Crowd DNA New York’s Lizzy Hussey and Eden Lauffer unpack the semiotic codes of control in the newly booming feminine care space...

For decades, the femcare market has remained unchanged. Seen as taboo or ‘dirty’ and laden with stigma, periods have been framed as unpleasant medical inconveniences best kept out of sight. However, a cultural shift instigated by a new wave of feminism – and nourished by startup culture and the Instagram aesthetic – has brought new category disruptors to the fore.

Through a semiotic analysis of 35 sources (primarily US and UK based), we’ve identified the dominant, emergent and future-facing codes that chart femcare’s shifting relationship with control. Crucial to how we understand the category, this lens offers guideposts to navigate femcare evolution.

Dominant code: Control as external expertise

Walking down the ‘feminine hygiene’ aisle of a drug store, blue and purple tones fill the shelves. Take sanitary pad market leader, Always: the indigo and magenta color scheme is reminiscent of hues used by banks, pharmaceutical companies and even royalty, to cue authority, safety and control. This alignment with enforced expertise signals control over periods – they’ve been taken out of our hands.

This message is reinforced by imagery of smiling, carefree young women and girls, suggesting lives free from the ‘mess’ of periods. Rays of sunshine peek into these images, hinting at a protective higher and external power taking control. Language is concise and instructive with taglines like, ‘feel confident and protected for less’ implying a sense of guidance. Clean, standardized, sans serif fonts (synonymous with road signage, prescription labels and instruction manuals) also push this sense of external direction. It’s perhaps, then, no surprise that the emergent code of femcare is all about reclaiming agency and control through self exploration and acceptance.

Clean, concise fonts like that of bank offers (left) align with the sense of control Always' messaging conveys
Clean, concise fonts like that of bank offers (left) align with the sense of control Always' messaging conveys

Emergent code: Control as something to be taken back

Brands like ohne and Yoni feature close up shots of human bodies, cropped to draw attention to their flesh and physicality. Unlike the clothed images used in the dominant code, these intimate visuals signal an exploration, reclamation and acceptance of one’s body. The focus on, and visibility of, the body also indicates that this code is very much rooted in the self.

Liberal use of symbolic representations of vaginas (both visual and verbal) is another way these brands signal body intimacy and ownership. Fruits, often papayas with their suggestive shape and dark seeds, are a popular choice; as are flowers, calling on metaphor from O’Keeffe’s paintings. Yoni’s namesake is one of these stylized representations of female genitalia. Other language choices alternate between the euphemism-free (simply ‘vagina’) and the more stylized curses, like ‘pussies’ and ‘bullshit.’ These images and words communicate that this is a creative, pleasurable subject, not a clinical one, introducing a degree of permissiveness around the category totally unseen in the dominant code.

However, the vernacular of this code remains largely rooted in symbols – partially objectifying the topic to permit its discussion.

The representation of vaginas as papayas in ohne's brand comms is reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings
The representation of vaginas as papayas in ohne's brand comms is reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings

Future-facing code: Control as social change

Moving past authority to acceptance, the future-facing emergent code sees control manifesting as social change and purpose, evidenced by socially conscious cues that demand action.

While visuals of the body still abound in this code, the tonality of brands like Thinx has shifted. Several of the images are of embrace, of people holding each other, opening themselves up to contact. This conveys a message of support and community, standing in contrast to the previous code’s more self-focused narratives. Diverse portrayals of body shapes and skin tones, alongside fluid language choices like ‘human’ over ‘woman’ and ‘girl,’ are signals of inclusivity and bolster this sense of solidarity.

Taking this further, brands like Thinx and Freda who tap into this code also use words like ‘smash,’ ’ ‘rise’ and ‘manifesto,’ employing the language of revolution, power and violence to signal confrontation with hegemonic ideals and an overthrow of existing order.

A departure from the flesh-forward imagery employed by Yoni in the emergent code, Thinx paints a picture of embrace and self-love
A departure from the flesh-forward imagery employed by Yoni in the emergent code, Thinx paints a picture of embrace and self-love

Understandably, for established brands, this idea of drastically upending existing conventions is probably a little unnerving. But the reality is that culture has the power to transform, and that categories with major players are often subject to disruption through seismic cultural shifts. Femcare is undergoing one of these moments, and the brands that identify and unpack these cultural shifts will be best placed to weather this disruptive storm.

Reach out if you’re interested in learning more about semiotics at Crowd DNA, and how it can help you identify and unpack cultural shifts.