Published in Jan-Feb 2023
In the early 2000s, Always India ran an ad whereby a man is awestruck by a woman at a grocery store and follows her around absent-mindedly, placing every grocery item that she does in his cart, including a packet of Always. As I was 10 at the time, I didn’t understand the concept and asked my sister “what is he doing?”. She shushed me, pointing to my dad who was in the room. It wasn’t until a few years later, thanks to some basic period education in school, that I finally understood the ad and the reason why I was shushed. I, along with most girls, have grown up believing it is shameful to talk about periods or period-related subjects in public, let alone in front of men. Saying the word period itself is as gasp-worthy as saying “Voldemort” in the world of Harry Potter.
This is a stigma that Packages Group’s new sanitary napkins brand Embrace aims to challenge while making the period experience as comfortable as possible for women. Launched in October 2022, Embrace claims to be “the softest, widest and most absorbent” brand in the market and, more importantly, calls periods what they are.
“In the last 20 or so years that sanitary napkins have been marketed, no brand has used the word period in their communication. We wanted to do just that and create awareness for this monthly ordeal,” says Tuba Ajmal, Head of Femcare (Embrace), Packages Group. Rather than “beating around the bush,” Embrace plans to showcase real period problems faced by women in their twenties in their ad campaigns.
While the first ad highlighted women comfortably going about their lives to showcase the idea of “embracing womanhood,” the second ad is “bolder” according to Ajmal. Filmed as a testimonial, the ad’s female protagonist takes a break from dancing at a wedding to rub her feet and talk to the audience about the irritating stuff women face at weddings. She says: “Kuch cheezain irritate karti hain. Like aunties ke sawaal… ‘Tumhari kab hogi?’, unke judgy looks… aur ye takleef de sandals. Upar se start hogaye periods.” After saying “periods,” she pauses to look at the audience, as if they have given her a disapproving look, and says “Kya? Ab jo hai so hai… Periods are normal.” She says it matter-of-factly and then gets back up to dance.
According to Ifrah Mumtaz, Brand Manager (Embrace), Packages Group, the intent is for every woman to relate to the ads’ protagonists, which is why the situations they have depicted are “raw, real and consumer-generated.” The team took this ideation route because “no other brand talks to ordinary women.”
“One player for example uses celebrity endorsements and the market leader has primarily targeted school-going girls. The latter recently initiated a campaign that featured older women, but they were all high achievers/outliers. We wanted to leave these tropes behind,” says Mumtaz.
The brand deployed a 360-degree campaign that included OOH, digital media (except Twitter and LinkedIn) and TV. The brand plans to release more ads in the testimonial format but from different perspectives/situations.
Given that the ad used the word ‘period’, unsurprisingly the challenge was persuading the TV channels to run the ad and after a lot of back and forth, some agreed while others refused. The ad also received backlash in the form of negative comments on digital media, and during pre-production, some influencers dropped out because according to Ajmal, “their families did not allow them to take part.” However, thanks to the channels and influencers/actors that participated in the campaign, Embrace was able to take the first step towards opening a conversation.
“If the media starts to talk about the realities of periods, eventually families can start having open conversations as well – for instance, girls and their parents are mostly unaware of the physiological side effects of periods, such as iron loss (academic.oup.com states that 40 ml of blood loss yields an average loss of 1.6 mg of iron – the total amount of blood loss during menstruation averages 80 ml per period). “During this time, parents should focus on giving their daughter the ‘achi wali boti’ rather than their son,” says Ajmal.
When it comes to the actual product and competing against other players, in Pakistan the category size of sanitary napkins amounts to Rs 13 to 14 billion, (Euromonitor), and is predominantly led by Always (60-70% market share) and Butterfly (25% market share). According to Ajmal, the market leader played an important role in growing the per capita consumption of sanitary napkins and converting women from using cloth to sanitary napkins. However, the national category penetration is still at 21% – in countries like Indonesia, India and Kenya it is between 40 and 45%.
Since the sanitary napkin category is still in its infancy in Pakistan, there is a lot of room for new players to enter the market, especially in the last five years when there has been increased demand for alternatives that are softer and safer.
“Embrace’s social listening within closed Facebook groups has revealed that the main concerns with other players are rashes, skin irritation and lowered quality,” according to Mumtaz.
Embrace meanwhile claims to be “the most comfortable pad” in Pakistan. The brand imports most of the raw materials from Europe (local suppliers do not have high-grade materials that provide the levels of absorption required) and is reportedly the only brand that does not use digital printing on the top sheets of their pads, “which other brands do to give users the ‘illusion’ of an absorbent gel.” Mumtaz adds that “after conducting internal tests, we can confidently say that we outperform other players in terms of absorbency. Embrace pads are thrice as absorbent. And with some SKUs, we are four times as absorbent.”
The brand also has a separate line called Sensitives, for women with extra sensitive skin. If women are not sure about which range to choose, they can take Embrace’s online quiz on their website to find out.
Embrace products are available nationwide, including KLI and towns like Faisalabad, Multan and Swat. As a Packages product, Embrace has the advantage of sharing the same supply chain and distribution network as Rose Petal. Other local brands, says Ajmal, “don’t have the requisite distribution systems or infrastructure to have their products placed everywhere.” Additionally, consumers can also purchase Embrace products through websites/apps like Cheetay, Daraz and Pandamart, and via Embrace’s period tracking app.
The brand team is aware that Embrace needs to be accessible not only in terms of availability but price point as well. Compared to the category leader they are priced fairly, according to Mumtaz. “If I were to use an index to measure the cost difference, if the category leader falls on one, Embrace falls on 0.6. We don’t want to exploit consumers and charge high prices; our objective is to help them in difficult economic times.” Embrace pads cost between Rs 200-240, while Always pads range from Rs 300 upwards.
While it may be too soon to gauge Embrace’s performance in terms of sales and converted customers, the brand did gain a lot of traction on digital with their testimonial ad “due to the nature of the ad copy… we were performing way above market benchmarks,” as per Ajmal.
For now, Embrace aims to create high levels of awareness and encourage trial among users. They are also utilising PR strategies to hold conversations with university and school-going girls and demonstrate to them as well as to women visiting stores, how superior the product is.