Breast pumps, boilers, drinking straws and mattresses don’t tend to scream ‘buy me’. They are functional, useful products, but it’s rare for consumers to search for items like these by brand. More often than not people buy them out of necessity rather than desire, to satisfy a specific need rather than make a statement.
But a raft of new businesses are looking to change that by turning practical (but often boring or taboo) products into aspirational household names.
One such brand is Elvie, which initially launched a pelvic floor trainer and has just unveiled a breast pump. Neither are products women really want to shout about but that’s partly because most manufacturers discuss them in a discreet and almost apologetic way. Given pelvic floor problems affect one in three women and up to 70% of new mothers, that’s something Elvie founder and CEO Tania Boler was keen to change.
“Our brand ethos is to get people talking about what have previously been taboo topics,” she says. “Making these products accessible gives consumers a more positive perception. We had so many naysayers in the beginning who thought we would never get Elvie Trainer into retailers but we’re now stocked in some of the biggest retailers there are.”
The fundamental thing we’ve realised is that [beating the competition] comes down to building a brand.
Simon Phelan, Hometree
The fact people can easily pick up a product like Elvie Trainer indicates “it’s clearly an issue that many women face” and will help to remove the stigma, she adds.
Design has played a key role in helping to shift perceptions and simply using pink was a definite no. “I wanted to give [women] the same experience they would expect from any other premium tech company, regardless of gender. These are intimate and personal products and I wanted them to look desirable,” she says.
Elvie Trainer is a discreet device that connects to an app and helps women visualise pelvic floor movements in real time using biofeedback, while Elvie Pump is a silent, wearable breast pump with no wires or tubes.
The branding for both is sleek and modern, quite different from what consumers might expect for products of this nature, which is also reflected in its tongue-in-cheek marketing. Its debut ad, created by Mother, features four women rapping about the negative associations of breast pumping, referring to the brand’s research which suggests existing methods make mothers “feel like a cow”.
For sleep brand Eve, treating mattresses as a lifestyle purchase has been key to shifting perceptions. Co-founder and chief brand officer Kuba Wieczorek explains: “Sleep is as important as the food you put in your body and the exercise you do, yet people can name millions of sports, food, diet, juice and wellness brands but sleep just wasn’t part of that conversation.”
“Mattresses have always been seen as something you buy, cover up and then forget about. You don’t tell anyone what mattress you sleep on because it’s just weird. That’s what made us start thinking about this idea of creating a cool and culturally relevant sleep brand. And it’s important, my choice of words there, because we’ve always said we’re not just creating a mattress product, we are creating a sleep brand. We always had this mission to be much more than just a mattress company.”
Prior to setting up Eve, Wieczorek worked on Channel 4’s Paralympics campaign ‘We’re the Superhumans’, and while it may seem odd to compare the two, he says there are parallels.
“What we did at Channel 4 with the Paralympics was take an event that was not watched [and turn it around]. It was an embarrassment really, it was seen as the ‘special Olympics’ and had zero viewing figures,” he says. “It wasn’t that it was ignored it was just that no one really knew how to market it. It was always very apologetic and Channel 4 changed that.”
The power of TV
Taking this on board, Eve’s ethos is hinged on what is possible following a good night’s sleep and advertising has played a pivotal role in communicating this. Eve initially focused on digital performance marketing and social media but chose to build awareness through TV advertising soon after launch. It secured investment from Channel 4’s Commercial Growth Fund, through which the company received air time rather than a cash injection.
“Less than a year after we launched we were on Channel 4 having ads around Grand Designs. We definitely couldn’t have done that from day one because Channel 4 wouldn’t have invested in us, but a [combination of social media, performance, TV and posters] has worked well,” he says.
“Advertising is super important and the proof is in how fast we’ve grown. We’ve got around 25% unprompted brand awareness which for a three-and-a-half-year-old company is pretty incredible. In London it’s almost double that.”
We’ve always said we’re not just creating a mattress product, we are creating a sleep brand.
Kuba Wieczorek, Eve
Boiler installation company Hometree is similarly keen to change perceptions, albeit in a very different category. CEO and co-founder Simon Phelan believes that will come by building trust and focusing on emotion rather than function.
He uses online estate agent Purplebricks, the shareholders of which have also invested in Hometree, as an example of a brand that has done this well.
“How, in a crowded market like estate agents, did Purplebricks rise above and beat the competition? The fundamental thing we’ve realised is that it came down to building a brand,” he explains.
In order to create awareness and consideration, Hometree launched its first above-the-line campaign in September. The TV ad, which was commissioned by Snap LDN and created by the stop-motion filmmakers behind movies Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr Fox, features a family of mice enjoying the warmth of a heated home. It focuses on the positive result of having a fully working boiler rather than the stress of having to get one replaced.
Marketing is going to play a “fundamental role” as the business looks to build trust and expand into other areas of the home, he says. “These are products consumers don’t know much about and don’t really want to know much about – they just want them to work. But when they don’t the feeling consumers have is one of fear.”
Even more important than the price point and the value proposition is building trust, “which is critical in this type of market, and advertising really helps with that because the whole market is trust-starved”.
Creating a movement
Straws are another product not many people associate with a particular brand or actively seek out when making a purchase. That’s in part because the majority of straws are made from plastic and designed to be thrown away after one use.
Given the fight against single-use plastic is rapidly gaining momentum there is room for a sustainable straw brand to “own the market”, according to Paul Gibson, the founder of eco-friendly stainless steel straw brand Turtle Savers. He says competitors have failed to treat their products as brands, instead focusing on the fact they are stainless steel or biodegradable, which doesn’t necessarily inspire consumers.
“I was looking at the space and thought: ‘Why is no one branding stainless steel straws?’ If we create a brand with a message for the social media generation then people will use the straw and photograph the brand. It just seemed like a no-brainer,” he says.
“But then it’s also a brand [with purpose], so with a photo and a hashtag we can also create a movement.”
By creating a movement, changing perceptions or breaking taboos brands, have the opportunity to move beyond the functional and create an emotional connection. To succeed in turning functional products into desirable brands, companies must look beyond the specifics and instead illustrate how their offer can improve the lives of consumers.