Knickers in a twist

The highly public removal of the Bodyform poster advertising sanitary towels raises the issue of how to connect with consumers on taboo subjects. While SCA chose provocation, rivals have opted for the tongue-in-cheek approach. At all costs, avoid being patronising. By Barny Stokes

The row over SCA Hygiene’s latest Bodyform campaign (MW last week) shows that consumers are still seen as squeamish when it comes to dealing with bodily functions. The poster forms part of the personal care giant’s current “Vote for Change” drive. Created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, it is designed to encourage women to question the effectiveness of their current brand, using the strapline/ “Every month, more than one in five women are let down by their sanitary towels.”

But one poster, sited outside a train station in Ainsdale, Southport, resulted in a flurry of complaints to local councillor Brenda Porter. Porter, in turn, complained to site owner JC Decaux, telling the local press: “Advertising is fully accepted by everyone, provided appropriate guidelines ensure it does not abuse its function.” Decaux apologised and took down the poster, which led SCA to express its shock that anyone could find the words “sanitary towel” offensive.

There is no suggestion that Decaux acted improperly – and SCA is keen to play down the poster’s removal, stressing that it was simply due to a “breakdown in communication”. However, it is defending the campaign vigorously, highlighting the challenges marketers face when it comes to “mentioning the unmentionable”.

About the campaign, Nicola Jones, UK brand manager for Bodyform, explains that the main problem SCA faced was consumer apathy. “It’s very difficult to get people to interact with the subject,” she says. “It’s a low-interest category and women tend to have a ‘seen it all before approach’ to product innovation, so it’s hard to convince them that there might be something better out there.”

During the course of its research, SCA found that UK consumers tended to be less hardy than their European counterparts when it came to coping with periods, says Jones. In other words, women preferred to cuddle up with a hot water bottle rather than setting off for a ten-mile hike, and found past Bodyform campaigns – one of which featured women sky diving – as faintly ridiculous. “It was seen as a brand with a very strong personality, but with less of a focus on the product itself,” she says. “It made an emotional connection with consumers, but that was not enough to differentiate it from competitors.”

The problem with talking about the product was that the “demonstrations” used by rival brands – many featuring a blue liquid being poured onto a towel – also went down badly in focus groups, as women found them condescending. To tackle the problem, Jones says that SCA opted for the bold move of talking about “leaks” and admits that BBH deliberately used outdoor media for its impact.

Agent provocateur

“We realised that a classic persuasion approach wouldn’t work in this market; no matter how clearly we dramatised product news, it simply wouldn’t cut through,” says BBH senior planner Patricia McDonald. “With that in mind, we redefined the role for communications not as persuasion, but as provocation; we had to overtly challenge preconceptions and behaviours.”

The strategy has won praise from observers. Many stressed that marketers have long shied away from confronting topics seen as taboo, leading in turn to ineffective advertising. “Some of the ads in this category have been ludicrous,” says Futurebrand executive director of brand strategy Jasmine Montgomery. “The idea that every month this blue liquid comes out of us was ridiculous.”

However, others point out that the publicity surrounding the poster’s removal could in itself prove quite helpful to SCA and suspect that its “shock” over the Ainsdale residents’ reaction is slightly disingenuous.

Clever tactics

“This isn’t going to shock the target audience. The people who will be shocked are the mums and dads walking their kids to school who find themselves having to answer difficult questions,” says Peter Shaw, managing director of branding consultancy Brand Catalyst. “There are better ways of hitting your target audience, but this certainly generates a lot of noise. From that perspective, it’s a very clever piece of media buying.” Shaw adds that the strategy is a classic tactic for a smaller brand competing against rivals with deeper pockets, but with too much to lose to adopt similar tricks of the trade themselves.

However, while none of the other major players in personal care has gone as far as SCA with Bodyform, many have tried a variety of ways of marketing taboo products in recent years.

In 2003, Kimberly-Clark revamped its Kotex brand of sanitary towels after its research also revealed that women found most ads in the category condescending. Rather than adopt an aggressive approach, it sought to give the brand a playful tone of voice with its “Red Dot” campaign developed by Ogilvy & Mather. The packaging was redesigned to incorporate iconic female images – such as lipstick and high-heeled shoes – marked out in red against a white background. To support the relaunch, it built the “ultimate” women’s bathroom (also decked out in red and white) inside an articulated lorry, driving it around music festivals to increase visibility. “We found that women wanted to be spoken to as women, not as ‘havers of periods’,” says Kotex UK brand manger Rebecca Hirst. “So we went with a tongue-in-cheek feel, to emulate the kind of conversation you would have with a friend.”

Always tricky

It is a strategy that has proved effective for other brand-owners tackling “tricky” subjects. Durex owner SSL has been running ads for years highlighting sex as a fun, recreational activity. Even Procter & Gamble has become more adventurous recently. Its current campaign for its Always brand of sanitary towels – “Pant Rain” by Leo Burnett – features women throwing unattractive, oversize pants out of their windows, safe in the knowledge that Always Ultra towels give them enough protection to wear their normal knickers.

Most observers agree that as a nation, the UK has gone a long way to softening its attitudes towards difficult subjects. But others argue that, at least for the foreseeable future, marketers will still face a particular challenge when it comes to communicating with consumers in this country. “We’re not as bad as we were, but we’ll always remain British,” says Richard Buchanan, head of corporate branding at Corporate Edge. “Europe will always snigger at our approach to anything to do with sex or bodily functions.”

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