Fem­i­nine-hy­giene star­tups are on a so­cial mis­sion. You’re com­ing along for the ride, right?!

The new fem­i­nine-hy­giene mar­ket lays on a guilt trip.

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - By Jen­nifer Miller

Diana Sierra was in Ruhi­ira, Uganda, in 2011, coach­ing en­trepreneurs on prod­uct de­sign, when a lo­cal teacher told her some­thing startling: Many of the teacher’s fe­male stu­dents skipped school dur­ing their pe­riod be­cause they lacked ad­e­quate fem­i­nine-hy­giene prod­ucts. Sierra, who’s de­signed ev­ery­thing from paci­fiers to per­fume bot­tles, saw a hu­man­i­tar­ian and de­sign im­per­a­tive: How could she give im­pov­er­ished women a high-qual­ity, at­trac­tive fem­i­nine-hy­giene prod­uct on par with what’s avail­able to women in the de­vel­oped world? Her so­lu­tion: the Em­pow­erPanty, a pair of lacy, col­or­ful “pe­riod un­der­wear” with a re­mov­able, quick-dry­ing pad. Pre­orders ship soon; for each one bought in the U.S., she’ll do­nate an­other to a woman in need. “If you want to cre­ate gen­der equal­ity,” says Sierra, 36, whose com­pany, Be Girl, has been em­pow­ered with $1 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal, “you have to start cre­at­ing equal­ity within gen­der.”

The Em­pow­erPanty sounds rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but it’s not. It’s only part of an up­ris­ing, one that’s been cheered in style pages and pro­moted by the more than a dozen com­pa­nies that have—there’s re­ally only one word to de­scribe it—flooded the fem­i­nine-hy­giene mar­ket since 2012, all ea­ger to help women deal with that time of the month. Surely you’ve seen the ads for pe­riod panties, or­ganic tam­pons, and monthly sub­scrip­tion ser­vices that mail hy­giene prod­ucts to your door with sooth­ing treats such as tea and choco­late. It’s not like there wasn’t a need: Pack­aged-goods con­glom­er­ates have barely changed their wares in decades, and their mes­sag­ing, with perky, smil­ing women in white pants, is silly and con­de­scend­ing.

Al­most all the new star­tups stress that they’re not just help­ing women in the First World; they’re on a so­cial mis­sion, and they want you to join in! Like Be Girl, pe­riod-un­der­wear com­pany Thinx and or­ganic tam­pon com­pa­nies Cora and Con­scious Pe­riod em­ploy a ver­sion of the “one-for-one” model. Thinx do­nates money to Afripads, which helps Ugan­dan women man­u­fac­ture and sell lo­cally made san­i­tary pads; Dear Kate, an­other pe­riod-un­der­wear startup, gives money to fund science, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing, and math ed­u­ca­tion for girls; Jes­sica Alba’s Hon­est do­nates san­i­tary sup­plies to home­less women in Africa.

The sheer num­ber of these busi­nesses makes it hard for any one to stand out, par­tic­u­larly as they’ve adopted a sim­i­lar mar­ket­ing ap­proach: re­brand men­stru­a­tion as a sym­bol of strength, an op­por­tu­nity for women to demon­strate—with their dol­lars, of course—a com­mit­ment to fe­male em­pow­er­ment. The com­pa­nies’ founders are al­most ex­clu­sively thir­tysome­thing women whose back­grounds in engi­neer­ing, busi­ness, and de­sign have in­spired them to up­end not just how women deal with their pe­riod but how they feel about it. And, to a woman, they in­sist their so­cial mis­sions aren’t just unique but au­then­tic—and that the com­pe­ti­tion’s are bo­gus. Thinx Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Miki Agrawal, for ex­am­ple, re­jects any re­la­tion­ship be­tween my-pe­riod-is-holier-than-thine mes­sag­ing and Thinx’s own mar­ket­ing strat­egy. “It’s very clear and ob­vi­ous when some­thing is for mar­ket­ing and when some­thing is real,” she says. Of her com­peti­tors, she says: “We have a give­back mis­sion that [they] don’t have. We launched our com­pany with our give­back mis­sion en­twined with our busi­ness.” Cora, Con­scious Pe­riod, Hon­est, and oth­ers did the same. Be Girl’s Sierra says, “We’re the only true one-forone” char­i­ta­ble giv­ing model. Quib­bles aside, the com­pa­nies’ at­tempts to out-em­power one an­other raise a moral quandary: How au­then­tic is your mis­sion if you’re try­ing to sell stuff ? So­cial jus­tice tends to be a win­ner among fe­male consumers, es­pe­cially mil­len­ni­als. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 study from Cone Com­mu­ni­ca­tions on mil­len­nial at­ti­tudes to­ward cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, 87 per­cent of women age 18 to 34 say it’s a key fac­tor in pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions, and 75 per­cent say they’re will­ing to spend more on a so­cially or en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble prod­uct. Fully 90 per­cent say they ex­pect com­pa­nies to ac­tively ad­dress so­ci­etal prob­lems. Mar­ket­ing a brand’s so­cial im­pact can “ab­so­lutely be used for good,” says John Try­bus, deputy di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter for So­cial Im­pact Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. “But if you’re play­ing with peo­ple’s emo­tions, that can be a dan­ger­ous thing.” It’s pos­si­ble the SoulCy­cle crowd is mak­ing “em­pow­er­ing” pur­chases un­der duress—who wants to be the woman who looks like she doesn’t care what a woman in Uganda is going through? Fem­i­nine hy­giene is a $15 bil­lion global mar­ket, with about a quar­ter of sales in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to mar­ket-re­search firm Tech­navio. The in­dus­try lead­ers are house­hold names: Proc­ter & Gam­ble (mak­ers of the Tam­pax and Al­ways brands, which ac­count for about a third of the do­mes­tic mar­ket), John­son & John­son (Carefree), and Kim­berly-Clark (Ko­tex). In the world of tra­di­tional men­strual mar­ket­ing, women on their pe­riod frolic in sun-dap­pled fields with long-haired nymphs and yo­gi­nis, and ev­ery­one dresses in un­blem­ished white. “Flow­ers and pranc­ing and petals don’t res­onate with to­day’s girl,” Agrawal says. Pe­ri­ods,

she says, are about “the feel­ing of cramps and man­ag­ing some­thing that’s messy.”

Be­fore start­ing Thinx, Agrawal had no ex­pe­ri­ence with the fem­i­nine-hy­giene mar­ket. A restau­ra­teur and au­thor, she came up with the idea at a fam­ily re­union, when Aunt Flo in­aus­pi­ciously vis­ited her sis­ter in the mid­dle of a three-legged race. Thinx’s tag line, “Pe­riod Panties for Mod­ern Women,” is very much in con­trast with the big brands’ make­be­lieve Pe­riod Utopia—and very much in keep­ing with its nou­veau pe­riod peers. Thinx’s ads go for a high-end art vibe, with spare photography and a muted tan and mauve pal­ette. The mod­els are de­tached—not de­s­pair­ing, but they cer­tainly don’t look en­thu­si­as­tic about men­stru­a­tion. Be Girl’s mar­ket­ing is brighter and more en­er­getic, pre­sum­ably be­cause the women in its ads are ex­cited about do­ing good in the world. Its mod­els wear big smiles and strike power poses un­der the tag line “Premium undies for you, life chang­ing im­pact for girls.” Dear Kate (“Per­for­mance un­der­wear for high per­form­ing women”), which in­tro­duced the first pe­riod panty in 2012, has fea­tured tech ex­ecs wear­ing its undies. Re­gard­less of the brand, the mes­sage is clear: Pe­ri­ods, like the women who get them, are pow­er­ful, and these prod­ucts help you har­ness that power. More har­ness­ing, more mar­ket share.

If only it were that easy. In ad­di­tion to com­pet­ing against one an­other, they must con­front the be­he­moths—and Hon­est, Alba’s bil­lion-dol­lar or­ganic house­hold-prod­uct en­ter­prise, which be­gan of­fer­ing fem­i­nine care last year. And in that face-off, cost is a se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion. A stan­dard box of 40 Tam­pax tam­pons costs $5.49 at Tar­get; half as many or­ganic tam­pons from Con­scious Pe­riod, which hit the mar­ket last fall af­ter a $40,000 Indiegogo cam­paign, cost $8.50. Some pe­riod un­der­wear is con­sid­er­ably more ex­pen­sive than ba­sic lin­gerie—one pair of Thinx goes for $24 to $38. The busi­nesses ar­gue you save money by not hav­ing to toss out stained panties or go through lots of dis­pos­able prod­ucts.

Even consumers who can af­ford high­erend, eco-friendly al­ter­na­tives can be over­whelmed by choice. There are now five pe­riod-panty com­pa­nies on the mar­ket, in­clud­ing Be Girl, Thinx, and Dear Kate, each of which claims to ab­sorb a dif­fer­ent amount of blood. Choos­ing or­ganic tam­pons is an even murkier process, es­pe­cially when their mak­ers—Cora and Lola and Con­scious and Hon­est—sound so sim­i­lar. This is pre­cisely why so many star­tups are try­ing to re­brand the pe­riod as a ve­hi­cle for em­pow­er­ment. In a sud­denly crowded mar­ket, “you don’t want to com­pete on price, so you dif­fer­en­ti­ate on psy­cho­log­i­cal value,” says Alexan­der Ch­ernev, a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment at North­west­ern Univer­sity. Noth­ing is more pow­er­ful, he says, than “pur­chas­ing moral sat­is­fac­tion.” Does it mat­ter which busi­ness is most no­ble? Not re­ally, and there’s some­thing in­her­ently icky about brand­ing a nat­u­ral bi­o­log­i­cal process that ac­tu­ally has noth­ing to do with self-ex­pres­sion as a cap­i­tal-F Fem­i­nist move­ment. Many of these com­pa­nies cite Toms Shoes, the shoe­maker that pi­o­neered the buy-one-give-one model, as their in­spi­ra­tion. Toms ad­vised Be Girl dur­ing its de­vel­op­ment phase at the Hal­cyon so­cial en­trepreneur­ship in­cu­ba­tor in Wash­ing­ton, and one of Con­scious Pe­riod’s co-founders pre­vi­ously worked in Toms’ mar­ket­ing depart­ment. But the so­cial mis­sion at Toms is an easy way to feel good about an un­nec­es­sary pur­chase; pe­riod com­pa­nies, on the other hand, are sell­ing a prod­uct women need, which can make the giv­ing mis­sion seem less like a perk than an obli­ga­tion. “When we get our pe­riod, we’re re­minded that im­pov­er­ished women get their pe­riod, too, so we should feel guilty,” says Jenny Dar­roch, a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor at the Drucker School of Man­age­ment at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Univer­sity. Ge­orge­town’s Try­bus says most of the star­tups likely “have their brains and hearts in the right place,” de­spite their right­eous­ness. “It’s re­ally ex­cit­ing for us to see other com­pa­nies com­ing to this mar­ket,” says An­nie Las­coe, Con­scious Pe­riod’s co-founder. “It val­i­dates the need for change within this in­dus­try.” It also val­i­dates the in­tel­li­gence of fe­male shop­pers, who should be able to make pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions with­out feel­ing talked down to, in­sulted, or shamed when their ex­pe­ri­ences run counter to life in Pe­riod Utopia. That’s progress for wom­ankind. “From the woman who grew up on the Up­per East Side to the woman from the slum in Mum­bai, we can all re­late to the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing caught off guard with­out a tam­pon or a pad when we needed it,” Las­coe says. “It’s a shared uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­ence. I used a sock once.” <BW>

“You don’t want to com­pete on price, so you dif­fer­en­ti­ate on psy­cho­log­i­cal value”

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