From periods to depression: how design can help us talk about taboo topics

Mike Foster, creative director at studio Straight Forward Design, talks about his experiences designing for femcare range Betty, and offers his advice on how to break the silence and challenge the status quo when it comes to “awkward” products.

There’s something of a cultural shift taking place. The dialogue surrounding no-go subjects like sex, periods, mental health and cancer is changing. Embarrassment and shame are stepping aside to make way for straight-talking openness and honesty.

We’ve seen condom brand Durex take contraception from “Something for the weekend, sir?” to celebratory and feel-good with its ‘Love sex’ campaign. Bodyform’s “Blood normal” gave us a guy buying sanitary protection for his girlfriend. Kotex poked fun at pious campaigns involving roller-skating women in white trousers. And testicular cancer adverts have taken a more ‘ballsy’ angle: “Your hand’s already down there – check yourself!”

But what does all this frankness mean for brand and packaging designers? How do we respond to the new way of talking about topics that have, thus far, required a metaphorical nod and a brown paper bag of shame? Through humour, education, or empathy?

What’s certain is that, as consumers fast-forward through ads and eyes turn instead to the products themselves, both online and on-shelf, brand and packaging design will become more important than ever.

Design for your audience, not your taboo

Number one when it comes to homing in on the right design solution and tone of voice for a taboo project is to know your audience.

Bodyform and Kotex captured the zeitgeist with their sector-shifting approaches to menstruation, and women, tired of being made to feel that this benign bodily function is shameful, responded with overwhelming positivity. Empowerment, sass and humour hit the right tone of voice with a target consumer that has grown up with euphemisms like “the curse”, “the time of the month” and “Aunt Flo”.

But those treatments would have been entirely wrong for Betty, a femcare brand targeted at eight- to 16-year-olds. Young women today haven’t grown up with that hackneyed messaging. In fact, the femcare world hasn’t really been speaking to them at all.

When we started collaborating with the Betty team, the aim was to create a positive packaging and communications strategy that reassures girls about the practicalities of periods, the social and personal implications and the physical and emotional developments. The tone of voice was both educational and fun – it was about making the transition into womanhood less intimidating, dispelling outdated thinking and changing the relationship that girls have with their bodies.

Samaritans’ Small Talk Saves Lives is another great example of a campaign that understands its audience and addresses one of life’s greatest taboos: mental health. Its objective was to reach the people who feel their problems aren’t significant enough to merit a conversation, as well as empower us all to feel we can help someone in crisis.

Made in collaboration with British Transport Police and Network Rail, it “normalises” anxiety, stress and despair and tells us that suicide prevention is everyone’s business. Created by Pegasus, this powerful yet sensitive approach won an award for achievement in branding.

Understand your environment

How information is digested varies massively according to location. Where is your consumer? In the supermarket aisle, at home on social media, unwrapping a direct-to-consumer (D2C) parcel? These considerations are especially pertinent when thinking about taboo products and issues. Standing in a supermarket aisle is obviously a very different experience to shopping online and receiving D2C merchandise, and packaging and communications strategies need to reflect this.

The traditional retail space demands a more succinct, quicker-off-the-mark tack. Giving Betty bold, unapologetic colourways meant that we would disrupt a monolithic supermarket shelf and challenge the concept of “cultural discomfort”, of blending into the background. A simple, open and democratic size-navigation strategy – 1, 2, 3, 4 – enables purchasers to make their decision quickly, rather than hanging around in the aisle decoding myriad flow and size symbols. Distinct geometric patterns add another navigational layer. All these incremental design decisions add up to making purchasing more efficient, less of a “big deal”.

But D2C requires a different approach. Consumers are logged on and in a branded environment already so designers aren’t burdened with the traditional retail rules. There’s scope for subtlety, there’s more time to have a conversation with the consumer.

With Betty, that meant we could delve deeper into the subject area with more messaging and educational forums. The brand and tone of voice stay the same, there’s a continuous thread, but the environment and the time constraints are different.

At home, girls get everything they need for their period through the door, with extra treats and information. It’s specifically tailored to their needs and has great brand personality. It’s injecting fun into something that has traditionally been seen as a “dreaded time of the month” and taking any potential embarrassment out of real-life shopping for girls that prefer that route.

Don’t shy away from the “awkwardness”

Courtesy of Who Gives a Crap?

Don’t be afraid to challenge category norms. By owning the conversation around a topic, design studios can shift the way people interact with a brand. This is especially important now as consumers increasingly want to see that their needs and values are aligned with a specific product.

Loo-paper start-up Who Gives a Crap’s brand and packaging-design strategy has elevated this humble, everyday – and some might say, slightly embarrassing – product. By collaborating with artists and designers and giving a share of its profits to WaterAid, it has earned loo roll a prominent position on the bathroom shelf. A brilliant example of branding and packaging design that has changed the conversation around visiting the smallest room in the house – even making it Instagram-worthy!

Be authentic

Betty period pad packaging

It’s easy to stray into choppy waters and patronise or cause offence if you’re not careful. Consumers are smart and they’ll spot a cynical, lazy attempt to capture their custom in a flash. So every taboo topic needs to be treated with sensitivity and on its own merits. We need to keep it real.

This is an exciting time for designers and branding studios. There’s a real opportunity to make a difference, to affect social change. And while the tangible attributes of a brand are hugely important, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s the intangible emotional connections that present so much opportunity to reach audiences in a meaningful way. That’s the space where lasting relationships, loyalty and revenue are built.

As consumers demand a more honest debate, and the path to purchase continues to shift, our role in expressing brand identity and establishing those bonds will only grow.

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