No more drama, period: on marketing femcare products

May 16, 2017

GDR Innovation Researcher Sophia Platts-Palmer takes a personal look at the social importance of sensitive decisions in the marketing of femcare products.

There have been many strides taken by women in recent years: generation Y and Z girls have access to a wealth of information about their bodies, place in the world, and the female experience. More young female role models are coming along in the mould of actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, and peers such as Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai are achieving more airtime.

But patriarchy runs deep. Menstruation is never shameful and no brand dedicated to its management should skirt around the fact that periods involve blood.

You wouldn’t know it from femcare marketing, however; blue ink is used instead of red to illustrate a menstrual flow, creating a misleading and alienating impression for young girls. We must be mindful to educate these girls on the facts of menstruation – but, paradoxically, it’s also good sense not to bombard consumers with ill-conceived imagery and messages that may not take into account cultural sensitivities.

Young girls are also vulnerable and impressionable. While women share the biological process, the young women buying sanitary products for the first time are also individuals and would benefit from a more tailored and personal level of guidance. Some brands are responding to this shift in attitude and in turn, so are their consumers.

In March 2017, femcare brand, Thinx launched a range of tampons that do anything but shy away from the topic of menstruation. The packaging puts the vagina front and centre, clearly demonstrating the intended use of the product inside. The unapologetic packaging comprises of two parts – an inner and outer layer. The inner layer is a red and white box with a tampon graphic, the outer layer a transparent sliding plastic sleeve featuring a stylised image of the labia, with the slogan ‘For Real Menstruating Humans’ written on the side of the packet. As the box is opened, it creates the illusion of the tampon being pulled out from the vagina.

Thinx tampons’ bold packaging

This isn’t the first time Thinx has pushed the boundaries. In 2015 the brand launched an advertising campaign featuring the word “period” at stations on the New York City Subway. Unfortunately, the company’s founder and CEO Miki Agrawal isn’t practising what she preaches, having stepped down from her leadership position following reports that she fostered a company culture contrary the brand’s feminist sensibilities.

But while a hush-hush period culture is emotionally damaging to young girl’s self-esteem, brands also have a responsibility to educate and protect their consumers from the physical harm that mass-market tampons can inflict on their bodies. I’m sure all the women reading this remember discovering that toxic shock syndrome, which can disfigure and even kill, is caused primarily by tampons. In an effort to educate consumers, the environmentally friendly tampon brand OI have also adopted an ‘in your face’ approach by creating packaging that features the slogans ‘No Lies Between My Thighs’ and ‘Revolution in a Box’ to imply that conventional tampon companies are dishonest and harmful.

Offer consumers the opportunity to ask the questions history hasn’t always allowed them to ask without fear, shame or a euphemism. Engage girls through frank, honest discussion, not just with language but with spirit too – brands should strive to foster an open and accepting sense of community within this category.

We see models in other sectors that use social media to encourage peer-to-peer discussion to provide guidance and foster a sense of community around a complex subject. For example, Kiddicare’s What I’d Wish I’d Known site aggregates parents’ insights and tips for the benefit of new parents while establishing a community of young mums to connect, inspire and inform at a crucial stage in their female experience. A Mumsnet for periods, if you will, wouldn’t be a bad start.

Nobody should have to be ‘hush-hush’ about a monthly inevitability. But if the Thinx approach is just too bold for your brand, humour can be a good approach.

Tampon subscription service Hello Flo released a comical advert promoting Hello Flo’s Period Starter Kit, which is aimed at teenage girls experiencing their first period. Let’s take a look:

By combining an embarrassing moment with family humour, the campaign breaks the proverbial ice and comes across as relatable, and funny, even to those who don’t fit into the young female demographic.

These incremental changes that brands are making and the influence that they have on public perception is strong. By listening to consumers, speaking up and speaking honestly, femcare brands can add real value to a crucial wider conversation. Sanitary products are important contributions to wider conversations on women’s rights and gender policy.

But there is a potentially devastating backlash to this rate of change. Across many threads of society, there is an ever-widening rift between conflicting ideologies and women’s rights sit very much at the eye of this storm.

Only 12 per cent of the 355 million menstruating Indian women and girls have access to sanitary products. One in four girls leave school when their periods begin. Period subscription box service Cora aims to combat this by establishing a sustainable solution to the global period crisis by partnering with small-scale manufacturing units in urban slums and rural villages in India to produce and distribute sustainable and safe sanitary products to women in the local community.

In 2015 Forbes reported that women drive 70-80 per cent of consumer purchasing and women’s incomes are predicted to collectively reach $18 trillion by 2018. As female spending power increases, in the Western hemisphere at least, men aren’t the ones buying sanitary towels and tampons and it stands to reason that all women want to be spoken to honestly and empathically about matters concerning their bodies and to demand truth in a world saturated with alternative facts.

Brands need to treat girls as equals but understand that they are individuals with a need for personal reassurance because we are talking about a shared, but also highly personal experience. It’s about tapping into both and harnessing this sentiment with honest language and a genuine sense of community. Otherwise, your gen Y and Z consumers will either just see through it – or there will be no lasting and genuine change.

If you have any comments or would like to continue the conversation, please do get in touch with me at Sophia@gdruk.com

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