The global consumer market is witnessing a shift. Rising health literacy and the growing economic power of women have resulted in women dominating the consumer economy. So, it is not surprising to see that in recent years there has been an explosion of period product brands disrupting the women’s health market, offering alternative products to the ones provided by established brands. These brands claim that they know what women need and have created new products that serve them better.
Half the global female population have periods (UNICEF 2018), but talking about periods and everything around the subject is not easy for many. In most cultures, periods are shrouded in secrecy and shame. In the UK, period shame affects a quarter (26%) of women (ActionAid 2022).
So do period product brands really know how women think and feel about their menstrual experiences? Do these brands really know how to talk to their audience?
In partnership with the School of English at the University of Nottingham, we conducted a linguistic study of how two generations of women in the UK talk about periods and menstrual health. We talked to 25 Gen Z women and 25 Millennial women about all things menstrual. At the same time, we conducted a study of the website content of 14 period product brands. Known as a corpus linguistic study, this involved using specialist software to identify and analyse patterns, including the frequency and usage of specific words. It enabled us to understand whether brands were talking about the same concerns and experiences that affected the women we spoke to.
In addition to large established corporate brands such as Always and Tampax, we also looked at newer disruptor brands who sell alternative products, such as Cora and Mooncup.
We learnt that the discourse around menstruation is changing, thanks mainly to the disruptor brands. When it comes to speaking the language of women, disruptors are doing better overall. The corporates have some catching-up to do. Here are the areas that brands need to work on.
Embracing menstrual activism
The disruptor brands are more likely than corporates to actively seek a more period positive world. They call for fair access and better period education. Brands such as Dame and Cora advocate sustainability and declare that periods should not be shameful. Even a few corporate brands are now recognising the need to be more realistic. For example, Bodyform was the first to show blood-like red stain instead of the sanitised blue with its #bloodnormal campaign.
However, there is still much more to be done. Women in our focus groups were critical about period product advertising in general saying that they were ‘unrealistic’ and ‘annoying’ and out of touch with how women really feel during their period. Our own analysis found that corporate brands tend to promote an idealised period experience that includes being discreet, feeling ‘fresh’ and ‘confident’. For example, in describing their pads, Always says “they are thin enough to slip into your pocket to take with you to the bathroom when you need to change your pad” and they help you to “stay fresh no matter what your style”.
Even with the disruptor brands that are calling for equity, education and sustainability, as Koskenniemi (2021) notes, many of them are also simultaneously using marketing language to sell their products that invariably contributes to period shame. This contradictory language can be confusing to consumers, and means their menstrual activism can seem inauthentic.
Being inclusive and catering to all ages
Our analysis found that corporate brands had predominantly puberty-related content and first period advice. So, they seem to be targeting mainly a younger audience. The newer brands seem to have more content around menopause, with period stories from women of different ages. Cora stands out in this regard, with blogs dedicated solely to menopause.
The newer brands also distinguish themselves from established brands by providing plenty of personal stories. These personal stories provide intimate accounts of how periods can affect everyday lives, relationships at home and at work, and experiences with healthcare, across age groups. By focusing on personal stories, these newer brands can potentially make more lasting emotional connections with a wider range of people.
The disruptor brands also do better at using inclusive terms like ‘people with periods’ and ‘people who menstruate’ instead of just women. They are also more likely to include personal stories of transgender and non-binary people. For example, an article by a transgender person on the Thinx blog, very eloquently puts it: “For transgender folks, periods are not ‘girl problems’—they are mental health concerns.”
Corporate brands run the risk of excluding transgender and non-binary people in their communications, people who may still benefit from their products without identifying as women.
Providing more empathetic support
Overall, brands focus on a host of menstrual health issues such as dietary choices, medications and exercises for period pain/cramps and PMS symptoms, either through informative articles or personal stories. However, many brands, particularly the corporate brands, use ‘not to worry’ or ‘don’t panic’ messaging about, for example, irregular cycles or cramps, without really addressing those concerns.
And when it comes to seeking medical help, there is no reassuring advice on how to talk to doctors about menstrual health. The corporate brands tend to stop short at ‘don’t be embarrassed’ without providing supportive tips on how to overcome the stigma or shame associated with talking about periods.
With advice mainly focusing on physical symptoms such as period pain, cramps, headaches, irregular bleeding and infections, there is less focus on the more emotional or hormonal aspects of menstrual health. Apart from some simple advice on dealing with low mood, mood swings or stress from disruptor brands, the overall focus is on physical symptoms. Women in our focus groups talked about emotional symptoms as much as the physical symptoms of periods. They needed more support for their emotional symptoms than the brands are currently providing.
Changing the tone
Another important insight was in relation to the tone of brand communications. The corporate brands often use technical and textbook-like language, especially when describing how menstruation works. For example, Kotex explains menstruation like this:
“If the egg is not fertilised, it disintegrates and dies. Likewise, the corpus luteum withers. This causes the uterus to shed its lining, the endometrium, causing the bleeding of menstruation.”
By contrast, the newer brands use a blend of personal and scientific voices, to speak about a range of experiences.
Our focus groups revealed that women, particularly younger women, are moving away from traditional avenues of healthcare, because of their unsatisfactory interactions with health professionals. Brands will be able to cater to women’s needs better if they can be both the voice of empathy and of science for these women.
Gayatri is the Head of mHealth at Thrive. With a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, she has extensive experience working in global health projects as well as national level programmes such as India’s National AIDS Control Programme.
Download our free white paper on the link below to learn how Millennials and Gen Zs talk about menstrual health and brands are getting it wrong
ActionAid (2022) A quarter of UK women face period stigma as millions miss school, work and exercise. News Release. www.actionaid.org.uk/latest-news/quarter-uk-women-face-period-stigma-millions-miss-school-work-and-exercise
Koskenniemi A (2021) Say no to shame, waste, inequality—and leaks: Menstrual activism in the market for alternative period products. Feminist Media Studies. DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2021.1948885