Essity’s Tanja Grubner on breaking the taboos

“The number one lesson is always check with consumers – the outside world is often braver than you are.” The woman behind the brave new rebrand of Essity’s Bodyform range, Global Marketing and Communications Director for Feminine Care Tanja Grubner, tells how the uncompromising brand positioning came about.

I really enjoy working in the feminine care category globally. It allows me to get in touch with so many different cultures and countries – our business is spread from Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, all the way to China and Malaysia, and from Sweden, Russia and France to South Africa. But what makes feminine care special is that it really impacts women’s lives.

I remember when I started to work in feminine care, I was handed our brand positioning, and I read it and I thought: “I cannot activate the brands globally on this positioning because it’s fundamentally wrong.” I absolutely disagreed with it because it was all about encouraging women to “be their best self every day.” I thought, well, I don’t think a towel or a tampon will encourage me to be the best every day; I just didn’t believe in it.

I had full support from Ute, our Innovation Director, who had looked into how to transform the category from providing products that absorb blood into supporting women throughout their menstrual cycle and caring for them. Or as the founder of strategic agency partner Kitchen 8, Daniela Barrera, always said: we need to evolve from the hole to the whole (women) – you should be more than a liquid management brand five days of the week.

So we looked into understanding consumers and we found out what is really holding women back, and it’s all the taboos linked to periods, menstruation and the vagina.

Do you know where the origin of the word “taboo” comes from? It actually comes from the Polynesian word “tapua” – and that means menstruation. So it shows how deeply linked our category is with taboos. And because it’s deeply linked with taboos it’s very much rooted in values. And that makes it very interesting because our job goes beyond just selling products – we can really impact girls’ and womens’ lives by helping to remove those taboos that hold them back.

When we learned about those taboos – that nine out of 10 women had side effects when they’re on their period, that girls would rather be bullied at school and talk about their period, or that it’s easier for women to ask for a pay rise than to admit that they’re on their period, or that women undergo labiaplasty because they feel shame about how their vulva looks, and that they miss smear tests because there is shame which can lead to cancer…

I think once we found all of that out, it was clear I couldn’t close my eyes. And this is when we completely reshaped what our brand should stand for.

And then it was about bringing it to life to the consumer. So we travelled to Mexico, which is our biggest market globally. We travelled to Colombia, our second biggest market globally. We went to France and China and Russia, and we had stakeholder interviews with everybody and people told us what we should keep from their regional brands and what we were allowed to change – and everyone said not to ever touch the logo. But when we understood what our brand equities were, for me it was very clear that our logo was not ownable. There were elements that we needed to protect, but I would definitely touch the logo because no one was remembering it.

So three years later, we did and every single market followed us because consumers just love the idea that our brand is about V zone and confidence. The V zone is the vagina and the vulva and the V shaped front. You can see that we are a feminine care brand that is catering to women and their intimate needs.

This idea was so strong that out of three design routes the same route won across five markets, and it won over and over again – it doesn’t matter if we tested it on pack designs or if we tested on other touchpoints; it was the same on intimate washes, on towels, on tampons, and liners. Women in Malaysia, in China, in Mexico, in Colombia, in Argentina and in France got it immediately and this is when our local marketeers started to gain trust and love it.

I remember when we started, one of our our VPs said “you know, this will never work everywhere because in the markets outside Europe we’re already number one. They have no reason to change.” I said, no, I believe this is the right thing to do. I think we can win with the markets, and in terms of stakeholder management I tried to identify who were the critical people, the opinion leaders and the decision makers, and made sure that they would be involved along the way, constantly.

So there was no global mandate that we rolled this out, but it was always clear: We will be consumer and shopper led, and we will evaluate the business risk and business upsides and that we will only go if we see an upside for the business – and we managed to get market by market on board. After we had conducted qualitative research and we had a very clear winner, the team in Malaysia gave me a call and said, “I know you had planned to do a quantitative shelf test in Malaysia, but we don’t have time. We have a lot of competition being very active in the market – we want to launch now. And we want Malaysia to be the pilot market. Can you do that?”

And they gave me this ridiculous timeline, which was basically “tomorrow” and I heard myself saying, “of course we can do it.” I had no idea how, but I thought I will not get this opportunity a second time if I said no, so we did. Then once China heard that Malaysia is going in, China gave me a call and said, “you know what, we want that too. And we want the launch three months afterwards. Can you do that?” And I said “sure”. I had no idea how we would do it. But we did, and all of a sudden, we had pilot markets while we were still refining designs for the other markets.

Our biggest markets were really relieved – normally because the business is so big, very often Colombia and Mexico will be pilot markets but if you touch packaging, it’s such a risk. But they can test and learn and see how it goes in other markets and, and I’ve been sharing with them recently and said, “hey, you know what? Malaysia is a market leader like you and they have been continuing to grow since we launched the new pack design,” and that gave them a lot of reassurance.

From the beginning there was this idea about confidence and the V. It was so strong, it kicked out everything else. So, it was very clear in which direction we would go. The only question was, do we dare to make such a big move? Out of all the design routes, this was the one that was probably the most revolutionary We had more evolutionary routes. But this one was the clear winner, no matter how many tests we did, it just got better and better. The idea was so powerful and so spot on that no matter if we were a challenger brand or a undisputed market leader, and no matter if it was a country, where its society is more open and progressive, like in Sweden, or more conservative, like in Jordan or Russia, it worked effectively.

One of the biggest lessons from the last three years in brand identity is that even though internally you think you are not ready, consumers often are. There was so much concern about whether the brand could show period blood in red – the whole category over the last century has always replaced it with blue liquid and blue droplets. Can we really do that or is that offensive? And we tested it and women found it completely normal. And they said, “oh, I never realised – it’s really weird,” We had one consumer quote from Columbia, where a woman said, “finally, I no longer feel like a smurf.” That’s brilliant.

We had endless debates with marketeers around the globe – can we do that? No, they said, because, I don’t think women are ready. So the number one lesson is always check with consumers – the outside world is often braver than you are.

The second one is about thinking big. Check with consumers, but think big – because only if you think big, can you achieve big. If we had started by doing a little evolution of the brand I don’t think we will have achieved those results.

We had a very clear brief of what we wanted to get out of it. And we had very clear boundaries. And these boundaries were that we could not lose what our brand stands for today. Our blue rhomboid was remembered by every second or third person even though it had been around for centuries. And we’ve been associated as a brand that is pink. So we knew we shouldn’t lose our blue rhomboids and we knew we couldn’t lose pink. And we knew that in some parts of the world, we already were associated with being a bit taboo-breaking. And those were the three elements that I said we must not ever touch, but everything else was open.

Of course, the other thing while we were relaunching was the virus. I read this quote by Dana Marlowe who is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organisation which is called I Support Girls. And what she said is “periods don’t stop for pandemics.” This is so true.

I’m fortunate to work for Essity, a company that makes its Swedish kroner or euros or dollars by selling toilet paper, facials tissues, diapers, feminine care products and incontinence products. And while a lot of companies and brands have been suffering, we haven’t because the consumer demand during these times has been going through the roof. And people not only stockpiled toilet paper, which was already funny enough, but they did the same with diapers and also with feminine care products.

What we have also seen is that any time you know where social distancing becomes the norm is that speaking up freely and trying to create unity is helpful. And I think with our brand relaunch, we’re just showing that we’re listening to women and that we are an empathetic brand. And so far, the feedback in market has been great both from a retailer point of view, as well as from consumers and shoppers. So everything we learned in research before is what we are experiencing in markets – and COVID-19 is not stopping us.