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‘It needs a marketing U-turn’: can Thinx bounce back after toxic lawsuit?


By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

January 23, 2023 | 9 min read

The period underwear brand hinged its marketing on its products’ benefits to health and the environment. After settling a class action lawsuit that alleged use of toxic chemicals, however, experts question whether it can ever regain customer trust.

Thinx underwear

Thinx products were found to contain harmful chemicals, contradictory to its marketing messaging / Thinx

Thinx has settled a $5m class-action lawsuit after customers accused the period underwear brand of falsely marketing its products as being free from harmful chemicals when an independent third party found numerous products contained polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals”, and silver nanoparticles.

Exposure to “forever chemicals” – so-called because they can take up to 1,000 years to break down – has been linked to cancer as well as having an impact on reproductive health and child development.

“The presence of these chemicals contradicts all of Thinx’s unvarying representations that the product is non-toxic, harmless, sustainable, organic, environmentally friendly and otherwise safe for women and the environment,” claimed the plaintiff in the case.

But this isn’t the first time personal hygiene products for people who menstruate have been shown to have an adverse effect on their health – tampons were linked to toxic shock syndrome in the 1980s.

“This settlement shows Thinx’s millennial pink was just a glossy veneer,” says Charlotte Parks-Taylor, co-owner and chief strategy officer at agency Cream. “The health and wellbeing of women were never prioritized and seemingly was never properly scrutinized. Thinx was never really standing with us – it was another brand out to profit from our insecurities and period shame, albeit by inciting collective revolution rather than silent embarrassment, which is the favored strategy of its menstrual-health predecessors.”

Superunion’s UK chief executive Holly Maguire is equally scathing of revelations that the brand deceived consumers. “The toxic shock syndrome exposé in the 80s is still fresh in the minds of many and, as such, the reference to ‘lifelong toxic chemicals’ has deep and damaging associations within this category.

“A premium, ethically positioned product such as this should hold itself to higher standards. There is a reason periods are called ‘the curse’ – as society continues to stigmatize, businesses continue to profit from the shame and vulnerability of those who menstruate.”

Combined with the sting of concerns over the safety of Thinx’s products, this lawsuit could potentially throw its other purpose-led commitments into question. Bill Alberti, managing partner of the Human Truths team at Interbrand, says consumers are smarter and more conscious about the planet and their own health than ever before. “As this issue hits on both, the impact goes well beyond the settlement – it challenges the very heart of the brand’s reputation,” he warns.

“This is a sector that has been under intense scrutiny. Tonally, brands have often felt quite removed from their core customers, and balancing sustainability and convenience in this category has been challenging. To be let down by a brand that seemed to be addressing that is particularly damaging.”

Though we can concede that Thinx’s marketers may not have known about the chemicals used in its products (and probably even less so the agencies involved), experts say this should be a signal to brands and agencies alike to reassess their roles and responsibilities around communications and demand better.

“We should all be striving to use advertising as a soft tool for positive societal change, rather than as a mask for irresponsible brands to hide behind,” adds Parks-Taylor.

Furthermore, Nilesha Chauvet, who is the managing director at Good Agency, says this should be a warning to brands to heed the high standards of younger generations going forward. “Post-pandemic, sensitivity to greenwashing is at an all-time high. Gen Y – once branded ‘slacktivists’ and ‘snowflakes’ – have matured into their social responsibilities.

“No longer are they seen as only digital commentators. They’re now everyday activists, using purchasing power and influence to demand changes they believe are much needed. Additionally, 44% of UK Gen Z now actively search for information about a company’s climate change policies or commitments.”

A marketing U-turn

Whether or not Thinx can earn its way back into customers’ hearts and wallets depends very much on how it calculates its next moves. “Trust is a foundation of brand value and a key driver of purchase intent,” continues Michela Graci, strategy partner at Coley Porter Bell. “It is particularly at risk during a crisis, but it can be enhanced through how the crisis is handled.”

She goes on to urge Thinx to use its marketing efforts to act quickly, take responsibility, tackle difficult conversations and connect with affected consumers. “This involves leading the conversation transparently, showing accountability and sharing what they have discovered about the cause of the issue, what they are doing to solve it and what they’ll do to ensure it won’t happen again,” she says. “It also helps to speak with an authentic voice, just like a human being.”

But Alberti believes so much damage has been done by the lawsuit, both internally and externally, that Thinx will need to rebuild from the bottom up, “working with customers and employees to hear them out, address their concerns and reset the path of the brand together”.

He says: “All brands are on their own sustainability journey. Thinx has had a significant knock-back and it shouldn’t hide from the hard work it will need to do to make amends. No more overclaims – it will need to be more open and transparent with its future communications. It’s a lesson for every brand out there, that truthful messaging is the only way forward and you’ll be caught if you try to make claims that you can’t support with evidence.”


Going forward, Chauvet believes Thinx will need to carefully consider the tone of its marketing around its health and environmental credentials. “Consumers who care passionately about the environment would be right to feel betrayed and they might never forgive – particularly if they’ve paid top dollar in a cost of living crisis for products they thought were safe.

“It would be advisable not to go out loud and brash in its usual tone unless Thinx can stand up to claims made. This means a marketing U-turn, but it would be better to tackle the issue head-on. Apologize, admit a shortfall, be humble and demonstrate the brand is learning from the experience. And, of course, make good through demonstrably responsible product innovation. In other words, do better.”

If brands can learn anything from the upset caused by Thinx’s failings, it’s that the subjects of menstrual health and sustainability are both personal and important to customers in this space. “If you’re in this space, women just want the bloody truth,” says Chauvet.

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