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How Bodyform and Tena owner Essity is using advertising to break taboos from its Manchester HQ

Essity Bodyform Womb Stories brand photo

The company name may be unfamiliar, but its brands – the likes of Tena, Bodyform, Plenty, Velvet and Cushelle – are well known in households around the world. Rachael Hesno took a trip to its headquarters next door to Manchester Airport to find out more about how Essity is working to break down the stigma around intimate wellbeing.

Amid colourful cushions with cartoon vulvas in the reception of Essity’s UK consumer goods HQ in Manchester, I spot a big plush of Kenny the Koala, toilet roll brand Cushelle’s brand mascot, placed by the main entrance.

It’s immediately clear that this is not a company afraid of confronting the realities of intimate health and wellbeing.

As planes ascend above the office, I’m greeted by Essity’s marketing director Ruth Gresty and then communications director Gareth Lucy, who hope to grow the Essity name in the same way their brands have taken off.

“From a global level, the plan is to grow the Essity brand name in terms of awareness and trust, because it’s actually only five years old,” Gareth Lucy told Prolific North.

Until 2017, Essity was part of Swedish forest company SCA before the group was split in two, with Essity breaking away to focus on hygiene and health. Essity currently has six production sites and three commercial offices across the UK as well as numerous global locations.

“It’s rare to be in a company that’s almost 100 years old but be almost new. There’s this opportunity to grow the name how we want to do it and we get so much autonomy locally to do that.”

From tackling bladder weakness for both men and women with Tena to opening up the conversation around ‘periodsomnia’ with Bodyform, Essity doesn’t shy away from “breaking the taboo” through its campaigns.

“If we don’t cause a bit of outrage and a bit of offence, we’re not breaking the taboo,” he said.

Bodyform whipped up outrage over its groundbreaking advert featuring a sanitary pad with red liquid to bust the taboo, rather than blue liquid. A handful of complainants recently posted on the Complaints Board website calling for the removal of the “explicit” and “disgusting” advert.

“The outrage that it caused makes you realise just how far we still need to go for people to just talk about periods. It’s normal so it was quite shocking.”

“How dare we go red!” teased Gresty.

“You’ve got to push comfort levels for subjects like incontinence and menstruation”

Recently promoted from communications manager to director, part of Lucy’s role involves dealing with any Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) complaints but tackling important issues often ends up in a “Catch-22 situation”.

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Gareth Lucy and Ruth Gresty
Gareth Lucy and Ruth Gresty

“We’ve got a good relationship with the ASA because when these complaints come through, they bring them to us, we explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and they’ve been really supportive.

“They get that sometimes you’ve got to push comfort levels for subjects like incontinence and menstruation because if people don’t talk about them, then there are issues. People hide it away.”

Before joining Essity in 2017, he first started out at PR agency Mason Williams in 2004 before moving in-house to Kellogg’s where he first met Ruth Gresty. 

Although there are 1,500 Essity staff based across the UK, around 90 operate out of the Manchester office. “Everything in the marketing mix is very driven through here and the team here in Manchester,” explained Gresty, as well the “full path to purchase for the sales team.”

“We will work with the central teams, the European teams and the global teams on the master plans, then we’ll localise them, launch them and drive them forward,” said Gresty.

She joined Essity more than three months ago from marketing agency Boxed Red, where she was managing director, and has previously worked at brands such as Durex and Spectrum Brands.

Overseeing a marketing team of 14 in Manchester for Essity’s key consumer goods brands in the UK, Ireland, Middle East and Africa, she explained how there are “idiosyncrasies” between the different brands across different markets.

“They all look the same, the branding is the same but they’re all slightly different,” she said, as although Tena is a global brand, Cushelle’s Kenny the Koala only exists in the UK and Bodyform is known as Libresse or Nana in other countries.

For the big advertising campaigns, Essity works with a number of big media agencies like Zenith but the team at the Manchester HQ can seek out their own social media or PR agencies to bring brand ideas to life with a sprinkling of “local magic”.

“For the UK, we know our media, consumers and the market and decide how we take a strategy for a brand and deliver that. Tena is a good example where there’s a strategy to grow the brand within the world of menopause but how we do that is very much decided locally,” said Lucy.

Tackling period poverty and the cost of living crisis

“Talking honestly” in campaigns is what the duo are most passionate about.

“We want to be known as a leader in hygiene health. We want the Essity brand to have credibility so that when we go out talk about things like menopause and periods, we need to have credibility to be able to do that. That’s what we need to build up,” said Lucy.

As the cost of living crisis deepens, issues like period poverty are on Essity’s radar too.

“Period poverty, this is where people are too ashamed to tell somebody they can’t afford to buy products or they can’t access them. There’s so many different areas where you have to break that taboo because otherwise, if you don’t, then there’s people in real trouble.”

According to data by international children’s charity Plan International, 1 in 5 girls in the UK said they had been unable to afford period products since the start of 2022.

It’s a pressing issue that has been bubbling away for a while. When Lucy first joined Essity, he reflected on a report that emerged from Leeds charity Freedom4Girls. 

“Girls were either skipping school completely or going to school using things like paper towels and socks because they couldn’t afford to access the products they needed.”

After a conversation with Bodyform’s brand manager, it was evident there was a “clear passion from everybody” that Essity should do something about it.

It led to a partnership with In Kind Direct, a King Charles’ charity, to donate at least 100,000 sanitary pads each month which has since branched out to 1.2m products a year.

Bodyform donations
Bodyform donations

The charity distributes the sanitary pads across schools and foodbanks, to ensure those in need across the UK have access to essential products. The same goes for donating products like Tena, which is available across both retail and hospitals.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done this year,” said Lucy. Despite the rising prices and energy costs, Essity realises that there’s “never been a more important time to do it.”

“People are struggling, prices are going up and we’ve got to do something to help that.”

“I’ve never worked somewhere that wants to invest in understanding people and their needs. It’s a big investment,” added Gresty.

“Difficult economic climate”, sustainability and the future 

Sustainability is another of the “big global priorities” at Essity, explained Lucy. Whilst Bodyform and Tena have traditionally been single-use products, Essity’s recent acquisitions of leakproof apparel companies Knix and Modibodi shows the pivot towards sourcing sustainable alternatives.

“You only have to look at the acquisitions to see where the mindset is going. It’s very much about finding solutions and options.”

As well as the recent launch of tubeless toilet rolls, Cushelle removed Kenny the Koala from its packs in 2021 as part of an awareness campaign with conservation charity WWF to save the species from extinction.

The company has also plunged further investment into sustainability locally, by securing planning permission to rebuild its recycled fibre facility at Prudhoe Mill.

“We have visibility of the whole supply chain and can do something about everything from the tree or the wheat straw in the field right through to what packaging we put it in. I love that because we’re responsible for that end-to-end and we can do something about it,” said Gresty.

Another key focus at Essity is working closely with retailers to reduce the amount of secondary packaging on brand products as well as a commitment to have 100% recyclable packaging by 2025.

“It’s a constant thing that we’re focusing on,” she emphasised.

As for the future, “everybody’s finding it tough” in the economic climate. “Branded organisations like ours are finding it tough, the retailers are finding it tough and the consumers are,” she said. 

With the cost of living crisis, the plan is to continue making sure “people get what they need” by looking at pricing as well as driving the important brand messages.

“People need toilet rolls, they need period products, they need incontinence products,” she said. “We are absolutely looking at that in the light of how difficult people are going to find over the next 12 months.”

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