Talk to Marie-Laure Mahé about vulvas, or period blood, or incontinence, and she won’t blush. In fact, she is on a mission to stop these being forbidden subjects.
“Breaking taboos has always been part of the company’s DNA,” says the project lead of Essity Ventures, the newly-created innovation initiative from the global hygiene and health company.
Essity — which has brands including Bodyform and TENA — already has a taboo-busting track record. In 2017, the #bloodnormal campaign by its Bodyform menstrual pad brand normalised showing red period blood — instead of that strange clinical blue liquid — in advertisements.
In 2018 they followed it up with the colourful, award-winning “Viva la Vulva” campaign, where everything from animated conch shells and grapefruit to oysters and purses became a chorus of visual metaphors singing the praises of this hidden-away part of the female anatomy.
Behind the fun was a serious message — 68% of women don’t really know what their own vulva is and many feel embarrassed about the way it looks, feels and smells, sometimes leading to serious health consequences.
“It was the first time that a big brand was talking to women in that way. We won a lot of awards for that campaign and our main audience — women — really appreciated it,” says Mahé.
For years, Essity has been on a mission to break the barriers to women’s wellbeing through innovative solutions and disruptive campaigns. But, she says, there is still far to go in bringing women’s health issues to the foreground. “With Essity Ventures, we take one step forward in this direction, cooperating with top-notch femtech innovations that can disrupt the future of women’s health at different life stages,” explains Mahé.
We need to be where women want to be.
Essity Ventures first partnership, with Endometrix, a Swedish startup that helps women track symptoms of endometriosis, shows how this might work.
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Essity included the Endometrix app as part of its Bodyform brand’s #wombstories campaign, helping the startup raise awareness of the tool.
“We were aiming at onboarding 3,000 women to Endometrix over three months, but we reached that number in just two weeks,” says Mahé. “It was a really positive sign.”
With a presence in more than 150 markets worldwide, Essity can provide a rocket boost for smaller companies when it comes to advertising and awareness.
A number of other femtech company partnerships are still under discussion. As a very new entity, Essity Ventures is adopting an out-of-the-box approach when it comes to collaboration models.
“We don’t want to be a traditional VC, just putting financial investment in and expecting to get a return in a few years,” says Mahé. Most partnerships with startups are likely to be very hands-on and could follow one of many models from co-investment to commercial deals.
“In the discussions we have been having with startups we have often gone in with one model and then come out with a completely different one, which I think is really positive, as it shows we are really listening and trying to do what is best for both sides, not just us as a big company telling the startup what to do,” says Mahé.
This open innovation model is revolutionising the way Essity works with partners.
The applications received by the Ventures team, for example, are processed in an agile way by senior leaders, removing bureaucracy and allowing the team to act quickly.
Mahé says projects need to provide opportunities for both sides, but, again, Essity Ventures’ approach is quite fluid, as the team sees every partnership as unique.
“If we are still in partnership with the company in several years time we will see that as a success,” says Mahé.
Mahé says the team is happy to look at a very broad range of ideas — even those that may challenge the company’s existing product lines. Menstrual cups and reusable period pants, which may take business away from the company’s disposable pads, are not off-limits. This is in line with Essity’s sustainability ambitions, as the company strives to accelerate its journey towards a circular economy.
“As a global player providing products and services to hundreds of millions of people every day, we can make a real impact when it comes to the society and the environment. Sustainability is high on our agenda and we continuously look for partners with sustainable innovations,” says Mahé.
This also responds to women’s needs. “We need to be where women want to be. So if there is a desire for sustainable products, we will respond to that. We are not going to say no to any fantastic idea.”
Breaking taboos has always been part of the company’s DNA.
Along with sustainability, digitally-driven Feminine Care innovations are high on Essity Ventures’ agenda – data driven insights can help better understand and respond to women’s health needs with enhanced precision and quality. “This is the ideal timing for developing digital business models for the future of the women’s healthcare market. This momentum creates a window of opportunity to revolutionize women’s life through new technologies,” explains Mahé.
And new technologies can be applied to provide better care to women, beyond period care.
Essity Ventures is looking to reshape the future of women’s health at all life stages.
Menopause-related products are likely to be a theme. Mahé says she would like to tackle the remaining taboos around products for older women. She points out that Essity’s Tena-brand has already started to move the needle on this by getting incontinence products out of just being sold in pharmacies to being more openly displayed on supermarket shelves.
“There are so many areas like that we can look at,” she says. “We are with women through all their life stages from their first periods to later life when they may need incontinence pads, and we want to be opening up conversations about all of those areas.”
Essity Ventures is a strategic initiative of Essity to lead the change towards a more sustainable and digitally advanced health and hygiene ecosystem. Essity is a leading global hygiene and health company, improving people’s well-being through its products and services with sales in approximately 150 countries under leading global brands, such as Libresse, Bodyform, Nosotras, Saba, TENA, JOBST, Leukoplast, Libero, Lotus, Tempo, Vinda and Zewa.
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