Periods. For a large proportion of the population, they’re a normal part of life. But the “feminine hygiene” industry is still suffering a hangover from pearl-clutching attitudes of the past. As a copywriter at Reed Words, I work with brands to find their voice. Cutting through industry noise, and cutting out unhelpful jargon. So when it comes to menstruation, why is it so hard to be neutral? And what role can brands – and the creative industries behind them – play in moving the conversation forward?
Today, the period product industry is still obsessed with words like “discreet”, and “sanitary” and “hygiene” that are shorthand for a whole range of vagina-related products. Even though advertising has thankfully moved on from test tubes of mystery blue liquid, the visual and verbal euphemisms that remain mean something. In short: it’s not good. It says periods are unclean, embarrassing and even disgusting.
In the past, brands benefitted from people’s inability to say “period”. Names like Tampax became synonymous with the products, saving their buyers from embarrassment. Now, people who have periods are owning the language around their bodies and creating a new opportunity for challenger brands. Brands with foundation stories rooted in experience, not boardrooms. They’re being bold about bleeding and changing the conversation for the better.
I’ve been chatting to other women in design to explore what brands can learn, and how they can do better.
Go beyond the product
The first brand evolution took periods from something unmentionable to an empowering experience. For the last few decades, brands have been targeting women with the message they can do everything, feel confident and get on with life as though they weren’t bleeding. But that’s not cutting it anymore. “Brands have shifted their focus from ‘hygiene’ to humans by centring themselves around who their customer is, not what they’re selling them,” says Lisa Franck, brand strategist at Design Bridge NY. “This lifestyle-driven approach goes beyond empowerment, embracing varied and unique perspectives.”
Now brands are recognising that periods are just one aspect of people’s layered lives, and something that means different things to different people. Bodyform’s Womb Stories captures the complex range of experiences – from every day to high emotion – tied to life stages, fertility and individuality. And it’s powerful stuff. “It’s not just selling this clean, white, skinny idea of being a woman on her period,“ adds Camilla Brandow, account director at Snask. “It’s actually about having a womb, and all the emotional stuff that comes with it, no matter your race, body type, or age.”
Be inclusive (and mean it)
Not everyone who menstruates identifies as female. And not every woman has a period. We’re seeing more brands acknowledging this, and like period tracking app Clue, using non-gendered language like “people with periods”.
Campaign-wise, Animade’s work for charity Bloody Good Period heroes the emotional experience of the menstrual cycle. The star is a personified uterus – a multi-faceted character, that happens to be androgynous. “Bloody Good Period’s ethos is all about inclusivity. So when we were creating this uterus, we wanted a fun-looking character that didn't have any gender or sex,” explains Frida Ek, creative director at Animade. “I think people expected us to make a uterus female. But what do you define as a female character anyway – eyelashes? We all have those.”
Meanwhile, in Sweden, so often well ahead of the rest of the world, the military has introduced khaki packaged tampons as part of soldiers’ base kit, to show everyone is equal. The campaign name? “It’s Bloody Serious.”
Make it normal
“The blue liquid, it baffles me so much,” continues Frida. “I remember as a child being so confused and asking my mom about it. And you can't even explain it to a kid because it doesn't make sense.” The reality of periods and blood are being normalised – bye-bye, blue liquid. But that’s not all. Across the board, reality is replacing cliche. In verbal identity, that means neutral language or calling something what it is. And visually, clean, modern packaging design is taking the place of flowers, butterflies and ribbons. “They're starting to look like beauty products you’d proudly display on your bathroom counter,“ says Lisa from Design Bridge. “Instead of fixating on high-science period ‘solutions’, brands are repositioning themselves as aspirational wellness partners.”
US brand Lola is a great example of impactful packaging. Cornering the sustainable luxury market, the minimal design and muted blue tones of their pads and tampons wouldn’t look out of place in a bougie boutique. (And you wouldn’t be embarrassed if they fell out of your handbag.)
Attitudes are shifting, but there’s plenty still to crack – and challenger brands are owning this space. It’s easier for challengers to sound authentic and build trust, whereas people are cautious of established brands being all talk and no action. “Woke washing. It's a huge thing. You want change to happen, but you don't want brands to be pushing equality just because it's trendy. You want it to matter,” Camilla sums up neatly.
Like Thinx. It’s created a new category – period pants – and defined their ethos through their brand: speaking to progressive consumers ready to challenge the status quo. “It’s all about being inclusive; breaking down barriers and talking about taboos,” Lisa explains. “Thinx's photography and illustration style allows it to address these topics in a playful, approachable way.”
As people’s perceptions of periods are shifting, the opportunities are huge – for all of us. In the last two years, the UK removed the so-called “tampon tax” that classed period products as non-essential luxury items, and Scotland made period products free to everyone. And social enterprise Hey Girls is taking it a step further – tackling UK period poverty with Seeing Red, a hard-hitting new campaign designed to evoke anger and provoke action.
These changes are led by people using clear, neutral language that reflects their lived experience. Brands need to take notice. “Brands are making a profit from us. And they have more power than consumers – it should be their social responsibility to push the politics and the topic even further,” adds Camilla.
By 2025, the value of the period products market is estimated to grow to $27.7 billion. And as consumers become more informed, and have more options, they’re going to be choosing brands that are leading the change, not copying trends.
Copyright © Thinx, 2021