(Warning: This article contains content that may be unsuitable-or at least somewhat unpleasant-for people who don't have periods. But you should read it anyway.)
My grandmother's mother died of cancer when she was a toddler. I once asked my grandmother what kind of cancer, both out of curiosity about family history and a desire to better understand my own health risks. She said she didn't know for sure-maybe cervical cancer, maybe ovarian cancer. But "people just didn't talk about those things back then."
Seventy-five years later, it's OK to mention women's cancers. Even children know about breast cancer (how could they not in Pinktober?). It's become common to see PSAs reminding women about the importance of monthly breast self-exams and regular cervical cancer screenings. We even see ads encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated for HPV, the sexually-transmitted disease that's usually to blame for cervical cancer, among other health problems.
Yes, the taboos surrounding conversations about women's health have slowly begun to fall away . . . except when it comes to the gross stuff. Most people (especially men) still don't want to hear about periods or the unpleasant parts of pregnancy, which is understandable. Man or woman, once you learn what a mucus plug is, you'll probably wish you didn't know.
Still, every biological woman of a certain age has a period. It's an unpleasant topic, and an even more unpleasant experience. It's also an important component of our reproductive health, and an inevitable part of life for a large percentage of the population-thus something that should be OK to talk about, without euphemisms and without shame.
Some modern marketers agree and are addressing women's health topics-even the gross stuff-head on. Chief among them is a company called THINX, which manufactures absorbent, leak-proof period panties.
"Prior to the THINX debut in 2013, the most recent innovation in menstrual hygiene was in 1937 with the menstrual cup," says Maeve Roughton, head of content for THINX. "That's a long time to wait for something new, different, better, whatever it is, and people with periods throughout the world were starting to want something beyond the conventional products and traditional ways of talking about this. Our debut also aligned with some cultural movements that have made women more active in society and more demanding of equality and transparency when it comes to their lives and health."
The THINX brand is more than just transparent. Its marketing content is edgy, irreverent, unapologetically frank, and often controversial. For many women-especially taboo-busting Generation Z-it's a refreshing and long-overdue approach to marketing to women. And for content marketers, it's a lesson in the power of brand storytelling.
Bye-Bye Clichés-Hello Controversy
I remember the first time I heard someone refer to a period. I was five or six years old, riding the bus home from school. Two older girls in the seat in front of me were teasing me about something, and one of them said, "You're such a baby. I bet you don't even know what a period is."
"Sure I do," I countered, putting my hands on my hips and summoning up my best smarty-pants expression. "It's the dot at the end of a sentence."
They laughed and turned around, and that night, my mother had to explain more than she wanted to about female reproduction. She explained that periods are a natural part of being a woman, and that having a period makes us special and capable of the miracle of birth. (She kindly left out the fact it would hurt so much that I'd often look forward to menopause.) Still, she said, those girls shouldn't have been using that word in public, and neither should I.
It was good advice. No one wants to talk to a five-year-old about periods, and my mother certainly would have gotten a call from the school if the teacher heard me use that word in that way.
When I finally got my period-at the super mature age of ten-I learned to use euphemisms when talking about it outside my home. I stuck to the old classics like "time of the month" or "girl trouble," but according to the International Women's Health Coalition, there are more than 5,000 slang terms for having your period. The list includes everything from old standards like "Aunt Flo" or "the rag" to more creatively descriptive terms like "shark week" or "crimson wave."
THINX decided to forgo the slang and use the word period. It's even part of their tagline, "for people with periods." That alone has been controversial, especially in 2015 when THINX decided to run ads in New York City subway stations, right in plain view of children.
The ads featured the phrase "underwear for women with periods" and a picture of a halved grapefruit. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) refused to run the ads, calling them offensive and suggestive. THINX founder and then-CEO Miki Agrawal pushed back, pointing out that subways already featured ads for breast augmentation, one of which showed a woman frowning while holding small oranges in front of her chest and smiling while holding large grapefruits in front of her chest. Not only was that offensive to women, but it was also an ad for elective surgery, whereas periods are a natural and inevitable part of life for many people.
Finally, an MTA executive told her, "What if a nine-year-old boy sees these ads?"
Unfazed, she responded, "Wouldn't that be great if a nine-year-old boy sees these ads, because then maybe he would ask his mom, 'What's a period?' and maybe his mom would say, 'Well, sweetheart, this is what helped you grow inside mommy's belly.’"
If nine years old seems a little young to talk to boys about periods, consider that girls are starting their periods younger and younger, often as young as age eight. "We want those girls to know there's a place for them, a community where they can learn more about what's happening to their bodies," says Roughton. "And shouldn't their male peers have some idea of what's happening to them?"
THINX took the story to the press, and it quickly went viral. Turns out, many women around the world agreed with the argument. The MTA received thousands of tweets demanding they run the ads, and a month later, they did.
The story also helped THINX grow its audience of loyal followers, or as Roughton consistently refers to them, "our community."
Empowerment, Empathy, and Education: 3 Marketing Strategies That Work with Women
While many brands are now experimenting with storytelling, only 10 percent have fully embraced it as not just a type of content but rather a new approach to content.
THINX is among those trendsetters. The THINX blog reads like a provocative but progressive women's magazine (think Cosmo meets Ms.). There are interviews with inspirational women, women's health updates, and stories about news and pop culture through "a fab feminist lens."
Not only does THINX tell stories to engage its community, it tells stories about them-stories that empower, empathize, and educate.
Grace Robertson gives new meaning to the old quote, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels." No offense to Ginger, but Grace did something much harder-and she did it on her period, with endometriosis.
The female firefighter passed the Georgia Firefighters Laboring and Mastering Essential Skills (FLAMES) test, an exam so strenuous that most male firefighters don't even attempt it. Many who do try fail, and some even leave in ambulances. But six women have done it, including Grace. Then she did something even braver, especially for a woman in such a male-dominated profession: She talked about it . . . on camera.
"Last spring, Grace wrote us a really heartfelt email about going through her FLAMES test," says Roughton. "We were just totally blown away by what this women went through on her period. That sparked the idea that there are a lot of women in male-dominated fields or relying on endurance and adaptability to get through every day, and they're doing it on their period. We started wondering what it's like to be a racecar driver on her period, or a worker out in a field and you're far away from a toilet and among men in a really physically demanding position. As a society, we give a lot of credence to celebrities and what they're doing and everything they accomplish, and everyday people in awesome, thankless positions don't get spotlights shined on them. We wanted to share their stories and celebrate all they're doing to make this world better."
Grace's story became the impetus for a series of stories called "One Woman." So far, the series also includes Tia Norfleet, the first African-American NASCAR-licensed driver. Despite the polycystic ovarian syndrome that worsens her periods, she must race through the pain once a month. Then there's Kiko Matthews, who survived two brain tumors, learned how to row, and became the fastest woman to row the Atlantic Ocean solo. The trip took 50 days, which meant she was perioding at sea.
Anna Mackenzie, art director and producer at THINX, worked closely with Video Horse Films to produce these three stories and a fourth episode, which debuts later this month.
"When we began with 'One Woman,' Video Horse and the team at THINX spent considerable time discussing visual storytelling," says Mackenzie. "We wanted a way of showing that woman's experience, from the moment she wakes up to the end of the day, really showing the small, menial tasks while telling a story about this incredible thing she has accomplished."
You'd think it would be tough to get women like Grace and Tia to speak publicly about their periods, especially knowing they'll return to their testosterone-driven workplaces. But Mackenzie says that wasn't the case.
"Everyone we've interviewed has been so open and generous in talking about their experiences," she says. "I don't think at any point we ever felt a hesitation. Even Video Horse, a team of men, were really getting involved in the conversation. Here at THINX, we want to introduce men into the conversation and break that taboo. It was so nice to see everyone getting into the nitty gritty with the storytelling and thinking deeply about it. Each episode has been a learning experience for us all."
As for getting pushback from male colleagues, that won't be a problem for Grace. "She had so much love and support from the rest of her shift, who are all men," says Roughton. "By the end of the day, they were helping us set up shots and giving feedback on creative. It was really nice to see how proud they were to be part of her team and to see her have this moment of being celebrated."
Grace, Tia, and Kiko are awe-inspiring and absolutely worthy of celebration. As someone who can barely pull myself off the couch long enough to walk to my work computer, which is all of 20 feet from the couch and heating-pad-accessible, I admire and applaud them. But I will continue to complain about my period to my husband (and sometimes to others), insist it feels like my stomach and lower back are competing to see which can be the most sadistic, and justify naps whenever possible during my period.
Turns out, THINX has stories for me too. "A lot of period-related advertising up until now has been butterflies and women running through fields, and, 'Oh my god, look at all the things I can do on my period,’" says Roughton. "That's great, and we want our community to feel like they can do anything on their periods, but as people with periods ourselves, we fully respect that you might also want to do nothing, and that's something we should talk about in the larger conversation about menstrual health and menstrual care-that sometimes cramps really suck, sometimes blood is weird, sometimes you feel gross or strange or not like yourself. That's perfectly OK, and you should have a space to make those complaints or ask those questions. Those things shouldn't be glossed over to make you feel like you're somehow having the wrong period experience."
The content team at THINX has taken it upon themselves to tell stories about (and for) people with all types of period experiences-from the wonder women in the "One Woman" series, to the whiners like me, to women in wheelchairs, to women and girls in foreign countries, to men getting periods.
"A couple years ago, it was brought to our attention just how much of the trans community was using our products," says Roughton. "No longer did trans men have to go to the feminine care aisle and pick out a pink box of tampons or have that embarrassment at checkout. Once we realized that was such a big part of our community, we started to think about how we could be better allies. Here in NYC, we have plenty of friends who don't identify on the binary or have various gender identities. That's when we changed our tagline from 'women with periods' to 'people with periods' and introduced our boy shorts. We also found a trans man in our community named Sawyer DeVuyst and told his story."
THINX also ran subway ads featuring Sawyer-once again causing controversy, and once again being OK with that.
"Every period is as unique as the person who has it, so storytelling is really important for us," says Roughton. "Highlighting the diversity of period journeys and the diversity of the people who have these journeys is our way of saying you're not alone. What you're going through isn't gross or weird, or anything to be fearful of. It's totally normal and natural, and there are plenty of other people who've had the same experiences-whether that's putting in a tampon for the first time, or what it's like to be a Muslim woman and having that cultural influence on managing your period, or being in a wheelchair and what that means for managing your period. There are so many differences and similarities. It's all part of our greater mission of evolving the way people are thinking about taboos, and if we can have someone from a conservative background look to a trans man and say, 'Hey, there are a lot of similarities to why we both hate our periods,' we think that creates a bridge to more unity."
My mother prepped me for womanhood well, but not every little girl has a mom who's a nurse and speaks frankly. Some girls don't even have a mom, and not all schools do a great job with sex ed. Even grown women often have misconceptions or knowledge gaps surrounding their periods.
"Coming onto the team, there was a whole bunch of stuff that I didn't know and found really interesting and insightful," says Mackenzie. "We run a global girl's club and we're currently teaching young girls in the Bronx (fifth to seventh grade) what's available and what happens during that time of the month, and what's going on with their bodies. I went to a class just recently to do some filming, and the questions they all had were so interesting. I said to myself, 'I wish I'd had this.' This wasn't part of sex ed, and some schools don't even have it, and it really does feel like it should be taught to you in the beginning when you're figuring it all out. It could have been so much easier if you had that knowledge."
There are lots of misconceptions about women's health, and THINX wants to help clear things up-not just for young girls but for women who have suffered in silence for long enough.
"Our overall strategy when it comes to our voice and messaging is to be like talking to your best friend," says Roughton. "Periods are a taboo subject, but we think the best way to address topics people don't want to talk about is to address them head on and make them feel accessible, like you're talking to your best friend. We get feedback all the time from people who say they are just happy to be in a place where they can learn and speak frankly about their bodies. And sometimes you don't want to do that with your actual best friend or your mom or a doctor, for a variety of reasons, so we created this digital space where people can come and say, 'How much discharge is too much discharge?' or 'At what point should I be going to see a doctor to talk about ovarian cancer?' We run the gamut of topics about women's health, and it's as much us taking the initiative to create that space as it is us listening to our audience and understanding that this is what they want-especially the younger generation. They don't just want to see this kind of frank communication from a company; they fully expect to see it."
THINX doesn't just educate people with periods about their own bodies; the brand also shines a spotlight on what's happening to people with periods around the world. This year, for International Women's Day, it was a literal spotlight. To celebrate the occasion, THINX projected "Demand menstrual equity. #IWD2018" on the Brooklyn Bridge and "Period poverty is real. #IWD2018" on the United Nations Headquarters.
"The lack of menstrual equity affects people in the US and beyond," says Roughton. "It's not just that girl who's dying in the menstrual hut because there's this cultural norm of banishing women while they're on their period. It's also the 12-year-old girl in middle school whose family can't afford pads, and her school doesn't have sex education to help her understand what's happening with her body. It's homeless women and incarcerated people. There's a lack of access and education when it comes to menstrual care that affects people of all different backgrounds all over the world. We're breaking down this stigma and demanding menstrual equity of legislators, of other companies, and certainly of ourselves. That's really our mission, and the conduit is creating innovative period solutions. That touchpoint allows us to start having this conversation and making real social change."
Marketing to Women: Measuring Success
Social change is a big, important goal, but from a business standpoint, how does THINX measure the success of its content marketing and brand storytelling?
"Our top metric for almost everything we do, across all departments, is how does our community respond to it?" says Roughton. "We use other metrics-engagement, open rates, shares, click rates. We've enjoyed a lot of success there as well. The second episode of 'One Woman' featuring Tia is just shy of two million views on YouTube. All our videos are in six-figure engagement levels across social. We've seen uptick in traffic to certain pages on our site. But our goal-especially with the 'One Woman' series-was really to deepen our commitment to our community and create a content series our community could feel proud of. We feel like we've done that, and our community has let us know that we've done that."
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Featured image attribution: Allef Vinicius