We need to talk about periods.


How are brands going with the flow and speaking out about this issue?

We have recently seen a plethora of new brands developing products and services around menstrual cycles. Everybody is suddenly talking about it. So why are brands ‘coming out’ and how are they creating a dialogue with their consumers.

The first print advertisements for sanitary aprons and belts appeared around 1920, promising discretion, convenience, and a solution to “an intimate feminine problem”. I grew up with sanitary belts which were not funny at all.

The term “feminine hygiene” was created in 1924 by the marketers of Zonite and Lysol, two popular household disinfectants that were also used as contraceptive douches.

In the 1950s Modess promoted the fact that their sanitary napkins came in a plain brown paper box to save embarrassment.

In Periods Gone Public, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf states that it all started with the Tampon Tax which has become a prominent political battle. “From eliminating the tampon tax, to enacting new laws ensuring access to affordable, safe products, menstruation is no longer something to whisper about.“ She says.

Advertisers have always recognised the importance of reaching pubescent females as potential first-time consumers, and they relied on ad campaigns aimed at mothers and daughters on the “facts of life.”

A real change in brand messaging to this younger age group all began with Always’s #likeagirl adverts. Launched at the Super bowl in 2015, This ad for pads stole the show. Why?

Superbowl ad 2015 by Always

This was the first time a feminine care product was advertised during the Super Bowl and is a good example of how companies trying to woo women are shifting their brand messaging.

Hello Flo, a subscription period box, also talks directly to adolescents. Its just released a two-minute ad that plays on that know-it-all girl at camp — affectionately known as the Camp Gyno — who all the girls turn to for advice when they get their period for the first time. This ad, takes an otherwise awkward conversation and makes it fun. What was your conversation like with your mum about the “birds and the bees” as it was called in my day? Mine was embarrassing, awkward and the outcome depressing when I saw the sanitary-ware available at that time. And then there was Tampax…

Vintage Tampax ad. You can swim, dive, fly a kite or play golf with a tampon.

Historically, ads for tampons and pads had focused largely on selling ‘women’ a more idealised version of themselves: normally, a model who leads a ‘normal’ life jumping around in an all-white outfit during the depths of her period — when we all know that black is by far the safer colour.

The advertising of feminine care brands is predicated on the idea that “normal” is a non-menstruating state. It follows that if women want to thrive socially and economically, this is the facade they need to present to the world at large.

Brands, therefore, normally provide us with products designed to help us feign “normality” and give us motivational messaging about, for example, “freshness”. We are told we want to “feel fresh”, it will “liberate us” and help us to “get on with life”.

The Always ad, was endeavouring to sell products which broke the stereotypes of young girls at a vulnerable time of their lives, whilst using a combination of empowering messages and realistic portrayals of their target shopper, and hopefully educating young women, and men, in the process. However, they were still shown as active, implying that they too could be ‘normal’ during their periods. Running, Swinging, Throwing… like a girl!

Why did Always choose this moment to change its campaign?

2015 has been called ‘the year of the period’- From Donald Trump’s remarks about Fox’s Megyn Kelly and women tweeting live about their periods, to a boom in menstrual apps and the rise of the period panty.

Communication in this product category has traditionally been quite un-engaging, with a focus on product performance and demonstrations of how efficient a pad can be (no leaking, no stains). But Always was getting fiercer competition around this time from brands who were starting to engage with 16–24 year olds on social media, and it was being seen as old-fashioned.

According to Bleeding Out Loud: Communication about Menstruation by Elizabeth Arveda Kissling “(They) perceive a clear distinction between two kinds of menstrual knowledge: scientific knowledge about the anatomy and physiological functioning, and `realistic’, pragmatic knowledge about managing the lived experience of menstruation.”

Women were also starting to pay more attention to what was inside feminine products. Which historically have provided little transparency. Going beyond just new ‘safer’ ingredients and ecological standpoints, From “smart” menstrual cups to underwear that acts as a tampon replacement.

Empathy and storytelling.

Around this time too, brands started to go further in their storytelling. To engage with young women on an empathic level.

A good example of this is Thinx, also formed in 2015, who played on the period that arrives unexpectedly. It happens to us all, doesn’t it? But perhaps not in this way…

The identical-twin soccer stars Miki and Radha Agrawal disrupted the feminine hygiene industry when they entered a three-legged race. They didn’t mean to do this — they just wanted to win the race. And were well on their way — until Radha felt blood dripping down her leg. She had her period.

Chances are every woman has a story like this. There you are, in the midst of some totally unrelated event, when Aunty shows up uninvited. What do you call it? What are brands now calling it?

So instead of hiding it away they won the race. The event would serve as an inspiration for a business that has fundamentally changed the way we talk about feminine hygiene. Period.

Thinx’s, period underwear, holds up to two tampons’ worth of blood, eliminating the need for maxi pads, but its ads which were plastered across the NYC subway are symbolic of more than just the Agrawal’s product. They’re one of many current examples of ‘the period’s’ entrance into the public sphere with an attention-grabbing ad campaign, a new vocabulary, a new way of speaking about the unspeakable.

Brand Voice.

Thinx has created a unique brand voice. With product information such as…

Thinx Scarlet undies.

“Meet Scarlet: our most blood-lovin’ undies (and first color!) ever.”

With provocative imagery (see the grapefruit photo below). With hashtags such as #knowyourflow and a blog called “Periodical”. It has created a unique brand voice which speaks to its customers in their own (period) language. It doesn’t hide periods away it gets it right out there. In your face. But it’s so called ‘feminist’ and visual language hasn’t all been plain sailing.

Thinx grapefruit ad.

The Metropolitan Transport Authority, (MTA), refused to run the ad due to “the nature of the language used”. So, cosmopolitan New York said no to running an advertisement selling female underwear designed specifically for periods because the ad contained the words “Underwear for women with periods”. Or was it that grapefruit.

Menstrual Activism.

Recently, the ex-CEO of Thinx, Miki Agrawal wrote on Medium asking women in media to quit telling her ‘How to ‘Do Feminism’…
“Each and every word and image used in our communications and our campaigns is thought up and created by our team of young badass feminists (all of whom also have their own interpretations of the term). Integrating feminism into our marketing is not a ploy, and it is not exploitative; it’s reclamation of how brands treat and speak to women, and it’s an ideological pushback against generations of condescension and insulting marketing towards women” She categorised it as “accessible feminism”.

A cultural shift seems to be underway in period marketing. Over the last year, there’s been a rise in menstrual activism. A runner making a statement by bleeding openly in a marathon. An artist posting pictures on Instagram with blood spots on her clothing. A CEO crusading for tampons to be available in schools and offices.

Last month, the state of New York made history by passing a law that ensures that girls and women in public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities have access to menstrual products. Meanwhile, 15 of the 40 states that still have a “tampon tax” have moved to do away with it.

Branding and Communications for Period Equity by Pentagram.

Paula Scher of Pentagram designed the branding for Period Equity, which aims to end sales taxes on female hygiene products. “Period Equity is an organisation that uses the traditional tools of policy and legal advocacy, media strategy and thought leadership to advance issues of menstrual access, equity and safety,” said a statement.

Start-ups are also playing an activist role, helping again to break taboos. There are companies offering female consumers high-tech underwear that prevents staining and sleek, inconspicuous tampon carrying cases. And there’s at least one brand that upholds the proudly feminist message that periods are not embarrassing, dirty, or a sign of weakness.

Service Innovation.

Looncup. Connected menstrual cup.

Looncup, the “world’s first smart menstrual cup” surpassed its $52,000 Kickstarter goal in just one week. Created by Loon Labs, the reusable cup tracks the volume and colour of menstrual fluid and uses Bluetooth to send info to its app, originally created to alert women when they need to empty their cup.

Looncup packaging and identity.

Looking at the name and the identity, however, I would have thought it was more about tracking your period by the moon, as the name implies. Don’t forget women are lunar! Or are they? “What you normally hear is women ovulate around the full moon and get their period around the new moon,” said Dr Maria Vlajic Wheeler. Wheeler is a Data Scientist at Clue who also has a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Oxford. “Looking at the data, we saw that period start dates fall randomly throughout the month, regardless of the lunar phase.”

And then there’s Lola… the new convenient and flexible subscription service for tampons founded by NYC start-up Jordana Kier and Alexandra Friedman.

The company manufactures its own 100% hypoallergenic cotton tampons — no additives, synthetics, chemicals, or dyes — currently available with BPA-free plastic applicators. Its new design features include compact sizing, cotton expansion width-wise rather than length-wise which the company claims ensure superior protection.

A subscriber can also customise her order by size and frequency. Alleviate the embarrassing purchasing part and changing the customer journey. Lola’s brand voice is also reassuring, as is ‘your first period kit’ which even comes with stickers for you to spread the message about your period’s arrival. It’s advertising is not trying to shock, it’s trying to educate young women about the harmful ingredients inside tampons.

Another company working along similar lines, is Freda. It’s a little more intelligent though, as the company uses an algorithm to collect data about each user’s cycle and learn how they change over time. It then uses the collected data to sync the delivery of products, ensuring subscribers receive them just before each period starts. Freda is also eco-friendly. Their tampons are made of 100 percent certified organic cotton, free from chemicals and synthetic fibres, and their pads are made using sustainable wood pulp.

Freda’s intelligent approach to period planning.

Menstrual Ethics.

The other nice thing about Freda is its ethical side. Freda founder, Affi Parvizi-Wayne, was inspired to start the company after watching news of refugees trapped at border crossings while trying to reach Europe, and wondering how the women dealt with their periods. With every subscription, they will donate pads to their partners in the UK — Bloody Good Period who donates menstrual supplies to asylum seekers, refugees & those who can’t afford them. A Bloody Good Cause dedicating to ending the “menstrual taboo” and to Kilipads in Tanzania.

5 days ago, Affi Parvizi-Wayne was speaking at Feminist Wednesday about this issue which is now called ‘Period Poverty’. It’s not just a difficulty for refugees. In the UK, 1 in 10 young girls are not able to afford pads or tampons.

The Homeless Period Projecthave been working around this issue for a while in the USA raising money and donating sanitary pads and tampons to the homeless.

SO PERHAPS BRANDS NEED TO SPEAK LOUDER… to make real change. To fight government policy. To raise more awareness, to speak to women like they really care, and to stop portraying women as superhuman every day of the month.

It’s not just OK to have a period, it’s essential. Without them, I wouldn’t be here writing this article.

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