CMO

Breaking taboos: Marketing socially awkward products

Marketing and agency leaders from Kimberly-Clark, BBE and Tribe share the campaign strategies and authentic brand thinking behind creating awareness of socially awkward products

There are some products and services consumers can’t help but shout about from the rooftops. Then there are plenty of others which many people wouldn’t be caught dead discussing in public.

The human body in particular gives rise to a vast number of important but socially awkward scenarios, many of them related to reproductive health or other issues of a very personal nature. For marketers, these present a significant challenge, as they seek to engage consumers in conversations they may not feel comfortable having.

But it is a challenge Margaret Cheung has embraced. Her career has included lengthy stints working on products many marketers might shy away from, including toilet tissues and nappies. For the past six years, she has been the marketing sector lead for adult and feminine care at Kimberly-Clark Australia, marketing both feminine hygiene and the adult incontinence products.

The latter category has seen Cheung flexing her skills to promote conversations around a condition few people would normally want to discuss. Yet she says research shows 38 per cent of all Australians over 35 suffer from some form of bladder leakage issue, including 3.4 million women. It is this group Kimberly-Clark Australia has been targeting with its Poise Pads and liners range.

“This is a marketer’s dream, because you’ve got men and women, strong emotional barriers to this category, strong stigma and strong denial - there are so many challenges,” Cheung tells CMO. “Our mission for this category is really about restoring dignity for these 5.1 million Australians. It is about giving them back control, confidence and dignity.”

It is also a category proving to be highly lucrative, with an estimated annual value of around $150 million annually and growth of 4-6 per cent each year. Cheung says the share of revenue flowing to Poise has done so as the result of convincing sufferers to stop using unsuitable products to manage the condition, such as feminine pads.

“The period product is not designed to hold urine,” Cheung says. “It is a very different liquid to menstrual fluid, so it needs a different product specification.”

Cheung says the campaign behind methods for marketing Poise have evolved over the time she has been responsible for the product. In the beginning, it was very much a rational message around how our products are different to feminine care.

“But just giving consumers a rational reason is not enough. You need to relate to them and bring to life the situations they can relate to,” she says.

Authentic campaigning

The breakthrough for Poise came with the launch of a campaign that brought light bladder leakage into the mainstream by having women describe triggers which caused it to occur, such as jumping or even laughing. That campaign also featured the abbreviation ‘LBL’, which Cheung says further served to normalise the condition.

The breakthrough for Poise came with the launch of its campaign that brought light bladder leakage into the mainstream by using women to describe the triggers under which it occurred, such as jumping or even laughing. That campaign also featured the abbreviation ‘LBL’, which Cheung says further served to normalise the condition in the minds of sufferers.

The ‘triggers’ idea is retained in the latest campaign for Poise, although Kimberly-Clark Australia has used imagery with an illustrative and animated appearance. Poise has also upped the edginess of the messaging, using phrases such as ‘I like my underwear like I like my martinis – dry’.


Cheung says each of its campaign iterations has been thoroughly researched. “In between campaigns, we continue to keep on top of what consumers are feeling about the category, the brand, the condition itself, and things that are happening to their bodies,” she says.

“This is a highly sensitive topic. In the past, we have gone down a path of being humorous, and there is a really fine line you dance on, because you can come across as being flippant and laughing at the women instead of with them.”

Women are responding well to the sassier tone of the latest iteration of the campaign.

“Australian women like it - they are strong, they are empowered, and they have control over their life,” Cheung says. “And we are not laughing at their condition, we are saying ‘we get you; we know that you are a strong woman’.”

The campaign has also been achieving cut-through commercially, with Kimberly-Clark’s most recent usage and attitudes study indicating a strong result over the past eight years.


“We saw that the penetration of those buying a specific adult care product had increased from 26 per cent to 45 per cent,” Cheung says. “That was a measure for us that consumers are getting more comfortable with the condition and are now seeking the right kinds of products to deal with it.”

“Our ultimate aim is that it becomes such a normal thing that you do talk about it at barbeques.”

Challenging norms

Kimberly-Clark Australia is no stranger to promoting socially awkward products using edgy creative content, having been behind the U By Kotex (UBK) feminine hygiene brand relaunch in 2003, which was notable at the time for its use of strong colours and language.

“That was still a time of blue liquid and girls running on a beach riding horseback with their bikini on,” Cheung says. “In the beginning we were quite famous for running quite controversial campaigns.”

One of those campaigns also encouraged women to take care ‘down there’, featuring an animatronic beaver. While that campaign generated a lot of complaints, it did not dissuade Kimberly-Clark Australia from developing similarly edgy creative content, including a 2013 campaign for its sweat dry sports pantyliners, which included imagery of sweaty crotches.

“We weren’t doing it for attention’s sake, we had a reason,” Cheung says. “The product does absorb sweat, and you do get a sweaty crotch when you exercise.

“We have moved through the times and realise today’s young woman expects more from a brand and more from herself. We have moved more to a space of championing her progress. So how do we make sure that periods don’t get in the way of her progress?

“Our messaging is around ‘UBK performs so you can’. It is a very uplifting message saying periods should not get in your way.”

Up next: How socially awkward products play out in the social media sphere, plus the issue of marketing premature ejaculation solutions

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Socially awkward

While many campaigns for socially awkward topics have involved mostly one-way communication through above-the-line advertising, the advent of social media has given marketers many more options through which to draw consumers into conversations, and some have risen to the challenge.

Social influencer platform, Tribe, has been engaged to drive influencer campaigns around numerous socially awkward topics, including the VIPoo campaign for a toilet odour minimisation product from Airwick, and the Viva la Vulva campaign for UK feminine hygiene product maker, Bodyform, which used euphemistic images to represent women’s genitalia.

Tribe founder, Jules Lund, says when using social influencers for socially awkward conversations it is important to know the influencers as well as you know your target audience.

“Humour always works, as well as giving them the creative freedom to express the message in their own tone,” he advises. “Taking it one step further and giving them artistic freedom to interpret the themes with illustration, typography or stop motion takes it to another level. Everyone seems to win when it’s playful.”

The idea of humour and playfulness was certainly top of mind for marketing agency, BBE, when it created a campaign for the Prolong Climax Control Training Program. BBE director,  Adam Beaupeurt, says his agency’s goal was to connect with men who experienced premature ejaculation in a way that did not demean or embarrass them.

“If you were to search premature ejaculation right now on Google Images, what you will see is a whole bunch of women sitting at the end of their bed in despair that their lover has ejaculated too early,” he says. “Stigmatising this category further exacerbates this problem that exists within the psyche of men. So bringing fresh thinking, fresh language, fresh design, and a product solution certainly goes a long way from the outset.”

bringing fresh thinking, fresh language, fresh design, and a product solution certainly goes a long way from the outset

BBE's Adam Beaupeurt


The campaign involved significant research to get into the mindset of sufferers of premature ejaculation, as well as lengthy discussions with clinicians. The result was the character Smiling Dick, a well-groomed man who provided an educational platform from which to talk about the product from the penis’s point of view.

“We needed a way to cut through and talk to people,” Beaupeurt says. “Smiling Dick was something unexpected and ultimately something that could lead to a bit of a chuckle. That opens a gateway to people to seek more information. And then it is really brings to life a whole range of language, shifting it from being a clinical problem into a perception issue, and that there is lots you can do about it.”

BBE also ran out-of-home advertising, as well as an extensive PR campaign, which Beaupeurt describes as wildly successful. Not all channels were so easy to work through, however.

“One of the big challenges with sexual health products that are stigmatised is that they can be classified as a sexual toy or an adult product, when ultimately it is servicing a group of people who have some clinical condition,” Beaupeurt says.

“Facebook and Google have extremely stringent policies for advertising about adult products. Because of the power of their systems and the automation of reviewing, they determined even though we were pushing people to an educational platform, ultimately there were links to a climax control training program product. Subsequently, many ads were restricted without human intervention of consultation about the topic or anything in relation to the clinical nature of these products and services.”

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