'If it gets harder, you're on the track of something great': Bodyform's taboo-breaking journey

Bodyform's 'Viva la vulva', one of the most awarded UK campaigns this year, almost did not see the light of day.

After Bodyform released its "Viva la vulva" campaign last year, Cindy Gallop summed up the feeling of many observers when she declared: "When I say advertising can change the world, this is what I mean."

The ad’s cultural power has been recognised again at the Cannes Lions festival this week, picking up prizes including golds for Creative Strategy and Health & Wellness. It is one of the most awarded UK campaigns this year.

But in some markets, the work almost did not see the light of day. "Viva la vulva", a joyous musical ode to vulvas in all their shapes and sizes, faced many hurdles before becoming the next groundbreaking statement from a brand intent on breaking taboos around women’s bodies.

The path to "Viva la vulva" began when Bodyform (Libresse elsewhere in the world) recognised its own responsibility in a category whose marketing has historically perpetuated damaging stereotypes about women. Back in 2012, with its ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Bodyform started building a marketing strategy around the message of "Live fearless", which aimed to "inspire women to overcome insecurities and self-doubt that hold them back", according to Martina Poulopati, global brand communication manager for feminine care at Bodyform owner Essity. Bodyform tried to bring this to life in various ways, but none quite stuck.

"We hadn’t quite found the nugget that would enable us to differentiate and would give true meaning to women of what it means to live fearless," Poulopati said.

That all changed with 2016’s "Red.Fit" campaign, which tackled the taboo of periods in sports by picturing women getting into bloody scrapes while being active. It ended with the tagline: "No blood should hold us back."

"At that time, conversations around period normalisation were just getting started," Poulopati recalled. "'Red.Fit' was pivotal to help us change."

The positive reception to "Red.Fit" set the stage for the brand’s next step: the release of "Blood normal" in 2017. With that film, Bodyform became the first UK advertiser to depict real menstrual blood instead of the blue liquid that usually stands in for it. The campaign defied feminine-care marketing norms by bringing periods out into the open and went on to win major awards including the Glass Lion Grand Prix in Cannes last year.

"It took a couple of years, but now we really stand behind breaking the taboos that hold women back and breaking stereotypes that have long been built in the category – by us as well, of course," Poulopati said. "We’ve embraced that and are bringing that to life."  

"Viva la vulva", which launched initially in Sweden and Denmark last year and then in the UK in March, marked Bodyform’s expansion into intimate care in Europe. This sector, too, is rife with stereotypes. "There are a lot of euphemisms, like flowers covering your vagina or women washing their belly buttons in concentric circles," Poulopati said. Rival brands also tended to position themselves as a solution to "problems" with women’s bodies, but Bodyform wanted to avoid this negative messaging.

"We didn’t want to position our products as something that solves a problem. We wanted to encourage women to use them for the simple reason that it feels good to do it. We also didn’t want to feed on their insecurities and fears to try to make them buy it," Poulopati explained. "That’s why ‘Viva la vulva’ is such a feast of celebration that is telling women that their vulvas are perfect and, no matter what the shape or size, to love yourself."

Yet "struggles are everywhere" in bringing Bodyform’s vision to fruition, Poulopati said. The first barrier was to win over internal stakeholders at Essity – as might be expected, it proved challenging to convince executive management and the board to make an ad full of vulvas.

"For us who work on a day-to-day basis on the category, it’s easy for us to know what’s right. But for those distant from it, it’s harder for them to wrap their minds around what we’re doing, why it’s right and why we needed to take this high level of risk. It took a lot of conversations to win trust," Poulopati recalled.

Then came issues with the broadcast authorities. Bodyform had previously faced bans against depicting period blood on TV – something that it actually decided to highlight in its advertising. "Blood normal" ends with one such message of censorship. Since then, the brand has seen progress from authorities including Clearcast.

"A couple of years back, we were having straight-up rejections, and now they’re trying to listen and coming along with us," Poulopati added.

The biggest trial, however, has come from social media platforms, which surprised Poulopati and her team. "This was shocking because you’d expect it would be much harder to run [the ad] on TV rather than on Facebook, but the opposite is true. The platforms themselves are censoring it," she said.

Facebook and Google’s decentralised approval policies meant that "Viva la vulva" had to be reviewed in every single market where it was posted. It has been banned on social media in every country where it has launched so far and in some cases the brand has not been able to reverse this decision.

"It’s a consistent issue we have and very difficult to find a resolution. We need to start a conversation with the Facebooks of this world to see how we can improve on this," Poulopati said.

While some markets may never hear the empowering message of "Viva la vulva", the brand is still committed to pushing the envelope. Poulopati said this has only been possible by giving creative freedom to AMV and directors such as Kim Gehrig, who shot the most recent ad.

"We give them a lot of room for making sure that we have the right creative idea to bring this to life in the most authentic and groundbreaking way possible," Poulopati explained. "Everybody adds their own personal point of view and feelings into it, and that’s why in the end it is so authentic and does resonate so much with consumers."

Bodyform and AMV are working on their next big campaign for 2020 – something Poulopati promised would be even "more authentic and more surprising". She said Bodyform’s journey with "Blood normal" and "Viva la vulva" has proven to be the hardest challenge of her career – but also the most rewarding.

"When it comes to breaking stereotypes, one of the reasons it’s so hard and faces so many rejections is because these taboos are so deeply ingrained in our minds and internalised in our society," she said. "If it gets harder and harder, it probably means you’re on the track of something great and you shouldn’t give up."

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