As consumers, females represent the vast majority of purchasing decision makers, sole purchasers, or "instigators-in-chief"- to use Tom Peters' phrase. In the US, women write 80% of cheques, decide on 83% of all consumer purchases (even in 'ultra-masculine' industries such as motor vehicles and finance, women are the decision-makers in 60% and 83% of cases respectively ) and own 53% of stock. Within the commercial realm, women are also the majority of purchasing agents.
They have such vast collective spending power, that Harvard Business Review can now confidently claim that "women drive the world economy."  It would be foolish to think of women as a niche market or peripheral to other strategies for growth. Womenare the market.
How do we know that the female economy is becoming so powerful? Aside from the facts and figures of marketers and economists about who drives the economy, an interesting observation is the rise of traditionally feminine traits in the consumer trends that shape the world. Women are making their needs, desires and passions known by shifting the culture of consumerism itself. It is a groundswell from a billion purchasing decisions every day.
Many of the trends which are sweeping the consumer landscape can be seen as part of a broader trend to gentleness. Take the care-giving, supportive nature of ethical consumerism. Consumers increasingly desire to buy products which are ethically sourced, made in conditions which are fair to the producers and which limit their environmental impact. They are almost always willing to pay more for sustainable products, but are also demanding that there need not be a massive price differential between sustainable and unsustainable practices.
These decision-making influencers are - without resorting to gender stereotyping - fairly feminine traits; extensions of maternal protectiveness and friendship. We know that women are more 'other-directed' than men.  They are more nurturing and often adopt the function of care-giver as one of their many roles.
Sustainability itself is a feminine paradigm (women have been shown to be slower, wiser, more cautious investors, for example ) that the world is being pushed into by necessity and consumer behaviour. This does not mean it is restricted to women. To the contrary, it has influenced consumer culture to such an extent that younger generations of both sexes behave like this and find the attitudes of older generations bizarrely callous. It has been hailed as Generation G - the Generosity Generation.
So the importance of women cannot be overstated. The future of brands depends on their ability to engage and attract female purchasers and consumers. So how does one do it? How does one sum up 'what women want' without resorting to meaningless or offensive clichés and stereotypes?
Tom Peters, who feels quite strongly about it, declares that: "to become attractive to women requires overhauling everything: recruiting; hiring; promoting; organisational structure; business processes; product development; marketing; branding; strategy; culture and leadership" .
Fortunately, it's easier to listen now than ever before. The explosion of social media channels means that opinions are flying about all the time, uncensored. Opinions about issues that affect your business. Opinions that help give you insight into the way women feel, how they think, what they want. All you have to do is listen.
But you will get so much more depth of understanding if you don't only listen, but join the conversation. Engage your female consumers in conversation. In order to get her attention, remember to chat to her in genuine, human, real ways - do not pretend to be perfect and keep the conversation about the people in it, not your product. Start with her interests and passions.
It's about her, not you. Shopper studies show that where men are all about transactions, women are about relationships.  If you want to truly understand your female consumer, do not treat the conversation as a transaction where you get some insight for your time. That would miss the point entirely, put her back up, and waste the massive opportunity for understanding that social media provide. And don't be pushy. Pestering her will only make the situation worse.
There is no shortage of social media used by, and geared towards, women. The majority of social media users are female, and many online communities are geared towards voicing the opinions of women. There are blogs which women have set up specifically to educate floundering marketers on how they and their friends think and to offer them advice on what women want (http://marketingtowomenonline.typepad.com/blog), as well as communities of general female bloggers airing their views on a number of issues (such as http://blogher.com).
It is easy to start following more females on twitter, or to strike up conversation with the female fans of your Facebook page. It is important to listen to social media because women are being influenced in their purchasing decisions by the conversations they have on there and the advice they get. Wonderbranding.com , an American site for the news and views of female customers, claims that 79% of women use social media tools when researching businesses and brands.  (As a starting point for help browsing and navigating the SA blogosphere by tag, go tohttp://www.amatomu.com/taglist for tags or people mentioned in South African blogs). And it's important to remember that women talk to their friends about brands and products offline as well. Join the conversation in any way that you can - not only through online social media.
In South Africa especially, where internet penetration is lower than in the developed world, communicating via the mobile networks may be the way to go. Why not sponsor a free sms feedback service to enable you to listen to women who want to share their thoughts with you? And find ways to connect women with each other. EVEolution (the 2000 book by Faith Popcorn and Lys Marigold) says the first Truth of Marketing to Women is that helping your female consumers connect with each other also connects them to your brand.
It really is moving branding to another level. Women want a real, authentic, transparent relationship with your brand. They don't buy brands, they join them. It means delivering real value to them, not shouting loudly in your advertising. Help improve her life, make something easier, transfer a skill.
There are a number of 'golden rules' when developing products and brands for women. These may seem obvious to some but, sadly, not obvious enough to most. Firstly, don't 'make it pink'. Trying to make something appear attractive to women by being cute and fluffy, bringing out a calorie-counted version or advertising it in girly ways, is stereotypical and insulting.
Secondly, don't assume all women are mothers. There are plenty of single women out there - females who are not in supporting roles. Even those who are mothers are other things, too. If you're only talking to one of a woman's lives, you're missing out on all of the others. 
Thirdly, the 'sex sells' mentality has to go. Women look for what's real, not what's impressive. You can't hide behind your logo and your slick, clean store if you fail to deliver. You also can't kid women into thinking a billboard with a beautiful young model in one of your hotel rooms is representative of her life - that ad may make men want to stay in your hotel, but it won't work on women.
But most importantly: do good. If you are seen to promote the physical and emotional wellbeing of your customers and the needy; if you protect and preserve the environment and encourage love and connection, you will certainly get the attention and respect of the female consumer.
What women want, really, is to be respected and valued for who they are, not what category they fit in to. John Holt explains that, as our culture moves from an objective to a subjective culture, so "what you want and who you think you are is much more up to the individual and much less down to demographic destinies". Or, as one female blogger put it, "they don't get it. They think that marketing is all math. The more we all realise that we are marketing to individuals and not demographics, the better we will be at listening and crafting relevant messages."
The successful brands of tomorrow are women's brands. They are not pink and fluffy, they are real and grounded. They generate emotional loyalty among their consumers by doing good in the community and by being a companion. They are in constant dialogue with their consumers and listen to them and involve them. Whatever industry you're in, you really need to figure out exactly what it is that women want.