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How to target moms as their family role changes

She’s not your mother’s kind of mother anymore. And he’s not your father’s kind of father.

Moms and dads have always been core customers for restaurants. But today, say market researchers, their roles are changing. A quiet demographic revolution is reshaping the American family, with big implications for marketing.

  • In 2009, 38 percent of households had wives who earned more than their husbands, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from 24 percent in 1990.
  • In the prime child-raising years—ages 30 to 44—28 percent of women have more education than their male partners, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • Among recent graduates, women earn 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 52 percent of all doctorates, reports the U.S. Department of Education.

Restaurants need to catch up with today’s woman, says Peter Rose, senior vice president for North America consulting for The Futures Company in Los Angeles. “She’s a woman who is more confident, in control and more determined than what we’ve seen in the past. You’ve got a customer who’s more likely to know what she wants.”

What does this woman want? Some of her key desires, say researchers:

Healthy food, healthy household. “Healthy meal preparation is going to be more appealing to mom than to dad,” says Kathy Sheehan, executive vice president of GfK Roper Reports in New York. Men tend to gravitate more to bold flavors and spices, that kind of adventure element. Mom sees herself more as the protector of the family.”

Moms are looking after themselves as well as their kids, says Michael Silverstein, senior partner with Boston Consulting Group. They tend to put on weight, when having their first child, and have a hard time losing it afterwards.

“For 40 years, a woman thinks of herself as overweight and doesn’t know what to do about it,” says Silverstein. “The most important thing you can do is to provide healthy options, calorie counts and nutritional information.”

Look at the popular and lucrative prepared food bars at Whole Foods Market, he suggests. “That’s a substitute for restaurant eating occasions. It’s easy to spend $20 a person there.”

Her time back. When a single woman gets married, she adds 11 hours a week to her responsibilities, says Silverstein. Her first baby adds 22 more hours.

“Give her back time,” he says, “and you’ll get her loyalty. Eating with the kids on a weekday night, she wants to take no more than 30 to 45 minutes. They have to get back to homework and housework.” Offer her not just a takeout counter, he proposes, but a grab-and-go case.

If she’s taking the time for a sit-down meal, says Rose, your menu should help her make quick decisions. “Have codes and graphics that allow her to easily pick out heart-healthy, high-fiber foods and foods that provide an energy boost.”

Family value meals. Compared to 2007, families are making 1.5 billion fewer restaurant visits, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst with The NPD Group of Port Washington, New York. The reason: money’s too tight. “Women tend to be more price-sensitive,” she says. “They look for deals more often.”

Many think kids’ meals have gotten too expensive. Since 2007, such meals have dropped from 56 percent to 37 percent of all orders for children under six. Instead, many parents are feeding kids from the dollar menu, says Riggs. “They could have a large fries and a soft drink for less than a kid’s meal could cost.”

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Today’s woman juggles more demands than ever. You can offer to help her, but don’t ever imply that she’s not up to the task. “Cater to this woman’s strong sense of self,” says Rose, “her ability to manage everything swirling around her. As opposed to portraying someone ... pulling her hair out.”

Stay away from stereotypes, warns Silverstein. He points to a 2009 website for Dell laptop computers, which targeted women through pink cases, recipes and tips on dieting and clothes shopping. After an online backlash, Dell apologized and removed many of the offending references.

Husbands can be sensitive to stereotypes, too, says Sheehan. The younger the man, the more likely he is to be comfortable with traditionally female chores like food shopping. A GfK survey finds 32 percent of young adult males enjoy it, versus 27 percent among boomers. Says Sheehan, “There’s an increasing acceptance that traditional gender roles are out the window.”

Those roles will only keep shifting, says Silverstein. In 20 years, he predicts, the woman will be the top earner in 65 percent of households. “The balance of household power is changing,” he says. “You have to base your marketing on who the customer is today, and on who they will be tomorrow.”

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