BITE Focus

Lessons from Wombstories: Incredible things happen when you tell the truth about women’s bodies

The team behind the ground-breaking #wombstories campaign from AMV BBDO and Essity talk bravery, complex storytelling and the importance of listening to every woman’s lived experience.

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Incredible things happen when you tell the truth about women’s bodies and it’s this oxygen of truth which ripples through Essity’s ground-breaking #wombstories campaign created by AMV BBDO. For a campaign to so successfully encompass so many parts of women’s lives that have remained shrouded in shame is a powerful reminder of the ability of advertising to shift culture.

The partnership between Essity and AMV BBDO is a compelling and successful example of how breaking out of the category mould allows advertising to dismantle the stigma and stereotypes around women’s bodies.

The truth is that the industry likes to talk so much about authenticity in marketing but #wombstories is a campaign that is firmly rooted in the truthful lived experiences of women’s bodies. For BITE LIVE 2020, Nicola Kemp, Creativebrief’s Editorial Director hosted a panel that saw the team behind the campaign lift the lid on creative courage, strategic thinking and commitment, which came together to create one of the most ground-breaking campaigns of the year.

As Margaux Revol, Strategy Director at AMV BBDO explained, the work being done between agency and client in the last few years wasn’t ever about launching a new product. Instead, as she explains, “it was a time to relaunch and restate the purpose of the brand, to relaunch the new brand identity that was more proudly than ever acknowledging that we’ve got an understanding and offering that is there for everyone.”

Revol was joined on the panel by Nicola Coronado, Marketing Director, UK & ROI at Essity and the Executive Creative Directors from AMV BBDO behind the campaign, Nicholas Hulley and Nadja Lossgott.

Redefining a challenger brand

Coronado is quick to acknowledge the work of the global Essity team in the exploration of new brand messaging. At the heart of the work the brand is doing with AMV BBDO is that, she explains, “we’ve been very much on a journey to redefine what it means to be a challenger brand.” For Coronado it’s about looking to create a more empathetic brand and to examine how the team, she says, can “elevate our brand beyond the functional messages that have dominated the category.”

Revol echoes Coronado in that examining where the brand sits within the category, the team decided that, as she explains, “the best thing we could do is to create a campaign that would show the maximum empathy and the maximum holistic view of women.” The team set out to systematically question the behaviour of the category because, as Revol says, both “category and culture have a responsibility,” when it comes to shifting the narrative around women’s health.

“It struck us that actually the only thing you can simplify the female experience into is its very complexity,” explains Revol. She adds that there are myriad ways women experience periods, their own bodies and wombs. So, for the team, this questioning, “started a journey of creative listening and empathy,” she says.

The #wombstories campaign, and the Blood Normal campaign that preceded it is, as Kemp says, an example of a challenger brand acting in the truest sense, creating a movement rather than a marketing moment. Coronado explains that the movement’s aim is to travel “away from this one-dimensional view of women, not just periods, of our experiences to really bring to life and validate the multiple experiences people go through.”

It was in the holding up of a mirror to women’s real lived experiences that meant, Coronado says, the campaign resonated so broadly. “Womb Stories has become a phenomenon,” she says, explaining that the consumer reaction to it has confounded even the brand’s own expectations.

“We’ve been able to build a platform where women feel comfortable, trusted, heard and where they’re starting to support each other,” Coronado explains, adding, “I’ve never seen that engagement with a brand and for a brand to be the pivot point around which people connect.” This is, she says, from a marketing perspective “the pinnacle, that people feel so represented by their brand that they’re willing to engage with it.”

The power of partnership

The ability to produce such culture-shifting work is born out of the strength of the partnership between brand and agency. “The partnership is built on a mutual understanding of trust and debate,” explains Lossgott. It’s this deep-rooted trust that creates space for informed and empathetic debate between, Lossgott says, “a special group of people who believe in creativity to drive business change.”

The team all smile at the memory of presenting the idea to the client. As Hulley adds, “I think if we’d written it on a piece of paper as an action, I think even we wouldn’t have brought it.” But the agency worked hard to invest in bringing the idea to life in the meeting room, to evoke the end goal visually as much as they could in the presentation of the idea.

Coronado echoes Lossgott to underline the importance of trust, adding that, “there’s this sense of shared values and the desire to really make change and to create work that is meaningful and we’re all proud to share. Work that is really truly bringing our purpose to life.” She says that the team now has a history of success together but what was also impossible to ignore was the strength of the insight around this campaign. “The insight was so clear that that couldn’t be argued with,” she adds.

“There’s a real fluidity from strategy to creative,” Hulley explains. “It’s not a surprise what the work is because of all that insight and shared understanding,” he adds. This fluidity extended to the team chosen to work on the #wombstories campaign. “The whole process is about a single vision but everything about it is about shared voices and experiences,” Lossgott says, adding that each woman who was part of the team had a different experience to share. “There’s such strength in embracing that complexity and we wanted to assemble a team around the work who had a gut instinct about what it is to experience this,” she adds.

Every member of the team had something to add that allowed them to make more informed decisions about the campaign itself. “All the art directing and storytelling is from an emotional point of view rather than a rational point of view,” Lossgott explains. Every artist working on the campaign was chosen with that difference and complexity in mind, both those in front of and behind the camera. “You have this complex array of talent that makes something better,” she says, adding that people should, “embrace complexity because it makes the work better.”

Even though we’ve embraced the complexity, we have sought the universal. It’s capturing the bittersweet roller coaster of life.

Nicholas Hulley

Women’s intersectional experience

It’s this breadth of experience that runs as a central thread to the entire campaign, beginning with the insights that the team gathered at the start of the process. Revol believes that progress is being made when it comes to questioning women’s roles in society, pushing against historical gender stereotypes. But she still believes marketing too often reverts to neat labelling.

“What is yet to be done is an understanding of people’s feelings and understanding of the intersectionality of their experiences and the fact that you can’t classify them,” she explains, adding that “the temptation of classification is a typical marketing sin because if you can name it you can put a figure next to it.” Because when categories and people are labelled, they can be placed neatly into boxes and marketed to accordingly.

But this is not reality. The reality, believes Revol, is that “there is a whole lot of data that hasn’t been used and it’s because it’s not considered data. It’s because the lived experience of women is often considered irrelevant, uninteresting or too complex to fit in a box.” Instead of ignoring that complexity because it’s too difficult to acknowledge, Revol wants to see both institutional and marketing change: “if you accept that experience is intersectional and can’t fit on a spreadsheet, you are probably starting to get to something better.”

As Kemp adds, part the power of the #wombstories campaign comes from the obvious fact that it is so much more than a marketing gimmick. Coronado says she hopes and also thinks that the industry is moving away from a cookie cutter approach to women in marketing. “What was perhaps perceived to be Avant Garde a few years ago is entering the more mainstream psyche,” she says, adding that five years ago, no one had ever thought to question why period blood in advertising was always blue, let alone set about shifting the narrative.

There is, she feels, increasing commentary around the rejection of standard advertising tropes, particularly in the advertising of health and beauty. So, she explains, “yes, it’s changing, it needs to continue to change and it’s more incumbent than ever for brands to be part of that change. It’s becoming a responsibility of brands to drive that agenda.”

Room for more complex storytelling

Brands have been selling hope in a jar to women for generations, says Kemp. As the needle slowly shifts, thanks to work like #wombstories, there is still a recognition that progress is slow. Lossgott offers an example of when the AMV BBDO team created Blood Normal in 2017. People were, she says, offering commentary such as well you’ve done it now so there’s nothing more that needs to be done. This is completely untrue, as she explains: “It’s like Russian Dolls that keep unpacking; once you open one there’s so many things that need unpacking. There are so many things out there that need to be heard and need to change.”

“In the end I don’t think everybody is really listening to women themselves and women’s experiences on an emotional level rather than on a biological or physical level,” Lossgott says, something that has only been exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus crisis.  

“You can see in culture that we are not all one-dimensional heroes,” says Hulley adding that, as a result, “there’s definitely the evidence for richer, more complex storytelling there.” He emphasises that while the complexity of experience was key to convey, at the heart of the #wombstories campaign is that, as he explains, “even though we’ve embraced the complexity, we have sought the universal.”

“The whole goal was to create a universal story one that would be recognisable even if you haven’t been through that experience,” says Hulley. With the #wombstories campaign, he says, “it’s capturing the bittersweet roller coaster of life.”

Be brave, be confident in what you hear and push the boundaries…because there’s always another challenge to take on.

Nicola Coronado

Bravery with rigour

Every member of the team behind the work points to the importance of both bravery and courage of conviction when it came to producing this work. All emphasise how vital it is to have a strength and depth of insight that allows the campaign to be truly rooted in reality.

Coronado’s advice to marketers is that, perhaps now more than ever, the industry needs to “keep listening to people’s experiences and really dig into them to try to understand what people are going through and then to take that insight back into your business and be brave with it. Because if this is the truth of what people are experiencing then reacting to that truth is the right thing to do.” She goes on to add, “be brave, be confident in what you hear and push the boundaries whether they’re internal boundaries or societal boundaries because there’s always another challenge to take on.”

For Revol, the bravery comes from turning away from trying to sugar coat reality or produce advertising that claims to know the answer to every single problem. “We were not trying to enforce hope or an artificial feeling. We’re all trying to be even more empathetic,” she says. While the world spins around a collective feeling of anxiety, Revol’s advice is vital: “Don’t try and always follow the pseudoscience of what you should be doing.” She wants marketers to ask themselves, “what do you feel is the right thing?”

Hulley also emphasises the importance of bravery but for him, “it’s bravery but it’s with rigour. That we don’t just jump and take a risk just because.” The rigour allows teams to be confident in their bravery, to allow partners particularly to take the risk together and be assured in taking it. It’s something that Lossgott believes many brands would do well to remember as COVID has reduced much of the marketing space to a repetitive pattern of indistinguishable advertising.

For Lossgott, it’s about having a more long-term view as the world shifts and changes on a dime every 24 or 48 hours: “the smartest thing we can do is stay true to the creativity and the values of the brand and do the most creative thing within that rather than get swept aside by a COVID specific message that might not stand the test of time and also very much could become wallpaper in that sea of brands.”

The work of Essity and AMV BBDO is challenging the marketing community to do better, creatively, commercially and in our businesses. It’s a powerful example of what can happen when real lived experience is both listened to and reflected by a brand, creating a world in which women feel both heard and supported. It’s a lesson in the ability advertising can have to shift the cultural narrative.

 

The team from AMV BBDO and Essity were speaking at BITE LIVE 2020. To watch the full conversation, visit the dedicated event page, Changing the narrative: How Bodyform and AMB broke the mould

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