Why brands are failing to meet the needs of single parents

Despite there being nearly three million lone-parent families in the UK, many employers and brands are still failing to meet the needs of this group.

Photo by Steven Van Loy on Unsplash

Marketing does not have a strong track record with regard to representing minority groups  – either as members of the marketing profession or in brand communications.

In December 2016, Marketing Week reported on research from Lloyds Banking Group that found only 19% of people featured in advertising were from minority groups. Of that 19% just 0.29% were single parents.

Since around a quarter of UK families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent, according to the Office for National Statistics, marketing is excluding a massive demographic.

There is no hiding from the fact that being a single parent in a fast-paced industry such as marketing can be a challenge. Although it may be more open to flexible working than some professions, it can also be demanding and require long hours at times.

Vanessa Frances, director of marketing and fundraising at The Clink Charity and also a single mother, says: “I want to be monitored on the quality of work I do rather than by how many hours I sit at my desk.

“I’ve worked harder since having my son because I feel perhaps I have more to prove. In the past, someone has made a comment about me working fewer hours but [in reality I would] leave early, do the same amount of work but take a 25% pay cut. That’s what it boils down to.”

Employing single parents

Rowan Davies, head of policy and campaigns at Mumsnet, argues: “The single biggest thing employers can offer is the willingness to consider matters with an open mind; whether that’s regular working from home, job shares, core-hours working, compressed weeks or different working patterns for school term time and holiday time.”

Autonomy over their diary is another key thing employers can provide single parents, according to Dalia Ben-Galim, head of policy at single parent charity Gingerbread. “It becomes limiting if you’re an organisation constantly scheduling morning meetings at 8:30am. The single parent becomes the one who can never make it and so they are perceived as not being part of the team.”

Companies don’t do their homework. They don’t understand that the best way to market to single parents is to understand it yourself.

Chrissie Lewandowski, Single With Kids

Davies says that although she has found Mumsnet to be a genuinely flexible and understanding employer, in the world of marketing and PR, evening events, client dinners and short-notice late working seem to be de rigeur. “Single parents with a lot of determination, family support and good careers will find workarounds but for others the obstacles could seem insurmountable,” she explains.

Ben-Galim believes the key to change will be an increase in fathers taking up parental leave. “Having men understand the pressures of having to break off to take kids to the doctors or school trips will normalise these things,” she suggests.

Revealing one’s personal circumstances and the need to arrange childcare in order to accommodate work responsibilities can also be a difficult decision, especially in a new role. The Clink Charity’s Frances claims doing so has cost her a job before.

“I went for a job interview and all the signs were that I had got it as they were picturing me in the team – until I mentioned that I would have to arrange childcare to deal with some of the travel aspect. That turned the tide. In my current job they already knew I had a son and were asking me what hours suited me best so they could tailor-make my day to suit me.”

Moving away from one-dimensional marketing

Many organisations still appear to have narrow-minded attitudes towards single parents, not only in the contexts of employment but also their product and service offerings, and their marketing. Research by Mumsnet and Saatchi & Saatchi last year found only 19% of single parents see themselves reflected in marketing images.

READ MORE: ‘Brands are creating bland marketing by failing to serve the individual needs of mums’

Chrissie Lewandowski, founder of holiday company Single With Kids, says: “As a marketing professional, the single parent ads that make me quiver are the ones that hone in on budget or imply that they’re in social housing with lots of children. Companies don’t do their homework. They don’t understand that the best way to market to single parents is to understand it yourself.”

“Tone is crucial,” adds Mumsnet’s Davies, herself also a single parent. “Single parents often spy pity or condescension in communications that are aimed at them. They perceive themselves to be durable, independent, strong and generally pretty fabulous. It’s possible that more diversity in marketing and comms would help to change the picture.”

‘Family’ tickets are often aimed at only one kind of family.

Rowan Davies, Mumsnet

Single parents also find that few brands cater specifically to their consumer needs with some seemingly going out of their way to penalise them. Lone parent families face baffling extra costs, Davies says. “To cite one constant bugbear, holidays for one adult plus kids seem to cost nearly as much as those for two, and ‘family’ tickets are often aimed at only one kind of family.”

Signs of progress are coming from sometimes surprising corners. The National Trust is cited by Gingerbread as being more forward-thinking than most when targeting lone parents with offers they actually need.

“It’s about how companies respond to the diversity of the modern family, which sparked our #wearethe1in4 campaign,” says Gingerbread’s Ben-Galim. “The National Trust is one of the few that offers different tickets for different types of families.”

“Ensuring that [attractions] are accessible and affordable to everyone is a fundamental principle for the Trust,” insists Louise McRae, membership product development manager at the National Trust. “Part of this is the recognition that not all families are the same. To this end we have two distinct family membership offers – two-adult families and single-adult families.”

Single parents pay for an adult membership, plus the same charge for up to 10 children that a two-adult family will pay on top of their joint membership.

Thinking beyond budget

Flexibility on cost is also beginning to creep into that most notorious of single-unfriendly sectors, the package travel industry. Travel providers are recognising that they should be encouraging rather than penalising single parents, with single occupier supplements having traditionally been the norm for hotels.

Thomas Cook and Jet2holidays both offer explicit single-parent discounts while a number of holiday companies catering particularly to single parents are beginning to attract attention.

Single With Kids launched on the basis of UK ‘staycations’ and predominantly camping, but its success has seen it grow into international holidays as well as a dating site, and it is now looking to expand into legal services.

Lewandowski launched the service for two reasons: “I set up Single With Kids so I could build a tribe that I could go on holiday with. We also found that many companies offered discounts but that there was nothing in the UK. Not everyone has £2,000 to spend on an overseas holiday.”

However, she notes that she was quickly disabused of her second notion, that single parents were driven solely by budget. “I was initially honing in at the cheaper end of the market but customers started coming to me saying that they would like to be able to go overseas. It’s not the budget that defined them.”

Mumsnet’s Davies explains how such a group dynamic is really important: “Lots of single parents find it difficult to get out of the house to socialise, let alone date, and playing gooseberry with happy couples can get a tad wearing, so lone parents will often welcome the chance to do something alongside others in the same boat.”

Lewandowski adds: “It wasn’t losing my husband that grated so much, it was losing my tribe of friends. Single With Kids always has a group so there is a ready made troop for both kids and adults.”

It is this sort of insight that she believes brands will miss out on when building their offering and communications if they don’t have single parents working at the company, with the freedom and flexibility to thrive.