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An Olympic Moment for Cultural Revolution

Yael Alaton, Strategy Director

Over the years, the Olympic Games have delivered a handful of truly generation-defining moments. In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their hands in the Black Power Salute whilst receiving their medals on the podium, and Usain Bolt became an instant millennial hero for his casual, boisterous domination of the 100m sprint in 2012.

While Rio produced its fair share of brilliant athletic feats, perhaps the most culturally poignant moment came from Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui who, when questioned by an interviewer about her apparent stomach pains after the women’s backstroke relay, responded that she was on her period. In that moment, she brought cultural taboos clattering to the ground, started a worldwide conversation and lifted the lid on a goldmine for brands.

In her home country, the overwhelming response to Fu’s comment – ‘But why was there no blood in the pool?’ – throws a significant behavioural discrepancy between East and West into stark light. Stigmatised by cultural misconceptions and believed to compromise virginity, tampons constitute just 1% of the £70 billion feminine care industry and are used by just 2% of Chinese women (compared to 70% in the West). Countless corporations have come up against significant cultural reproach in trying, and failing, to take their western tampon brands to China – but the game is finally changing. Beijing-based Yoai, a visionary Chinese company established less than a year ago, has set its sights on uprooting engrained perceptions and – hand in hand with Pearlfisher – is harnessing the power of branding and design to drive the kind of cultural change young Chinese women have been waiting for.

In China, the gap between millennials and their parents is the widest of any nation. 90s babies were the first Chinese generation to grow up in a time of economic prosperity instead of instability and famine, and, as products of the one-child policy, enjoyed the undivided attention of both parents plus two sets of grandparents. Chinese youths spend more time online than their American counterparts, with home-grown digital platforms, WeChat and Weibo driving new social norms. Digitalised, individualised, naively optimistic and living for the now, this generation is almost unrecognisably foreign to its older counterparts – as Tom Doctoroff put in for Forbes, they are “new minds in an old world.”

It is no wonder, then, that an innocently outspoken, refreshingly gregarious personality like Fu Yuanhui became a national hero overnight. The response to her comments points not only to the slow but steady shifting of plates that have for years defined the country’s consumerist culture, but illustrates what an immense opportunity there is for brands to play a part in empowering young Chinese women ready to shake the restrictions of a nation still constrained by the remnants of an antiquated mindset.

Understanding the needs and mindsets of the young female consumer – educated, ambitious, expressive – Femme is a brand of the new generation, the result of a brave partnership in branding between Yoai and Pearlfisher. Designed to transform the feminine care category, Femme rejects the traditionally apologetic and stereotypical feminine visual cues that have characterised it for years. Paying unprecedented attention to brand, their newly launched tampon range, Femme, shifts perceptions of menstruation from patronising to positive; from conservatively traditional to boldly symbolic of contemporary female identity. The brand mark – a Chinese character of womanhood – is stylish and discreet, and is easily recognised by those in the know without overtly communicating the concepts of ‘tampon’ or ‘period.’ Beautiful line illustrations educate consumers about how to use tampons while contemporary design details ensure that Femme is not only something you feel good about but also an item you’d proudly carry with you in your handbag. Importantly, Yoai’s alignment with its consumers’ lifestyle needs extends to distribution, with the products being sold exclusively on WeChat.

What Yoai has understood is the importance of branding and design in shaking deep-seated beliefs and accelerating behavioural change. By elevating a traditionally shameful product from basic pharma to high-end lifestyle through design, premiumisation and distribution, the arrival of Femme at this defining moment is a great example of the power of brands to be a catalyst for change.

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