Beer and pizza have traditionally been the preserve of men but now they are being targeted at women. Nicolette Allen asks whether the strategy will work

Cornish pasties. Crispbreads. Pints of beer. Rosé. Like it or not, some products appeal to one gender more than the other and their marketing tends to reflect that (think Fern Britton for Ryvita). Attempts to break the mould for example with WKD, an RTD that overtly targets men have been few and far between.

Until now. The past year has seen an explosion of new products and campaigns that specifically target women salad leaves manufacturer Florette's summer ad campaign, Chicago Town's 'women-only' pizza brand and Molson Coors' female-focused Bittersweet Partnership to name three.

The rationale is simple: with the exception of Florette, these products have traditionally appealed predominantly to men, but with a recipe tweak here and a new look there could gain a whole new audience. But are they really what women want?

If there's one product that highlights the potential perils of gender-specific NPD and marketing, it is surely Chicago Town's Gorgeous pizza range, launched this February. Setting out somewhat ambitiously to be 'everything a woman wants in a pizza', the pepperoni and mozzarella-based pizzas are smaller than average and therefore lower in calories, at 300 each, but have struggled to attract consumers, so far achieving less than £600k in sales. 

"The range could be doing much better, and we are finding it a challenge to get retailers on board," admits Chicago Town marketing manager Paula Wyatt.

It isn't so much the marketing that has misfired but the proposition itself, according to the experts. Nigel Ashton, business manager at retailer Nisa-Today's, described the range as "neither adventurous, nor identifying with the target consumer well" in The Grocer's Acid Test. "Pepperoni is certainly not a flavour that strikes me as girlie," he added.

Wyatt says Chicago Town is now looking for new, more appealing flavours, so the range may yet prove itself. Another company trying to take a product that appeals predominantly to men in this case beer and rethink it for a female audience is Molson Coors. In March it launched a subsidiary business, Bittersweet Partnership, which is run by women and aims to "break down the barriers" they supposedly face when it comes to buying and drinking beer.

The company has just won a listing for its new Blue Moon blond beer in Sainsbury's and says it wants to increase the appeal of its existing beers as well as launch entirely new 'female-friendly' beers, including a completely clear, sweet ale later this year. 

"The problem is there are too many barriers stopping women from even getting to the point of taste," says Kirsty Derry, managing director of Bittersweet Partnership. "Beer marketing is macho and makes women feel excluded. Additionally, the customer experience involved in choosing beer, with the overwhelming selection on offer, is not something that women tend to enjoy. Our aim is to help female consumers feel included within the beer category and reassured that it is aimed towards both women and to men."

Rachel Dickinson, category marketing manager for Scottish & Newcastle, suggests socioeconomic factors as well as a tough climate are behind this focus on women. "Research S&N conducted in 2008 indicated that one of the six key drivers of long-term sustainable growth was female appeal," she says. "Ever-increasing financial independence for women has made them a key group to target. Not only are more women working than ever before, but the average age of a first marriage and child is continually on the rise, meaning they have more disposable income available for longer."

The plus for manufacturers is that these products are often a variation on an existing theme so in theory they are relatively cheap to develop, if not to market. 

Unfortunately, argues Kate Smurthwaite, a writer for feminist website The F-Word, the underlying message is not always a positive one. "As soon as food is deemed suitable for women, it will almost certainly be a lower-calorie version of the original food," she explains. "The inference that women are or should be dieting all the time is noxious in a world where eating disorders affect a huge proportion of teenage girls and adult women."

It's not just women who could suffer at the expense of these gender-based stereotypes, she says. "The 'real men don't diet' school of thought makes it harder for men to choose to eat healthily and is a contributory factor in the sky-high levels of heart disease and stroke among men in the UK. These are all notions that do nothing for our society except act as drivers for sexism, stereotyping and discrimination."

Brand consultant Kate Waddell from Dragon Rouge adds that such products and campaigns implicitly alienate one half of consumers a risky tactic in a recession. "At a time when consumers are being lured into trading down to own label, brands can ill afford to be pinning their targeting to one gender group only," she says. 

"Women may feel excluded from a brand if it's overtly blokey, suggests a big macho eat, or has a sense of quantity over quality, but Chicago Town's reaction to this with the creation of Gorgeous comes across as a kneejerk attempt to land-grab from the more female or lighter brands." 

There are already enough products catering for women, without specifically targeting them, adds Richard Oldham, innovation director at consultancy Value Engineers. "RTDs were an early answer, but they didn't limit their appeal to women as there are men who don't like the taste of beer, either. Cider and wine also appeal well to both sexes."

He is sceptical about the prospects of women-only beer. "If you're going to play the exclusive-to-one-sex card, you need an exceptionally strong business case behind it and I am not sure beer provides this," he says. "It's a tricky one, as attempting gender-based marketing could come across as patronising and insulting. Finding a way of gently and subtly implying exclusivity would seem to work far better cider is a perfect example, with companies such as Magners suggesting new ways to drink it involving fruit or drinking ice, without changing its formulation or marketing."

Waddell agrees. "Magners' 'on ice' ritual made the cider market much more female-friendly and appealing. Unfortunately, the growth of ciders and now pear ciders can only be making it harder for beer brands to gain this audience," she says.

"The solution," believes Oldham, "must lie in making all consumers feel included, without being overly didactic in a product's marketing." That may ultimately prove to be what women want. But with healthy eating and entertaining at home very much on the female shopping list and easy-to-tap new markets on the manufacturing agenda, we haven't seen the last of female-focused NPD and marketing yet.