The five myths of marketing to mums

Brands are failing to connect with mothers as marketing communications see them as mums first rather than women with children, a tactic that does not resonate with them.

Myths of marketing to mums

Brands have debated marketing techniques aimed at mothers at Mumstock 2015

There are five myths of marketing to mums, detailed below, that marketers must wake up to and overcome if they are to reach this group effectively.

Research from Saatchi & Saatchi, seen by Marketing Week, surveyed 865 mothers across the UK. It found that only 23 per cent are happy with anyone other than their families calling them ‘mum’, and three out of 10 agree they are ‘me first and then a mum’.

ITV director of commercial marketing and research Sarah Speake says: “As a rule, mums tend to be lumped together as one homogeneous group, which inevitably doesn’t resonate with us all. Whether a stay-at-home mum, single mum, working mum, married mum, mum of younger or older children, we all have fundamentally different requirements to make our lives easier and enable a connection or relationship.

“Brands that acknowledge these differences resonate better – where both the commonality of adoration of our children and our differences as individuals are recognised.”

Speake and Marketing Week editor Ruth Mortimer discussed the findings at this week’s Mumstock event, organised by Mumsnet in association with Saatchi & Saatchi.

It is easy to see why brands want to target mothers. According to Boston Consulting Group, women control as much as 70 per cent of household purchases and $20tr of consumer spending worldwide.

“There is a danger in focusing on the fact that people are mums. Being a mother is fundamental but it isn’t the defining thing about you”

Justine Roberts, Mumsnet

Boston Consulting also says women will be responsible for $5tr of incremental spending over the next several years – providing a greater commercial potential than the consumer economies of India and China.

Saatchi & Saatchi director of strategy Richard Huntington agrees that treating mothers as one group is unhelpful for both brands and their audience.

“Mum is a word that means an enormous amount to mothers when they think about their roles and responsibilities and the bonds of their family, but it feels as if we are trespassing on the name that children give their mothers,” he says.

And using women in advertising rarely resonates with mothers. The study shows that only 19 per cent of those in the UK believe that there are examples of mums in advertising that they can relate to and sets out a five point plan for communicating with mothers.

1. Motherhood does not define a person

Mothers today want to be recognised by much more than their children and parenting roles – motherhood is not all-consuming for women and is not the only thing that defines them.

“You don’t lose your identity just because you give birth,” says Mumsnet chief executive Justine Roberts. “Women remain women: they don’t change character simply because they become mums. Their entire focus doesn’t become about being a mother.

“There is a danger in focusing on the fact that people are mums. Being a mother is fundamental but it isn’t the defining thing about you, so if advertising shows only the motherhood bit, then it misses out on a truth, which is that you don’t completely lose your identity when you become a mother.”

Huntington says an excellent example of a brand speaking to a woman as a ‘whole person’ is John Lewis’s 2010 campaign. The ad showed a woman’s life stages from being a child to becoming a grandmother set to Fyfe Dangerfield’s cover version of ‘You’re Always a Woman to Me’.

ITV’s Speake believes that society often assumes motherhood defines women. “In my experience, that’s not how we define ourselves,” she says. “Most women are defined by their skills, abilities and passions before they consider having children.

“One of the challenges in early motherhood is often the focus on the child and not the mother, who is the same person she was previously.”

2. Mothers are not desperately seeking perfection

The research shows that 75 per cent of mothers believe a ‘perfect mum’ does not exist and it is not an aspiration of theirs, with 74 per cent agreeing that they are not perfect and they are not trying to be.

In 2005, Persil took a different stance to the traditional ‘whiter than white’ laundry advertising in its Dirt is Good campaign, encouraging children to get outdoors and enjoy life. Its most recent advert used the strapline ‘For whatever life throws’ and featured a girl being pelted with all sorts of stain-inducing food and drink.

Persil Dirt is Good campaign
Persil’s Dirt is Good campaign

Compared with the detergent ads of old showing mothers toiling away, Persil’s new approach embraces a more realistic and fun lifestyle.

Roberts at Mumsnet echoes the research findings. “I don’t think perfection exists and I’m not sure people are necessarily trying to be perfect either. Also, perfection would be a slightly odd place to be for children growing up, as it’s a lot to live up to if you have a perfect parent.”

Only 9 per cent of mums in the study say they have met a perfect mum.

Speake says: “Very few human beings are perfect, so why would a section of society be? We each have our own definitions of perfection, which are probably the most helpful in leading our behaviours.”

3. Mothers are not prudes

The study reveals that 30 per cent of mothers agree they have become more ‘mumsy’ and 28 per cent agree they have become more reserved. But only 23 per cent agree they should not talk about certain subjects, such as sex.

Huntington is frustrated with brands that think that mothers need to be treated with kid gloves with regards to humour: “I’m fed up with client briefs saying their audience isn’t into edgy humour – that they like The Vicar of Dibley. I’m not sure when The Vicar of Dibley was taken off air but clients still walk into agencies having conversations like that.”

Old Spice’s Mom Song is an example of a brand going against this (see video below). The video shows the anxiety mothers have about their sons being ‘taken away’, falling for women and leaving them as mums, but does so with humour and self-deprecation.

Car-maker Fiat launched a video featuring a mum rapping about the trials of motherhood, which features topics including infant defecation, faking orgasms and bitches – referring to female dogs – in the video.

The film (below), which has had 4.3 million YouTube views, was inspired by comments made in research groups that Fiat undertook during the planning phases for the launch of its new family range of cars. When discussing their lives, mums shared tales of the reality of being mothers, demonstrating the desire to retain their sense of style and awareness of the latest trends while at the same time tackling family challenges.

Fiat marketing manager Roberta Lombardi says: “The video resonated with mums not only in the UK but across the world. Unlike most ads, the film is a no-holds-barred portrayal of the challenges women face as they grapple with their new role as a mother. It is an edgy and humorous interpretation of everyday family life.”

Roberts at Mumsnet says that although mothers go to the site, which has five million users monthly, for information and advice, they also look for friendship and humour. She adds there is almost a ‘Virgin Mary’ effect when women become mothers.

“You find a lot of ads targeting men and dads using humour but don’t see many like that targeting women and mothers,” says Roberts. “That’s missing a trick. In the early months and years, some of the ridiculous situations that mums find themselves in, which they would never dream of if they hadn’t given birth to these strange creatures, are often hilariously funny.”

4. Motherhood is not drudgery

The research suggests marketers believe motherhood is a life of drudgery. However, 60 per cent of mums say that the best fun they have is with their children and the same number say that their kids are more fun to spend time with than most of the adults they know.

Mums are also almost twice as likely to visit photo-sharing sites such as Pinterest and Instagram than adults without children – 9 per cent versus 5 per cent – to share the fun they are having with their families.

“Whether we’re a stay-at-home or working mum, single or married, we have fundamentally different requirements”

Sarah Speake, ITV

The study advises marketers to focus on the enjoyment mums get from children. Again this is something Unilever realised when working out the ‘Dirt is Good’ strategy, according to its former global vice-president of Persil and Omo David Arkwright. Commoditisation of the category meant advertising had focused on price. At the same time, developing countries were growing and “the freer the world was becoming, the more this category seemed to be locking consumers into a life of marketing drudgery,” says Arkwright in his book ‘The Making of Dirt is Good’.

At a session during Advertising Week Europe this month, advertising agency JWT talked about how society views women. Group planning head Rachel Pashley said we still think of women in the 1950s and talked about their changing role and how advertisers need to respond.

Pashley said: “The ‘busy working mum’ stereotype still exists and pervades everything that you see.” She is campaigning to retire the term because she feels it is “reductive and out of date”.

5. Don’t forget the fathers

The suggestion that dads are clowns, or worse sideshows, in the parenting department is the final faux pas that marketers make. Sixty per cent of women say their partner is just as involved in parenting as they are – and there is no difference between the opinions of mothers who work and those who do not, so it is important not to isolate fathers but to communicate to the ‘parenting unit’.

Some brands are already making this change. This year, Birds Eye released its first ad since dropping its Clarence the Bear character, and although it is called ‘Presenting comedy dad’, it focuses neither on the mother nor father but shows the family unit at dinnertime and the conversations they have.

Birds Eye Fish Fingers
Birds Eye changed its marketing to focus on parenting and not ‘mum’.

Huntington feels that there has been a lot of dissatisfaction in the relationship between men and women with children in advertising. Now is the time to realise that it is 2014 and a more sophisticated era. He says that it is starting to focus on the more subtle cues of the teamwork between husbands and wives and partners.

Lego released a father and son-focused ad pre-Christmas 2013, called Let’s Build, and VW created an ad that shows the evolving relationship of a protective father and his daughter from the moment she comes home from hospital after being born to when he waves goodbye as she leaves for university in a VW Polo.

Brands must consider wealth, class, education and geography, rather than segmentation by how many children a family has and whether a woman works or looks after her kids full-time.

Huntington believes that if marketers continue to follow these myths and market to mums with them in mind, eventually women will switch off.

In so many areas of life, women have escaped from the clichés and assumptions that society has made of them but not so much in marketing. Ultimately, women might rebel against being treated in the same way as they have been since the 1950s and 60s.

Keeping mums happy: the stats

19 per cent of UK mothers believe there are examples of mums in advertising they can relate to.

23 per cent of mothers are happy with people other than their families calling them ‘mum’.

30 per cent of mothers say they have become more ‘mumsy’ since giving birth.

96 per cent of mothers use the internet in an average week, compared with 86 per cent of all adults.

75 per cent of mothers believe a ‘perfect mum’ does not exist.

Source: Saatchi & Saatchi

Marketing to mums: hit or miss?


Old Spice: ‘Mom song’

Taking a different tack than its parent company Procter & Gamble’s Olympic Games ‘Thank you mom’ campaign, Old Spice has injected its usual style of humour in a video that depicted mothers who are struggling to let go of their teenage sons.

The ‘mom song’ video shows mums following their sons on dates and includes the line: ‘Old Spice made a man of my son: he smells like a man and now they treat him like one’. The ad went viral on its release in the US earlier this year and has amassed more than 1.2 million views.

Fiat: ‘The Motherhood feat Fiat 500L’

Fiat created an ad inspired by the challenges of motherhood but with a comical spin in the form of a rap video. The ad focused on the mother rapping about balancing work and home life. One line went: “Mental complication, while being elbows’ deep in infant defecation.” It had 2.2 million views after its release at the end of 2012.


OAA: ‘Career women make bad mothers’

An outdoor advertising campaign from 2010 from the Outdoor Advertising Association (now the Outdoor Media Centre) saw posters on the side of buses and billboards claim that ‘career women make bad mothers’. The OAA aimed to promote the effectiveness of billboards but the plan backfired and it had to remove them after complaints from working mothers.

Asda: Christmas 2012

Asda’s 2012 Christmas advert sparked 602 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) with claims that it was sexist. The campaign showed a mother preparing for every detail of Christmas and included the strapline ‘Behind every great Christmas, there’s mum and behind mum there’s Asda’. The ad was cleared, although the ASA did acknowledge that single fathers might find the portrayal of mums in the central role as distasteful.

Family finances and media monitoring

Research by parenting club Bounty shows that mothers in the North of England and Scotland are more optimistic about their financial situation a year from now compared with mums in Northern Ireland.

The study, which surveyed about 20,000 mums, also shows the differences in attitudes and issues affecting them. Financial and emotional pressures and price sensitivity are higher for mothers who already have one child and are having more than for first-time mums.

It also shows many feel they do not have time to look after themselves and are less confident about their appearance than before.

Meanwhile, research by BabyCentre, which surveyed 2,000 mums, reveals the differences between those aged 18 to 32 and 33 to 44.

Mum with phone
Nearly half of millennial mums questioned by BabyCentre regard their phone as their ‘back-up brain’

It finds that ‘millennial mums’ – the younger group making up 57 per cent of new mothers – spend an average of 8.1 hours daily looking at different types of media – nearly an hour more a day than the older group. The time is spent streaming video or going online.

The study also finds that 48 per cent of millennials claim their phone is their ‘back-up’ brain, 12 per cent higher than the older group.

These mums use their mobile devices to look up recipes (77 per cent), manage finances (50 per cent), and search for parenting advice (63 per cent) every week. Millennials are also 45 per cent more likely than the older group to say apps make them more productive and organised.

Senior vice-president and global group publisher Mike Fogarty says: “There are key inflection points in a woman’s life that drive a shift in priorities and therefore brand choice and purchasing habits. Parenting triggers a reconsideration of everything, not just what to buy for your nursery but what to buy for your life.”

12 Days of Marketing

This article is part of our 12 Days of Marketing series – our pick of this year’s most important, in-depth content. Click here for the series’ homepage.



There is one comment at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Jo Watts 19 Jun 2015

    Both this article and the corresponding article on marketing to Dads are a breath of fresh air. I have never been able to identify with the ‘advertising’ mum nor does my husband identify with the ‘daft dad’ often personified on television. Although I suppose its not as bad as the Disney/Nickelodeon template – working mum, stupid dad, evil sister.

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