Tapping into taboos

MaRS's Dianne Carmichael on why health and wellness companies that are edgy with their marketing are poised for success.

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By Dianne Carmichael

Startups are in a battle for the survival of the fittest. Fledgling companies must compete for capital and in Canada, where investor dollars are few and far between, that means getting to market faster than your competitors. Those who have figured out their brand identity and customer loyalties early on will have an easier time differentiating their products and overcoming barriers to entry.

The push to scale quickly is prevalent in the health and wellness sector where we’re seeing entrepreneurs with limited budgets taking bold creative risks, transforming once-taboo topics into clever marketing campaigns.

Various studies estimate that we see somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 advertisements each day. How do you stand out in such a saturated space?

Gone is the traditional health-marketing soft sell featuring images of weeping willows and white lab coats. Today, the CEOs of Canada’s hottest startups are breaking through the barrage of brand messages by pitching “dry vaginas,” “moist panties” and “ladyballs.” These risqué marketing campaigns might be forcing some women out of their comfort zones, but they’re also capturing consumer attention and kick-starting important conversations about what should and should not be deemed “unmentionable.”

At the forefront of this startup marketing trend is Chia Chia Sun, a scientist turned entrepreneur who invented a vaginal lubricant for menopausal and pre-menopausal women under the Damiva label. Chia Chia didn’t hold back on her promotional campaign for her first product, Mae, which offered up the following tag lines: “Drier than a British comedy? Honey, you are not alone” and “Enough beating around the bush. Let’s talk about your vagina.”

Chia Chia agonized for months about taking a comedic approach to marketing vaginal dryness. Would such a promotional effort be good or bad for business? In the end, tackling the taboo head-on proved beneficial for business. When it launched, the cheeky campaign led to coverage in Elle, Fashion, Best Health, Flare and Adweek. It also led to distribution deals with all of the top retail pharmacy chains in Canada, including Rexall, London Drugs, IDA, Guardian, Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart.

Knixwear, another Toronto-based startup, took a similar approach. With the help of a linguistics professor from the University of Pennsylvania, the company conducted a study looking at the words women hate the most, including “moist” and “panties.” The company’s public relations campaign, which focuses on mentioning the “unmentionables,” generated a lot of buzz, including a mention on Late Night with Seth Meyers that helped the company into the mainstream, driving customers to learn more about Knixwear’s high-performing underwear and bras.

Risqué marketing in the health and wellness category has also been embraced by the not-for-profit sector. Faced with competing against dozens of charities that have the word “cancer” in their name, Ovarian Cancer Canada recently launched its ladyballs campaign to grab attention. According to the campaign’s creators, the goal was to move away from victim speak and to convey the strength and power — or the “balls” — that women have to fight ovarian cancer. In a survey of over 1,000 Canadians, 77% said the campaign was compelling and 70% said it made them think of ovarian cancer in a new way.

Are there any downsides if a campaign teeters on the edge of offensive? In the health sector, I would argue that hospitals, which operate like big brands with multiple product offers, have an obligation to keep their cheekiness in check. But many of the startups we’re seeing now at MaRS have greater leeway to create these types of campaigns without experiencing consumer backlash. They can afford to be bold, be different, be brash.

The goal of most marketing campaigns is to start a conversation and create a movement. Talk builds brand and, from there, everything else from product development to sales should be aligned. The startups mentioned here have discovered the basics of any marketing campaign: don’t be afraid to amplify the problem you’re trying to solve, whether it’s dry vaginas or wet underwear.

Successful entrepreneurs have found a way to establish product differentiation by communicating their products in an honest and authentic way that cuts through the retail noise. I suspect that in the fast-growing digital health sector we can expect to see more marketing-savvy and salacious taglines.

headshot-Dianne-Carmichael-250x250Dianne Carmichael is the managing director of MaRS Health Venture Services.