few hundred years. In every place and time until now, at pretty much any age beyond puberty, most women got married, had kids and made little to no money of their own.

But there’s no need to rewind several centuries to understand this social shift — just a few decades are enough. If the aforementioned get together took place in the 70s or 80s, chances are that any women there would’ve been agency support staff — secretaries, receptionists, production assistants and the like. They may well have been single women with no kids, for sure, but affluent? Very unlikely. Few women back then reached well-paid senior positions in any industry. There certainly were women in businesses with a glitzy image, such as advertising, music, movies and TV, but the upper levels were the preserve of charismatic men.

Men still dominate senior positions because, let's face it, gender equality is still more of a worthy aspiration than a widespread reality. But let's also acknowledge what progress has been made. There are a lot more women working in well-paid senior roles, and in the advertising industry and others. No wonder: women have been quietly moving up in business for well over a decade now. While workplace gender diversity varies around the world and across cultures, the movement towards better education for women, plus well-paid work, plus contraception equals new options that never existed until very recently.

Women everywhere have taken to the education part of the equation in a big way. A decade ago, there were 1.2 women to every man in higher education in the OECD area. Now in the U.S. nearly 60% of university graduates are women, with 60% of master’s degrees and 52% of doctoral degrees going to women, according to the ICEF and OECD. And in most countries the more women are educated, the better shot they have at getting work that pays well. While they sadly still may not earn as well as men doing similar work, it’s a lot more than they would have earned at the same age 20 or 30 years ago.

Thanks to education and work, women now can command — in our own right — the sort of earning power, financial security and status that most women in the past could only get by marrying an eligible man. Of course there were other reasons for women to get hitched, but contraception has changed that too. The net effect is that all over the world we have more real choices about how we’re going to live. And it’s not just that non-traditional choices are possible, it’s that they’re becoming more normal, more mainstream.

So here’s the question that’s now on my mind, as an advertising professional: How can marketers connect with SWANKs — women like me — who work full-time, full-on, with a lot of focus, and not a lot of time for interruptions? I don’t have any quick answers yet but I’m watching out to see what works on me.

Naomi Troni is Mullen Lowe Group’s chief growth officer.

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