Can a women’s health brand be gender inclusive?

The past decade has seen a momentous shift in attitudes towards gender. Consumers have become increasingly resistant to blatant male and female marketing clichés, and younger audiences have become more vocal in rejecting gender labels.

Just last year, the personal care industry was thrust under the spotlight for charging a ‘pink tax’ on products and toiletries targeted towards women, which research showed could cost up to 25 per cent more than those targeted towards men.

Now, conversations regarding gender marketing have evolved beyond the colour of packaging and pricing discrepancies. Brands operating in the women’s health and feminine care sectors have come under intense scrutiny to address how they communicate about gender and signpost their products for women whilst making a more concerted effort to be inclusive.

In June, JK Rowling was accused of being transphobic after insisting only women experience menstruation on Twitter. This comment catapulted conversations about gender and menstruation into the foreground, as people rushed to defend or condemn her opinion in equal measure. Since then, we’ve seen a number of feminine hygiene brands taking bold steps to adjust their brand positioning to become more open and inclusive for those who may bleed, but don’t identify as female.

Just weeks after Rowling-gate, retail giant Superdrug announced the launch of Luna, a range of eco-friendly period products for “people who menstruate”. This shift toward more gender-neutral language was celebrated by many for making trans and non-binary people feel represented, whilst also avoiding the harmful assumption that everyone who identifies as a woman has periods.

Whilst the likes of Stylist and Metro rushed to applaud Superdrug’s efforts, the news wasn’t wholly well received. Other news outlets were quick to share the views of consumers who ridiculed the company’s ‘woke’ approach, claiming it was ‘playing games’ with gender identity and labels.

Similarly, tampon brand Tampax recently came under fire after it tweeted that ‘not all people with periods are women’. Some of the brand’s followers accused the company of ‘erasing’ women with their message, whilst others praised them for their show of support to trans people.

So, the question remains – can a women’s health brand ever be truly gender inclusive?

It’s fair to say that menstruation brands have come a long way over the last few years. In 2014, Always ‘#LikeAGirl’ taught us to rethink why the phrase ‘like a girl’ had become an insult. In 2017, we saw the first ever UK ad to depict real blood vs the weird blue liquid we had become accustomed to. This year, Bodyform wowed us with ‘Womb Stories’, a video that explored the duality of the uterus and showed menstruation for what it really is: messy, painful and a sometimes welcome relief.

These are all brilliant examples of brands pushing the boundaries and ‘daring’ to open up the conversation surrounding menstruation in order to empower the audience they serve. Did any of them land without backlash? No, of course not. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t make waves to shift perceptions around what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to communicating about periods. Now, we’re better off for it.

Surely, gender inclusivity is the next big hurdle for these brands to overcome. It’s not going to be easy; we will inevitably see companies try, fail, test and learn as they get to grips with how they can authentically communicate with audiences who are no longer simply definable as ‘women’.

The positive news is that some of the leading brands are already shaking things up and paving the way for all companies operating in the women’s health space to consider their position.

What can we learn from these pioneering brands? It’s fair to say that there’s no winning formula, however I would like to share a few observations that all brands should consider when taking steps towards building a more inclusive strategy:

1) Don’t lose sight of the brand

Being more inclusive shouldn’t mean starting from scratch. By ignoring the values, purpose and personality on which an established brand is built, you risk alienating your existing customer base and your efforts to diversity could be perceived as hollow or ‘woke’. Take time to consider how you can broaden your communications strategy to include new audiences whilst staying true to the brands core values and purpose.

2) Listen

You can learn so much from simply listening to your customers and observing how they communicate about important issues. Social media has enabled two-way communication between brand and consumer in a way that was never possible before. Ask the question – what do my customers want to hear from us? How do they talk about gender and inclusivity with friends? What sensitivities do I need to be aware of?

3) Remember, the path for all brands isn’t the same

We have only seen and heard about the very overt shifts in gender marketing e.g. front of pack declarations and media headlines. However, it doesn’t require an all or nothing approach, which for some brands will feel too risky and intimidating. Using language and a tone of voice in wider comms channels, for example evolving your social and website copy to demonstrate sensitivity, inclusivity and authenticity could be a more appropriate means of engaging with your audience. This is not a tick box exercise but a frame of mind and a frame of action that needs to be embedded for the longer term.

4) Diversify from the inside out

It’s true to say that the more diverse your team is, the more diverse your outputs will be. The topic of gender is so subjective and complex, it’s important that you engage with wider team members and your agency partners to ensure the decisions you’re making about your brand strategy is representative, and not just a reflection of one ‘type’ of persons’ opinion.

5) Think beyond gender

Of course, gender diversity is the topic of this blog and therefore a focus. However, as with all communications strategies it is a mistake to think of your target audience as one person. One gender. One opinion. No two people are the same, however there will always be themes, interests, challenges, fears, etc, that unite a proportion of your customer base that you can tap into. This presents a multitude of opportunities to connect with that audience on a level that goes beyond their gender and biological make-up. You could even ask the question, does gender have a place at all?

It’s a subject I suspect will continue to roll and I hope that as brands move forward on a path of greater sensitivity and inclusivity it will start to feel more comfortable and well-trodden soon.

By Hadassah Cullen, Associate Director, Health & Wellbeing