From The Aisle of Shame to The Aisle of Fame: Lessons from the Femcare Revolution

Jane Hovey, Director of Communications Strategy on the cultural and creative lessons from marketing’s red wave.

Jane Hovey, Vivaldi


The femcare category has undergone nothing short of a revolution. Gone are the days when discussions around periods and women’s health were taboo subjects, with major brands now taking a more robust stance and smashing the age-old barriers of yesteryear.

Femcare is a category hot on the agenda, with the continued fight for equality and climate change two of the major challenges that brands today are tackling head on. At the same time, brands are innovating to keep pace with the changing dynamic and cultural relevance of once taboo subjects like period poverty, pubic hair and the menopause.

Just this month we saw what was labelled “the angriest film ever made to smash taboos around period poverty” from the social enterprise Hey Girls. The ‘Seeing Red’ campaign was created to incite anger and encourage audiences to take action against period poverty. One thing’s for sure, it certainly hit the mark with the shock factor.

Last month, hair removal brand Veet was lauded for its innovative campaign to promote a positive approach to fuzz, preaching ‘your body hair, your choice’, with an advert featuring different people waxing and bleaching, and others who chose to let their pubic hair grow.

Furthermore, Davina McCall’s eye-opening documentary Sex, Myths and the Menopause received critical acclaim this month for lifting the lid on the terrible way menopausal women have to date been treated by society. Menopause is the next frontier in femcare, and yet a subject many brands are still not addressing.

The femcare category is in disruption, as we are seeing with both new and existing brands that are responding to significant shifts in customer expectations. Key to their success are innovations that are built on substantiated trends rather than fads that disappear over time. Innovation is a strategic imperative, and a key driver in the growth of these brands, delivering a competitive advantage and keeping them relevant in an ever-changing market.

But what can other businesses learn from the femcare revolution?

Be bold & break the taboo

Just 20 years ago, subjects like periods and menopause were simply not discussed openly, neither among friends and colleagues nor in the media. However a cultural shift has emerged in which women have become empowered to drive forward debate and create an openness around women’s issues that simply did not exist previously. Femcare brands both old and new have jumped aboard this movement, many of whom have become part of that debate and helped to shape the future of the category, a lesson that brands within other categories would be wise to replicate. Taboo subjects come in all shapes and sizes, and can relate to any industry, with topics ranging from religion and race, to money, mental health, and even sex. Brands mustn’t shy away from these subjects, but have the boldness to speak out.

Digital ethnography

Technology has empowered women to get online and drive forward the debate about previously taboo subjects, which has in turn enabled brands to keep their ears to the ground and study their audiences. The femcare revolution started online, and through digital ethnography, savvy brands are now able to immerse themselves within these debates, assessing how far they want to go and what stance they should take. Across categories, brands should utilise the opportunities of digital ethnography to ensure they are ready to shift when the world shifts and avoid getting left behind.

Cultural clairvoyance

The rate of cultural and technological change in the last 20 years is only accelerating, at the same time that customer expectations are changing. This in turn puts pressure on brands to both sense and adapt their cultural clairvoyance, their ability to see the unseen. In order to stay relevant, brands must ask themselves: How are our customers’ expectations changing? And how will the consumer relate to our brand in five years’ time if we don’t adapt to a certain trend?

The reality is that for many brands their capacity to implement innovation is slower than the rate of change dictates. Yet, what has set a number of femcare brands apart, has been their ability to sense and adapt to cultural and technological changes at speed; their ability to design for tomorrow. Across all categories, brands must understand the trends that will shape consumer expectations and then consider who their consumer will be in the future. Ideas will flow from there.

Authenticity is beautiful

Authenticity is key for any brand, particularly for brands which include Gen Z within their target audience. However this does not have to be scary or ugly. Within femcare there is an interesting tension between brands that are looking to catch the zeitgeist, but while remaining authentic and true to their values, which can be particularly challenging when crafting an image via social media. Luxury brands in particular do not want to be seen as unpolished, even when addressing what can be considered sensitive subjects.

Bodyform’s Womb Stories campaign is an excellent example of authenticity, providing very real stories that push against the taboos surrounding women’s bodies. The series covered subjects from IVF treatment, to endometriosis cramps, and menopausal hot flushes to first periods, incorporating both animation and real footage to chronicle the sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal side of the very human experiences of women everywhere. This was a campaign that people up and down the country could relate to, but which generated a lot of noise online, both from endorsers and from those to whom the campaign was unrelatable, which only confirmed its importance and authenticity.

There’s no such thing as normal

For brand marketers, it’s important to understand that non-traditional audiences are in fact not niche. Today, there is no such thing as normal. Femcare brands are paving the way in designing products and creating campaigns that recognise this, appealing to all different demographics, no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identification.

Earlier this year, Unilever announced plans to drop the word "normal" from its beauty products while banning excessive editing of models' photos, in a drive towards inclusivity. The company said that the editing ban would apply to "body shape, size, proportion and skin colour" and that the word "normal" would be removed from 200 different products.

Advertising’s red wave

The brands leading the field in redefining the femcare category (and the one that got it wrong)

Tampax: announced in April it would host the first ever Tampax Gaming Fest, a virtual event streamed on the Twitch gaming app Kitty Plays. This intelligent move showed the brand reaching out to young consumers by engaging with the online gaming community, over 40 per cent of which are female. A female panel and gamefest sponsored by a leading tampon brand is certainly innovative and a stark contrast to the gaming world of just a few years ago.

Bodyform: unveiled a taboo-busting activation #Painstories earlier this year, shining a light on the true extent of the pain women can suffer, while encouraging them to share their stories. As part of the campaign, Bodyform created The Pain Dictionary, which gives sufferers a new language to help them express the way they feel, empowering them to seek help, while raising awareness of conditions such as endometriosis.

Thinx: the period underwear brand launched a thought-provoking campaign ‘Menstruation’ designed to encourage debate between men and women in order to de-stigmatise what is a natural bodily function. The concept asked consumers to imagine a world in which men also have periods, designed not only to encourage discussion but to change behaviours.

Callaly: A relative newcomer to the category, Callaly, which created the tampliner, is on a mission to increase inclusivity. The brand launched #TheWholeBloodyTruth in order to give a voice to trans people who menstruate and to drive the industry past the singular, narrow story about periods and those who experience them.

And one who got it wrong:

Pinky Glove: a German product which faced immediate backlash after launching a pink disposable glove intended for use by people who menstruate when removing and disposing of period products. Despite claiming to be against period stigma, they managed to create a product that seems to perceive menstrual blood as something too disgusting to touch without the use of a latex glove. Not a good move.

Guest Author

Jane Hovey, Vivaldi



Jane Hovey is Director of Communications Strategy at Vivaldi, the growth strategy and business transformation firm.

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