As part of the WARC x Ogilvy Image to Impact report, Tanja Grubner, Global Marketing and Communications Director at Essity spoke about how consumers can spot ‘lip service’ brand purpose, the rise of FemTech and making an impact by eradicating taboos.

Tanja Grubner

Tanja Grubner, Global Marketing and Communications Director, Essity

Thinking about how marketing has evolved over the past 10 years, what are the biggest shifts that you've seen over that time?

One is about “doing purpose” right in an authentic way, from “paper” to leading every aspect of their business. Because ultimately purpose is a commitment to growing business by creating value for all people (consumers, customers, employees, stakeholders) involved.

Consumers and customers understand whether purpose is part of the DNA of a company/brand or just a lip service brand extension like a box-ticking exercise. Trust is the distinguishing factor between brands that succeed with purpose and those that don’t.

Helping to address the diversity and gender imbalance not just in advertising but in insights and products is more important than ever. At Essity FemCare we are committed to cater to everybody with periods and beyond. It’s in our hands to make a real positive difference, be more inclusive, let personal care remain personal by taking a more holistic approach to all people's experiences.

Marketers are facing a sheer unlimited wave of new technologies and have to take not one but many trends into account at one time like AI, data management, the cookie-less world, the rise of the metaverse, TikTok… we saw smartphones and social media change consumption habits and the entire industry forever. Marketers need to navigate and leverage the right technologies to make stronger, more efficient, scalable impact both internally and externally connecting with the target audience, identifying insights etc. The rise of Femtec which will help modernise healthcare by taking women and their specific needs into account is hugely exciting.

Consumers see more ads than ever. Brands need to cut through the clutter, competing for attention not only with other brands in the adbreak but in ad-free streaming environments like Amazon Prime, Netflix or Spotify. So creativity is the only way to be noticed by consumers that are bombarded by advertising and tune out of it most of the time. But what I see is, many brands still feel very comfortable with the old advertising model of pushing out only rational product benefits and claims. There's this famous quote, we're feeling machines that think and not thinking machines, and I think it's really important to put that hat on.

When we did a global advertising review in the FemCare category, we saw that none of the product ads that were only focused on functional messaging were cutting through. And this was not a matter of media investment because even the market leader, with quite a dominant share of voice, was not cutting through if it had only functional messaging. We changed our communication model completely because we saw that our purpose led brand work was cutting through, driving fame and actually also driving persuasion because it was connecting with consumers emotionally. In addition, our innovation campaigns build on our unique brand point of view and hence are more successful in market driving trial.

To create impactful marketing, I believe in real, long term partnerships with agencies that share your purpose. Only if they truly understand our business context, our consumers and the world, culture and the society they live in, can they come up with inspirational, powerful ideas that connect with consumers. To bring them to life, marketers need to have courage and together you deliver creative effectiveness for your brand and business. That’s at least the success recipe that worked for us at Libresse and AMV BBDO.

You have a big portfolio of brands in different market sectors, but is there a consistent approach that you've had to adopt in trying to impact people's lives?

Across all markets, we’re activating upon the same brand purpose and mission to eradicate taboos, shame and discomfort around periods, vaginas and women’s bodies. And no matter which innovation or campaign we are launching with our brand Bodyform (also known as Libresse, Nana, Nuvenia, Saba, Nosotras in other markets) under our “Live Fearless” platform, we get the same response from women+ across conservative and progressive countries around the world: They feel understood!

It all started five years ago, when we redefined the brand positioning for our Essity feminine care brands, globally, we looked at what was in consumers' minds, and how brands were engaging with them. Everyone in the feminine care category was talking about confidence and the only things being offered consumers were period care products to absorb blue liquid and prevent blood stains.

Periods in culture and advertising had always seemed so simple: you have them, or you don’t. The only emotion attached to it - when there is - is the fear of leakage. A functional view on women’s bodies. And this makes every other experience feel less valid, less normal, less real. Nobody was asking - how does it feel? Nobody acknowledges the link between periods and a broader emotional context. And everywhere we looked, women’s experiences were overlooked, silenced and ignored.

The more we tried to understand what women+ were going through, the more we realised that just giving them products to deal with their period wasn't enough for them to feel confident – because the entire world, the society, the culture we live in, is very hostile towards women when they're on their period. No girl on this planet is ever born ashamed of her body or with confidence issues. They come from society and internalise them. We need to acknowledge that periods are healthy. There is nothing taboo about it. So we wanted to show we’re a brand that understands what women+ really go through.

That was the first step. And because we have such a huge reach as a global brand, I felt an obligation to change that harmful narrative. So we started that taboo-breaking journey, by raising awareness around toxic stereotypes and harmful misconceptions that are holding women+ back and providing a range of daily intimate care products for women+ to comfortably go with the flow, enabling them to love & care for their V-Zone their way. And then we asked ourselves, is that enough, what more can we do?

I wanted to elevate our brand purpose activation from creating awareness around taboos, opening up conversations around women’s health, to acting upon it. So we launched Project V, our global a change-driving initiative, aimed at improving the wellbeing of women and the world they live in. One example is #painstories, which demonstrated our commitment to closing the #genderpaingap with concrete solutions like a virtual painmuseum, the pain report and tools such as the pain dictionary to reduce diagnosis time for endometriosis sufferers.

I think if brands are to be taken seriously, they need to do both. They need to walk the talk. So, not only raise awareness, but actually really help their consumers overcome the issues. Helping to overcome systemic barriers builds trust as we go beyond understanding women+ to advocating for them.

Was it right at the top of the business, a lot of customer research or combination of the two? What was the firestarter for that?

Essity was founded in 2017 (we used to be SCA), so that's why our brands helped to shape our company’s purpose about breaking barriers to well-being, from the bottom up with the taboo-breaking work that we've done on feminine care as well as the mission of our global brand Tena to liberate people form a world compromised by incontinence. So, I think this is very different compared to some of the other big FMCG companies that have defined their corporate purpose first but we're proud that we're very aligned and can shape the future together.

What unites us, is every one that is working in the global feminine care team, in our countries, as well as our agencies, is really invested behind our purpose and our mission. So, it becomes very personal. This is something that you fundamentally believe is not only the right thing for the brand but the right thing to do overall.

Often people bring in their own stories, so we have creatives or people in my team who have been suffering from endometriosis or who've lost a baby and they share their personal stories. This influences the work and I think that really helped us to become very authentic and honest. It also helped us gain a lot of insight.

We do a lot of social listening but we also run what we call creative market research where we ask questions in a very different way. So, we asked: "If your uterus was a place what would it look like?" "If it was a person, how would it be?" And you get answers that you otherwise wouldn't get. That has influenced how we communicate and innovate a lot and has made it easier to connect and engage with consumers on an emotional level. It is, ultimately, about understanding and being very consumer-centric.

How much do you think other businesses should replicate that process if they want to create an impact in culture and society?

Within Essity, we are not the biggest category in terms of sales but we're the fastest-growing one and fastest growing brand (in markets we compete in) for several years, and we're also the brand that everyone wants to work on.

One reason is because of the fame we've achieved as we’ve been acknowledged as of the most creative brands in the world by WARC several times, but the other is because we have a very clear purpose.

In our annual survey, 97% of employees within Essity FemCare globally, say our brand purpose makes them proud to work for the brand. We feel that that has also shaped the teams that we're working with externally.

We also have a set of brand values in place and when I'm recruiting and I ask why do you want to work for us, they say: "Because I want to be part of the mission that I've seen." People who can't relate, think we're insane (I call it passionate) because everyone is investing so much blood, sweat, and tears into their work, and go the extra mile because it means something to them. There used to be a time, before we had an authentic brand purpose and brand mission, where a brief from Libresse would come to the agency and no creative wanted to work on it. Because who wants to do period pad advertising? Luckily that’s no longer the case now and I feel very fortunate to work with the best creatives, talent and directors in the world.

Have you done anything special with the customer journeys that you've created? Has this thinking changed the choice of channels or the steps the customer goes through to purchase?

We always try to be up to date with the ever-changing media landscape and plan omnichannel consumer journeys. What we see is that some of our taboo-breaking messages are also very personal, so the media where you consume them needs to be tailored to that. On broadcast and TV, we would adjust it compared with something that you can consume privately on your mobile, because when we do advertising research, what we see across progressive and conservative markets is that women all across the world can really relate to the work that we do.

It doesn't matter if it's women in Russia, in China, in Colombia, Mexico, or in Sweden, South Africa or the Middle East. And it also doesn't matter if it was our campaign Blood Normal, where we talked about normalising periods, or Viva La Vulva, addressing body shaming or if it was about Womb stories, where we showed the secret life of wombs, the number-one emotion that women take out is 'I feel understood'.

But what is different across all these markets is their commitment to share and to talk about it. And we see in more conservative markets that women+ won't expose themselves as much as in progressive markets. Even though they still feel understood, the pressure from society is much, much bigger, so, this is where we work a lot with influencers who can then be the trailblazers at the forefront.

It sounds like you're clearly a companion brand and in markets other than the West, becoming a companion brand requires different tactics. Are influencers the only way to get these women to open up or are there other things that have worked for you?

We adapt our global campaigns that run in more than 35 markets from Latin America, to Europe, the Middle East, Africa as well as Asia and Australia to the local market environment, culture and advertising laws. For example in the Middle East or in Malaysia, it's just forbidden to show period blood. Or it's forbidden to show too much skin. But you can still break taboos in locally relevant ways. I am applauding our local marketing teams for their creativity and bravery and how much they dare to do.

The interesting thing is that any time our brands put content out there, there is a small group of very vocal haters. On social media, there are self-moderating forums so you, as a brand, put the point of view out there. Then you have the haters who say, 'you can't do that, this is too much. I don't want to see it.' And then the majority would challenge that. Influencers play another role, but I think as long as you pave the way, rather than leaving it to a single person who feels they need to take a stand on their own, that helps to create a sense of community.

Thinking across categories and the importance of purpose and brands creating an impact, how can you see that changing over the next 10 years?

I believe, and I hope, that brands without purpose will not survive because I think it's in all our interests to change the world we live in for the better. I also believe that sustainability is and will play a very crucial part in the future. If I look at my category, the majority of our portfolio is disposable products, so we need to provide women+ products that are not only better for them, but also for the environment by offering more sustainable solutions to manage their menstrual cycle, like Intimawear, our reusable period pants which we have recently launched.

How easy is it for you to measure the impact that you have and how do you do it?

We have our standard set of KPIs we measure across the entire path to purchase ultimately, everything needs to ladder up to sales and brand health growth. And on top, what we have started to do is create our own Global V Taboo-Tracker – a study that we run across several markets, globally, where we assess what taboos related to women's intimate areas are out there and whether they gradually become less. That's how we measure progress on a cultural and societal level.

How important do you find the distinctiveness versus differentiation debate for creating impacts? Do you think it's important for brands to be traditionally different at the moment or is it just clearly about being distinct and turning up?

Our feminine care brands, depending on which part of the world they are in, are either undisputed leaders or they're a challenger brand. And what we see is that distinctiveness helps us in both markets but especially in challenger brand markets. If we build our distinct brand image – not only in point of view but also look and feel – we drive cut-through, and over time, brand recognition.

We've also seen that with our recent entry into China, the world's biggest FemCare market in the world, our distinct brand positioning of Libresse helps us to stand out in a crowded market. Since launch, Libresse has been growing quarter over quarter and drove conversation beyond its fair share. So, I believe in distinctiveness and within Essity, it's one of our four brand-building principles that every marketer is activating around the globe.