Marketing to Women? How to Get it Right.

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In an age of increased gender fluidity, blurred gender roles and femvertizing, “marketing to women” is a minefield. And that’s before we get to millennials – the group ranging from Malala Yousafi to Miley Cyrus – many of whom don’t want to be defined or targeted by gender at all.

With US women controlling between 70-80% of household purchases – everything from cars to clothes – birth control is not the most obvious subject for a case study in successful gender-based marketing. Yet The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy faced challenges that are common to FMCG brands: a target group comprising of women under 30 and two perfectly good products – the IUD and the Implant – that were failing to appeal to them. And the stakes? Well, with almost half of US pregnancies unplanned, they remain high.

A conventional FMCG-style marketing strategy might have repositioned these two products via a high-profile ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner, talking about the benefits of the IUD and the implant. I mean Kendall’s currently super relevant as a major influencer, so that would drive uptake, right?

No disrespect to Kendall but before talking at women about these products, we wanted to listen to women about their experiences of birth control.

As designers, we’re very human-centered. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, human-centered design is a bit like method acting which trains actors to use their imagination, senses and emotions to create authentic performances that have their basis in human truths. Thankfully this doesn’t mean sleeping in animal carcasses or wading through freezing rivers as Leonardo di Caprio did to prepare for his Oscar-winning role in The Revenant. But it is a similarly immersive approach in getting to know our target market by trying to “walk in their shoes”, to reveal the true emotions of the women we are designing for including identifying and understanding their deepest values and desires. Crucially this step comes before we attempt to offer up any solutions.

On the highly intimate, individualized area of birth control, we felt that gaining an insight into young women’s views, experiences and feelings around contraception might lead us to what lay at the heart of their record low levels of usage of the implant and IUD.

Human-centred design doesn’t mean abandoning conventional marketing techniques or marketing research tools altogether. Instead, our approach is to take the insights derived from a highly empathic design approach and blend them with those aspects of design and marketing that are best suited to delivering a successful outcome.

Our work for The National Campaign was a profound learning experience for all involved. We had in-depth meetings with a diverse group of 70 unmarried, sexually active women aged 18-29 who all wanted to avoid pregnancy in the next 1-2 years. By using an immersive, human-centered design approach, we learnt a lot about their attitudes and perceptions, and what they thought and felt about birth control. We also uncovered four key principles about how to engage millennial women on deeply personal issues:

1. DO: think beyond the focus group
Getting women to talk openly to strangers about birth control is a challenge. Focus groups are useful for quickly uncovering consumers’ conscious reactions to an ad you might wish to trial, or a tangible product concept or new feature. But no-one wants to air their emotional or functional needs around contraception in a focus group.

Instead we asked women to imagine that their current birth control option was a partner they were ending a relationship with via a break-up letter: “Dear Pill, Dear Nuvaring (etc.)”. This included explaining, in their own words, how they felt about it, its effect on their bodies, behavior and relationships, and the reasons they were ditching it as their birth control choice going forward.

Secondly, we asked women to draw how they felt about their birth control. This led to some very revealing pictures and helped make the conversations more tangible and less awkward. It was also a lot more fun and engaging than traditional questionnaires; a technique that can be more leading and absolute.

Both the breakup letter and the drawing are examples of design tools that engage consumers and help them to open up about sensitive subjects in a much deeper way than would be possible in a focus group or even just in a simple discussion. What’s more, unlike marketing research which tends to present consumers with ready formed concepts and ideas, design tools don’t assume anything or lead with any biases. This means they can help marketers make more nuanced and authentic observations and uncover valuable insights. Using this design-led approach we uncovered nine insights, which formed the basis of the Whoops Proof Birth Control consumer campaign that we created in partnership with The National Campaign.

Take-away for other sectors
A similar design-led approach would also work for personal finance brands looking to help specific consumer groups such as millennials and /or couples work through their financials challenges and goals and decide on the best loan/savings account. It could also apply to an HR context within an organization, by empowering employees wanting to change their working arrangements to decide what they need and how to ask for it for example preparing for, planning for, or returning from maternity leave.

2. DON’T: just create, co-create!
Designing a marketing campaign focused on repositioning birth control to millennial women, involves getting all the elements of the campaign exactly right. Given the high rates of unplanned pregnancies, it was essential that the campaign’s vision, its messaging, the tone of voice used, the visuals and the design resonated with millennial women. To make sure they did, we co-created elements of the campaign with our target market.

So, while “His ninja sperm can’t touch this!” isn’t a line you will find on many ads for contraceptives, it packs a certain punch. The phrase came up during our conversations with millennial women, where one woman talked about “ninja sperm”. While we didn’t include what was said word for word, our design research team synthesized these conversations into overarching insights and themes. This approach guided us in using the right imagery, tone of voice and language to ensure that the resulting campaign messages would feel relevant, contextual and compelling.

By co-creating a campaign from the ground up and framing the conversation in everyday language, we developed messaging that was more meaningful and impactful than a more conventional top-down marketing approach might have yielded.

As the Whoops Proof Birth Control website puts it: “Everything you wanted to know about IUDs and the implant. In totally human language. Low maintenance, easy, and without the B.S.”

Take-away for other sectors

Whether you are Urban Outfitters or Oreos, co-creation is an increasingly important tool for brands targeting millennial women who, thanks to the growth of social, expect a much greater say in creating a brand story. The rewards of successful co-creation are increased engagement and loyalty from consumers who will be much more invested in your brand.

3. DO: understand the consumers’ context
Millennials are very savvy about marketing – if they like it they’ll engage; if they don’t they won’t. Understanding their context – the sort of issues they face in their lives, where, and when they are most open to new messages and how they want to receive them, is vital to the success of any campaign. Our human-centered design approach was key in uncovering the context of our target consumers. One of the most important insights we identified was that existing healthcare messaging was failing to connect with millennial women because it was negative and fear-based. At the time, a lot of marketing of birth control options featured statements such as “no way are we getting pregnant.” This fear-based messaging with its underlying “pregnancy is bad” subtext, was a turn-off to millennial women as it ignored the context of their future fertility ambitions. Our target group weren’t anti-pregnancy; most of them wanted children at some point, just not right now.

Another barrier we discovered was that the top-down, medicalized language around marketing birth control could be confusing and alienating: we found that millennial women often muddled IUDs and the Implant both of which sound slightly invasive or cyborg.

We also learnt that a lot the conversations around birth control placed too much emphasis on stats and how effective the different contraceptive options were.
In fact, the women we spoke to saw effectiveness as a given. As one woman put it, “why would a clinic offer me a method if it wasn’t effective?” Instead they wanted to know how the different birth control options would fit in with their lives including answering questions such as “how will I feel?” and “will he feel it?”

When it comes to the timing and correct channels for marketing messages, we found that while millennial women respond well to provocative and real messages about birth control options, there are moments where discretion is key. This includes not only the content of the message, but how those messages are delivered across different touchpoints to ensure the campaign is helpful, and not judgmental and shaming. In a digital world, where one would think online was the medium to communicate, printed leaflets were preferred because they provided women with tangible reference material – helping them to start a conversation with their doctor about their birth control options.

To try and identify both the type of conversations women wanted to have personally or more anonymously and also the right time, place and channel for messages around contraception, we designed a Whoops Proof Birth Control blog for the women taking part in our project. These featured daily missions such as “list the ways you would search/learn more about birth control” and “what was the last thing you shared or that caught your attention online?” In this way, we could uncover how birth control fits into their sex lives, family lives, social lives, work or school lives.

We also experimented with moving communications about birth control away from ads in magazines to texts and messaging that can be viewed and shared more privately. What we learned is that discretion is key, especially in conservative communities. So, in those communities, we retained the campaign’s provocative messaging but left out images which featured women in their bras and underwear holding the Implant or IUD.

Take-away for other sectors
The SanPro sector provides great examples of the importance of understanding the consumer’s context. I mean, how many women have a “happy” period? That said, Bodyform’s video response to a male consumer’s Facebook rant on this subject, is a master class in getting context right.

Context can be cultural and political too. Ikea’s decision to recreate a bomb damaged Syrian home in its Norway store to raise money for the Red Cross is a good example of a retailer being politically contextual and brave. Whether it’s cultural or political, context nearly always requires to brands to be brave. Get it right, and the rewards in terms of brand relevancy and standing out from the crowd, can be huge.

4. DO: use physical objects to help dispel myths about products
Quantitative research revealed that misinformation had led to a lot of myths around the Implant and the IUD. These ranged from assumptions about size, including that the IUD is “massive,” to fears that the government puts radio tags in Implants so that that it can track users. We decided to show the participants in our project the actual physical products, encouraging them to hold and touch the IUD and the Implant and explaining where in a woman’s body they both went. This helped us to dispel misinformation and get to the reality of the two birth control methods more quickly. We also found that our participants were much more comfortable about the idea of them once they had physically held them.

We decided to show the participants in our project the actual physical products, encouraging them to hold and touch the IUD and the Implant and explaining where in a woman’s body they both went.

These reactions informed our approach to the campaign; we included fact or fiction sections exploring common myths and conspiracies about both products and we also took care to visually describe the size of the Implant and the IUD, both in relation to women’s bodies and to everyday relatable objects such as a matchstick.

Take-away for other sectors

Showing is always much more powerful than telling. This design-led approach is good for dispelling a wide range of urban myths that have sprung up around brands such as the fiction that if you leave a tooth in a glass of Coke overnight it will dissolve. It could also be used by healthier food brands such as Nudie Snacks or Ugly Drinks to encourage reducing the amount of salt/sugar/fat people eat by showcasing what they are actually consuming in processed foods or higher salt/sugar/fat options.

The outcome of our design-led research project were nine insights which provided the foundation of the Whoops Proof Birth Control consumer campaign. The insights ranged from moving away from talking about IUDs and the Implant as long-lasting options to describing them as low maintenance methods suitable for the “now” generation. We have also been careful to make sharing the experiences that other teenage and 20-something women have had with these methods, a key element of the campaign, reflecting our finding that millennials value reviews from their peers ahead of information from medical professionals.

As I said earlier, taking a human-centered design approach doesn’t mean abandoning conventional marketing techniques or marketing research tools altogether. The conventional view is that design and marketing are mutually exclusive. However most innovative initiatives, including this one, rely on a hybrid approach which blends design and marketing to deliver messages in a style and format that really resonates with its target consumers.

When it came to launching the Whoops Proof Birth Control consumer campaign the first phase comprised the roll-out of “Campaign in a Box” tool kit containing printed and digital ads. These ads direct women to the website for more information about their choices.

The campaign in a box allows local public health care organizations to tailor marketing to their local needs and budgets. The pilot focused initially in areas where women were at highest risk of unplanned pregnancy including South Carolina, Tulsa, Cleveland and Washington DC.

Initial results from Cleveland show that the number of women considering using an Implant increased significantly, to 36% from 29%. The campaign is on course to meet its objectives of improving understanding, perception and usage of the Implant and the IUD. We will continue to track the results and are confident that these will underline how a human-centered design-led approach in marketing to millennial women can deliver meaningful social impact and ultimately drive behavioral change.

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