May 19, 2015 / 10:34 AM / 3 years ago

Supercar makers neglect women at their peril

JONA, Switzerland (Reuters) - Supercar makers are like teenage boys at a high school dance, according to business consultant Belinda Parmar. They don’t have a clue how to speak to women.

Sonja Heiniger, 76 years old, drives her Lamborghini in Jona, Switzerland, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

They may need to learn, and quickly.

With the number of financially independent women on the rise across much of the world, high-performance carmakers risk losing a potentially big market to more adaptable rivals.

“Any woman could drive those cars,” said Sonja Heiniger, the Swiss owner of an Internet services firm who has owned four Lamborghinis and hits the racetrack in a Porsche.

“If you only address men, then that’s a pity,” the 76 year-old said as she touched the accelerator in her latest Lamborghini, a $375,000 Gallardo Super Trofeo Stradale special edition car in “rosso mars” red.

It may be more than a pity. It could prove costly.

While fewer than 10 percent of Lamborghinis and Ferraris in the United States are bought by women, the figure for Porsche -- whose sportscars tend to be cheaper -- has climbed to almost a quarter, according to forecasters IHS Automotive.

In China, one of the world’s fastest-growing car markets, Porsche makes almost 40 percent of its sales to women, helping it to become a key profit engine for parent Volkswagen.

Porsche has picked tennis star Maria Sharapova as a brand ambassador and expanded into sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), a category which has proved popular among women.

But the high-performance car industry has a long way to go.

It remains dominated by gender stereotypes, with scantily-clad models decorating the stands at car shows. And most brands make little attempt to address women -- just look at the number of car adverts in male-orientated magazines such as GQ compared with Marie-Claire and Elle that have a more female readership.

When luxury carmakers have tried to market to women, their attempts have sometimes backfired.

An Aston Martin dealership in Britain organized a “Ladies Day,” offering an Estee Lauder make-up lesson after a test drive, a move which some women criticized as patronizing.

As a result, some carmakers appear wary of trying.

“It’s like with an engineering degree which attracts more men than women, that’s just how it is,” said Lamborghini Chief Executive Stephan Winkelmann.

Sonja Heiniger, 76 years old, sits in her Lamborghini in Jona, Switzerland, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

“Males are more into the car business and the super sportscar is the pinnacle of that business.” He added he would like to see more women buyers, but would not push to attract them in order “to keep the Lamborghini DNA as pure as possible”.

FERRARI‘S FEMALE FANS

Women tend to choose cars that are smaller, cheaper and more fuel-efficient, according to a study by TrueCar.com, an automotive pricing and information website.

While that may be true as a generalization, there are women who want cars that are powerful, loaded with features and fun to drive just as much as men.

That appears to be especially the case in emerging markets.

Sonja Heiniger, 76 years old, sits in her Lamborghini in Jona, Switzerland, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

Although Ferrari sells only around 8 percent of its cars in the United States to women, the figure is about three times that in China, IHS said. Women customers in China also often opt for the more powerful and more expensive Ferrari 458 model.

“Women in China are proud of what they have achieved and let it show,” said Wolfgang Duerheimer, chief executive of Bentley, a sister brand to Porsche in the Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) stable.

The potential female customer base for high-performance cars is getting bigger. A record 197 women made Forbes’s list of billionaires this year, up from 172 in 2014, though still a small proportion of the 1,826 total, while countries such as Britain are making progress in a drive to ensure more women are represented in company boardrooms.

The car industry itself is changing, albeit slowly, with Mary Barra now the chief executive of General Motors.

According to Parmar, CEO of consultants Lady Geek which is advising carmakers such as Aston Martin and Lexus, high-end brands should consider modifications for women drivers. Aston Martin is planning a new crossover that will have a higher sitting position as well as a slightly smaller steering wheel.

“It’s about showing empathy in design so that I can get in and out of a car wearing a skirt and not feel silly,” Parmar said.

But such empathy is generally in short supply.

“It’s a miracle we still find a few vehicles interesting enough for us to buy when nearly everything -- from planning, design, marketing to customer service -- is done for men by men,” said Jane Nakagawa, managing director at U.S.-based product and market strategy consultancy Portia Consulting.

Jessica Harris, an executive at an insurance company in California, was taken aback by the lack of attention she received during a visit to a local Maserati dealer.

“The salesman kept addressing only my husband, even though I was the one asking the questions and had made it clear from the start that it was me buying a car with my own money for me to drive,” she said.

Additional reporting by Andreas Cremer in Berlin and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Mark Potter

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