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Tackling taboos: how marketers can overcome being lost for words

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Dragon Rouge discuss the topics that we're not talking about and question whether public discourse about them is necessary.

Sex. Mental health. Divorce. Menstruation. Death. Some things are hard to talk about.

Our societal discomfort has influenced the way businesses talk. They use euphemisms and delicate metaphors, like glasses of blue liquid in tampon adverts. (I’ve always been curious – who are they keeping the secret from…?)

But times are changing. Brands have a choice: move forward with changing societal expectations, or stick with sanitised language and get left behind.

We’re bloody serious…

Look at Bodyform’s Blood Normal campaign. Then compare it to Always – a brand that avoids the words blood and period in every single product description on their website.

Bodyform’s shift to talking more honestly and frankly about periods has paid off: nearly two-thirds of women have expressed a more positive opinion of Bodyform, and nearly a quarter are purchasing or looking for their products since the campaign.

You can’t argue with stats like that. Period.

RIP the traditional tone of voice

As macabre as it is, life insurance and funeral companies have built their businesses around death; a topic we traditionally approach in gentle, cautious, hushed tones. Dead Happy are a life insurance company boldly rejecting that precedent. They specialise in Death Wishes – “Not the desire for self-annihilation, but our way of helping you to express what you want to happen when you die.”

Granted, this level of brutal honesty isn’t for everyone. But they’re not trying to please everyone. They’re talking to the fool-hardy younger audience who don’t like thinking about death. The generation who would rather laugh their way through serious topics.

The gloves are off

Even brands who exist in a world of intimate moments still struggle with the conversations society shies away from. Reading the Durex website, I can’t help but feel the same awkward embarrassment associated with buying condoms in real life. “Durex has finely tuned our condoms to create a comfortable fit and ultimately, a safe sexual experience.” Sexual experience. Why can’t they just say sex?

They’ve left the field wide open for new kids like Hanx, who proudly proclaim “It’s time the world stopped being weird about our sex lives”. They use wry humour to strip away awkwardness – “If you like your condoms the same as your sexual partners – smooth, clean scented, vegan, with great contours, and er… lubricated with a 52mm Nominal Width – look no further.”

When you stop treating a topic like it’s taboo, it stops being taboo.

What’s going on?

Sex, death and periods are pretty different. But all three have more than a few things in common.

  • Using the language of the people. By mirroring the words and phrases their audience uses, a brand shows they understand their customers.
  • Finding humour in the topics that make people clam up. Making someone smile puts them at ease. For brands, this shows audiences they’re comfortable with their topic – so their customers can be comfortable too.
  • Doing it boldly. It’s not enough to flirt with an edgy headline, and then retreat back into an awkward, distanced or cold tone of voice. It’s all or nothing.

Why should we follow their lead?

Getting closer to your audience strengthens your brand and helps you stand out from the competition. It’s a technique that can give you an edge and reap commercial benefits.

But, it’s bigger than that.

Today, the biggest killer of men under 50 is suicide. One in three women are missing their cervical screening (or smear test) – while two people die from cervical cancer every day. More people worldwide have access to a mobile phone than to basic sanitary equipment – like a toilet.

While we shy away from conversations that make us feel uncomfortable, people suffer.

Finally, brands are pushing back. Campaign Against Living Miserably are combatting male suicide. Who Gives A Crap make toilet paper from recycled paper, and donate 50% of their profits to Water Aid. Public Health England have partnered with Treatwell to open conversations about smear tests over a bikini wax.

So, who’s next?

If a life insurance brand can do it, anyone can.

Who’s going to be the first old people’s home to talk to their audiences like the strong, unique individuals they are? Who’s going to be the first pharmacy to take on a tone that really makes customers feel comfortable? Who’s going to be the first laundry detergent to poke fun at the stains we’re really getting rid? (Coincidentally, a perfect opportunity for a partnership with Bodyform…)

If you want help grabbing the bull by the horns and making your brand more ballsy, get in touch. We’d love to help.

Bee Pahnke is the head of voice at Dragon Rouge London.

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