• June 9, 2010
  • By Juan Martinez, Editorial Assistant, CRM magazine

What Is Going On Down There?

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"Last month, while in the throes of cramping so painful I wanted to reach inside my body and yank out my uterus, I opened an Always maxi pad, and there, printed on the adhesive backing, were these words: ‘Have a Happy Period.’ Are you [insert impolite expletive] kidding me?”

Wendi Aarons posted those words at the online journal McSweeney’s in 2007, under the headline “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Will Most Likely Not Respond.” The letter was directed at James Thatcher, brand manager at Procter & Gamble. Aarons had no idea the letter would serve as an unofficial battle cry for women frustrated with the marketing of feminine-hygiene products. 

Aarons’ post has had 191 commenters in three years, most of them echoing the sentiment of reader Dark Lillith: “I thought [your letter] was such an absolutely PERFECT way to deal with that indescribable bit of cutesy marketing created by what could only have been a bunch of overpaid, scotch-swilling B. Comm yuppie spawn.” 

But angry bloggers weren’t the only ones who took notice of the vein Aarons had tapped into. Marketers of feminine products began researching what women wanted these campaigns to portray; they weren’t shocked to discover that dancing women wearing white dresses on beautiful beaches wasn’t exactly an accurate portrayal of how women felt while on their periods. 

In a survey conducted in August 2009 by Kimberly-Clark (K-C), the maker of Kotex feminine-hygiene products, 70 percent of the more than 1,600 female respondents said they believe it’s time for a change in how society talks about vaginal-health issues, according to Aida Flick, K-C’s director of feminine-care marketing. 

“When we looked at our online community,” Flick recalls, “we asked ourselves, ‘What role can our Web site [have] to create a place where women would feel comfortable coming, asking questions, getting information, and getting that information in a way that is meaningful to them?’” 

The result is K-C’s “U By Kotex” marketing campaign, launched March 15 and profiled that day in a New York Times article titled “Rebelling Against the Commonly Evasive Feminine Care Ad.” 

“While the [Kotex] brand may have to finesse some of its newfound candor to pass muster with [television] networks, it is unencumbered online,” the article says. “In what by all accounts is unprecedented in menstrual-product marketing, the videos on the Web site show women demonstrating how to use the products, including video of an actress in a bathroom applying a panty liner, and another of one inserting a tampon in an anatomically correct puppet.”

The brand’s mission, according to the UbyKotex.com site, is “to stop all the weirdness about periods.” The site, where women can sign up to receive a free sample package containing one pad, one liner, and two tampons, continues, “Progress is where it’s at. Every video watched, every comment made, and every question asked helps change unhealthy attitudes.” 

By March 25—10 days into the campaign—277,914 visitors had interacted in some way with the revamped Web site. By early May, that figure had nearly tripled, to 788,392.</p>

The general Kotex brand also has its own Web site, with an interactive community space for women and girls to come talk about feminine hygiene. That space has three forums: 

  • The Ladies Room: Women can “share tips, thoughts, and experiences with other women who can relate.”
  • Girlspace: “Girls can share about periods, boys, shoes…whatever.”
  • Real Answers: Visitors can “get helpful articles plus real talk from a health expert, a mom, and a peer.”

“It’s my hope [that, based on] the questions we receive on our site, we’ll know what information we need to cover in the future,” Flick says. “We’re encouraging women to not only view our ads and comment on our ads but we’re encouraging women to [upload their own videos on the site]…. That will provide tremendous fuel and ideas for how we’ll take our next steps.” 

And that, says Adam Metz, principal at San Francisco–based Metz Consulting, is what differentiates marketing today: the customers’ ability to control the conversation regarding how businesses market to them. Metz, whose firm is a consultancy for social customer management, says that he’s seen an increase in customer expectation industrywide, in both product effectiveness and product presentation. 

Metz contends that Kotex’s expected return on investment (ROI) for a lifetime customer is more than worth the cost involved in dramatically overhauling the brand’s marketing campaign. In an effort to approximate the projected revenue generated for Kotex by a customer across 40 years of tampon-buying Metz made the following calculations: 

  • A 36-tampon box of Kotex cost $5.50, which means each tampon costs 15 cents. 
  • A customer who uses 10 tampons during each period will spend $1.50 per cycle. 
  • That means periods will cost a customer $18 per year. 
  • After 40 years of buying the product, the customer will have spent approximately $720. 

“You have to do something really drastic to get someone to change [her feminine-hygiene product],” Metz says, adding that Kotex’s campaign may be the rare success. “I’ve rarely seen [a campaign] this good. The ROI is a grand slam.” 

The word “vagina” remains taboo in network-television ads, according to the Times article (three networks refused to run the original Kotex commercial), but the half-dozen sources contacted by CRM unanimously agree that Kotex’s campaign represents a significant achievement in destigmatizing women’s-health issues. 

Ex-McSweeney’s contributor Aarons, for one, approves of the campaign. Now a 42-year-old memoirist and mother of two, she praises Kotex for not being condescending, but cautions the company against making the ads exceedingly positive. 

“If [Kotex] goes too over-the-top trying to make [its campaign] a positive, happy thing, it won’t ring true,” Aarons says, echoing the sentiment of her legendary 2007 letter. “In reality, a period isn’t such a super-happy goofy fun thing.”

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