In his book The Green Marketing Manifesto, environmental advertising guru John Grant admits that there is one product that he had no idea how to sell. The problem is not product performance. The little disruptive innovation in question is not just greener but more convenient, cost effective and reliable than its more established competitors. The problem is that it goes against prevailing attitudes and, as a durable low-margin product it doesn’t generate a large marketing budget with which to change those attitudes.
Grant was talking about the menstrual cup: a soft reusable device that women wear internally during their period and rinse out a couple of times a day. It takes a little getting used to, but it lasts for years. This is an environmental benefit but a business nightmare, as it means satisfied customers rarely come back, while those who hear about it for the first time usually react with “yuck.”
The UK’s market leader is Mooncup, which is expanding from a tiny base and now sells hundreds of thousands of cups each year. Powered by social media and its network of advocates, it has moved from alternative stores into large retail outlets and is mentioned in school health education materials. Can Mooncup become a mainstream ‘third option’ in the sanpro market, which has long been dominated by disposable pads and tampons? If it does so, its rise will be thanks to its evangelical users.
Menstrual cups are not new. They were developed in the 1930s, around the same time as the tampon. Both products had to overcome the “yuck” factor, and both involved the scary prospect of inserting an unfamiliar object in an unmentionable place. However, tampons became normalised, as their disposable nature supported advertising, in-store display space, free samples and an army of ‘Tampax ladies’ to do school visits, while menstrual cups languished for lack of investment in such a behaviour change campaign.
Mooncup’s CEO Su Hardy discovered the menstrual cup in 2000. Motivated by a combination of environmentalism and entrepreneurialism, she set up a micro-business importing rubber cups from the US in small batches and selling them on to friends of friends. By 2005, she had developed an improved product made of medical-grade silicon and the brand ‘Mooncup’ was born.
Charting Mooncup’s rise
Hardy began marketing the new product to environmentally minded women through independent health food stores and music festivals. Many of the early adopters were prompted to experiment because of environmental or health concerns. Others made the switch because they found pads and tampons irritating or unreliable.
The company was growing and was agile and creative, but it had limited resources. They recognised the need for both communication to raise awareness of the unfamiliar product and targeted support to help new users get to grips with it. They produced materials for schools and stores but simply could not support the expense of widespread school visits or mass advertising. Instead, uptake has largely been driven by word-of-mouth. Mooncup users tend to be fans of the product, in a way that customers of the big disposable sanpro brands rarely are. The company began to support them by providing stickers and leaflets to help them spread the word. It also developed an affiliates program where user-recommended sales earn commission.
It is critical for Mooncup’s environmental impact, and for its growth, that women who buy the product are successful at using it. Getting started can be daunting, and it can take a month or two to get confident. Mooncup therefore set up an email and telephone advice service staffed by nurses. They see this as an investment that can help individual women but will also grow the broader network of brand evangelists.
Like any modern brand Mooncup has the obligatory Facebook, YouTube and Twitter presence, but its online user communities have also sprung up organically on networking sites such as Mumsnet, where women share frank questions and advice under anonymous nicknames. “The fact that it is taboo works in our favour,” says Marketing Manager, Kath Clements. “People love to talk about something a bit on the edge. There has been a huge amount of conversation without us having to do anything.” Many new customers, she says, are mothers, reassessing their options after a period without periods.
Another breakthrough also came from their customers. In 2005 the national retailer Boots approached the company and asked to stock the product, after receiving customer requests. Having Mooncups on the shelves of a high street retailer has not only been an important route for sales, but also importantly, offers reassurance that the product is safe and normal.
In 2010 Mooncup began a campaign to bring its product further into the mainstream. They contacted St Luke’s, the creative agency founded by John Grant, with the challenge of marketing the unmarketable.
Advertising in the feminine hygiene category tends towards the enigmatic — all mysterious blue fluids and roller-skating in white jeans. Promoting a product that draws attention to intimate body parts and secretions would have to take a completely different approach. “We used the word “vagina” on massive posters on London underground trains,” says Clements. “It started a lot of conversation.” The campaign was styled to look more like a glossy beauty promotion than a sanpro advertisement; it made no mention of the product but invited women to visit loveyourvagina.com, where they could enter a poll of ‘what do you lovingly call yours?’
The campaign achieved success in bringing the brand to wider attention, with visitors to the site submitting 14,000 different pet names for their vagina and attracting coverage in the mainstream media. The trouble was it didn’t have the immediately tangible impact on sales they had hoped for.
Their most recent campaign has therefore taken a more direct approach that focuses on the product’s attributes. It takes the form of a viral video that presents a ‘rap battle’ between two characters representing Mooncup and tampon. It shows the functional arguments for the product in a succinct, entertaining way, which has seen it shared across social media sites. It has received more than 140,000 YouTube views, hitting the number one position in the ‘How to & Style’ and ‘Most Popular’ YouTube charts, and most importantly translating into an uptick in sales.
These different approaches reflect the tension for Mooncup in supporting behaviour change. On one hand they want to give the message that using a menstrual cup is normal and uncomplicated. On the other hand they need to overcome fears and answer every possible question or problem that users might have. They need to be serious and reassure people about concerns such as Toxic Shock Syndrome, but also light-hearted to overcome barriers to talking about menstruation.
Is the menstrual cup reaching a tipping point?
Mooncup, a company with a distinctly anti-consumerist edge, has managed to make an inroad into this major consumer product category. It now sells in 50 countries and was highlighted by Euromonitor market research in 2011 as an emerging threat to the market incumbents. The original has also been joined by a host of competitor brands, offering glittery and coloured versions, in contrast to Mooncup’s Henry Ford approach to colour.
Menstrual cups are as yet a small part of the overall market, but Mooncup and its international competitors have demonstrated that it is possible to market the unmarketable. Online networks have played a key role in enabling the small company to create behaviour change at scale. These networks drive and enable consumer-to-consumer behaviour change — fuelled by nothing more than passion for the product among its user base.
Clements says that Mooncup will continue to ramp up its creative and mischievous approach to marketing but has no plans to develop side-line products or promotional wear. Instead they see a pathway for menstrual cups to continue to become more established through a combination of consumer-to-consumer and mother-to-daughter sharing of attitudes and advice.