In 1993, The Economist named the birth control pill one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. “When the history of the 20th century is written, it may be seen as the first [time] when men and women were truly partners,” the entry read. “Wonderful things can come in small packets.”
This sense of freedom is inherent within Hana, one of two types of oral contraceptive pills developed by HRA Pharma, that was recently approved for pharmacy sale without prescription in the UK. Last month’s decision allowing OTC access for the progesterone-only pill is a landmark moment for women, and its timing is crucial.
Women’s sexual health services were overstretched and underfunded even before the pandemic, but lockdown made a ‘difficult situation even worse’, according to a statement last year from The All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
With confusion and stigma making access problems worse, now is the time to rethink how we present products for women’s reproductive health and beyond. This landmark change should be a call to arms for the industry to work harder to make medication, devices and services more accessible, personal and empowering. And not just with the pill, but in other areas such as postnatal depression, fertility, period pain and menopause.
Here’s how players at all stages of women’s health life cycle can make positive change.
Choice, knowledge and accessibility
It’s been six decades since the contraceptive pill was approved for use in the UK and the US, revolutionising women’s lives. It’s estimated that 70% of women in Britain and 80% of US women have used the pill at some point in their lives, and it remains the most popular form of contraceptive – prescribed to almost nine out of ten women seeking birth control.
The pill has been instrumental in allowing women choice over children, moving them from the domestic homemaker role that was still typical in the 50s and into the workplace, with greater education, career and lifestyle opportunities –not to mention sexual freedom.
Knowledge, however, is still a sticking point. A 2018 study of over 7,500 women from Public Health England (PHE) found that education is a key factor in women being able to manage their reproductive health, and make positive choices. Women of all ages cited school as the place where they had gained most of their information about reproductive health –information that was often basic and out of touch with their lived experiences.
More and more women are turning online to find information and fill this gap, taking proactive control of their own health. Pharma and healthcare brands need to meet this demand and ensure they are visible at the early stages of a woman’s fact-finding journey. For example, vegan-certified condom company Hanx creates a regular stream of relevant, accessible content for women online, providing a platform for frank and light-hearted discussions around sexual wellness. The same goes for menopause education platform Elektra Health, which has carved out a niche in online community support and guidance.
This uptick in digital research and self-help is a flashing beacon for professionals across the product ecosystem to create information in easier, more digestible ways. Ramping up accessibility – for example, with the new prescription-free contraceptive service at pharmacies – is part of that process. But it also requires an overhaul of messaging at multiple touchpoints, making conversations around reproductive health less clinical and formal, and more normalised in day-to-day life.
Crucially, it means curating excellent online hubs, full of highly visible, relatable and compelling information to counteract the traditional coded discourse of reproductive health. Doing so will augment women’s fact-finding missions in early stages, driving brand awareness with an approach that feels natural and meaningful.
Breaking taboos with the human touch
Building memorable digital support channels goes hand-in-hand with another challenge in women’s reproductive health – breaking down feelings of shame.
It would be nice to think that the culturally endorsed sexism that clouded earlier pill experiences (most single women didn’t have access to it until 1974) no longer exists today – but sadly it lives on in a myriad of subtle ways. After all, the modern-day phenomenon of so-called ‘emergency contraception shaming’ is not unlike the pill being blamed fora rise in sexual promiscuity over half a century before.
Little wonder, then, that embarrassment is a barrier to accessing support across a spectrum of women’s reproductive issues. This starts in teen years – nearly half of girls aged 14-21 in the UK are ashamed of their periods – and continues well into adulthood and older age. Almost a third of women are embarrassed to talk to pharmacists about the morning-after pill, and half of women experiencing menopause feel unable to speak to GPs about their symptoms.
To break down this avalanche of socially entrenched shame, it’s no longer enough to be functional and clear. We need to go further in speaking to women by creating products that look and feel relevant to them.
If we look at Hana as an example, when we partnered with HRA Pharma on the launch, it was essential to make the brand feel contemporary and relevant - bridging the tension that exists between efficacy and empowerment. We deliberately used a modern colour palette with Instagram-friendly photography and designed a brand mark that would give Hana a warm and personal feel. Healthcare brand Hers also does a great job at making its selection of sex, skin and hair solutions feel contemporary and human.
In a wider context, this is about taking deliberate steps to manifest values of openness and empathy into healthcare, empowering women’s reproductive journeys.
A new age of fem care service innovation
We live in an age where women are motivated and able to take control of their sexual health and fertility. From period trackers to menopause apps, an emerging wave of Fem-Tech is putting women firmly in charge of their own reproductive choices.
This newfound awareness naturally filters into market trends, informing new products, product marketing and delivery ideas. With a more empowered audience, brands need to drive innovation to stay relevant. Strategists are carving out ways to find an ongoing connection with their audience and add value beyond a single interaction (as in an OTC purchase) – staying relevant with the wider dialogue of women’s lives.
This may take the form of a community awareness platform, like menopause consultants Alva. It could come with a home diagnostic kit such as Juno Bio, or an app such as Clue that makes PMS predictions, enabling women to keep tabs on symptoms.
Brands could also be inspired by Etsy’s growing market of whimsical ‘tampon cases’ where independent producers are taking ownership of the period narrative with witty slogans such as ‘shark week’ or ‘oh bloody hell’. Over on Amazon, pill holders shaped in the form of fruits or mini macarons are making contraception more portable (and fun).
If women won a revolution with the pill 60 years ago, stretching the boundaries of the status quo with the human touch – revolving around core themes of warmth and accessibility – will be the next chapter in our quest for reproductive empowerment. The products we create now are central to creating a new set of values and a fresh sexual legacy; both for women now, and girls to come.
Deborah Stafford-Watson is head of Provocation & Strategy UK at Elmwood