How Feminine Hygiene Start-ups are Leading the Evolution of Menstrual Taboos in India
How Feminine Hygiene Start-ups are Leading the Evolution of Menstrual Taboos in India

It's 2021 and menstruation in India still remains a huge taboo; the stigma attached around the topic has made shopping for sanitary napkins definitely an unpleasant experience. Most women are extremely uncomfortable talking about the challenges they face around menstruation and buying sanitary hygiene products.

According to a study by Research & Markets, in 2020, of approximately 355 million menstruating women, less than 41 percent used hygienic menstruation protection methods. Approximately, 60 percent of women in India are diagnosed with vaginal and urinary tract diseases and infections every year due to poor menstrual hygiene.

While the country has been reeling under this lack of awareness and education on basic menstrual hygiene measures, the government, as well as the brands in the segment, have taken upon themselves to spread awareness and this has had a great effect on women and even the segment, if not a satisfactory effect.

Growing awareness about intimate hygiene and an increase in preference for sanitary products have garnered a huge demand for feminine hygiene products in India. The feminine hygiene products market was valued at Rs 32.66 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a CAGR of ~16.87 percent during the 2021- 2025 period, to reach a value of Rs 70.20 billion by 2025, as per Research & Markets. While hygienic menstruation products such as sanitary napkins, menstrual cups, tampons, panty liners, and intimate cleansers are common among women, sanitary napkins are used the most with approximately 17.63 percent of the menstruating women using them.

While the segment was always ruled by majors like ITC Limited, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, etc., innovation and technological integration in the space have brought in a number of fem-tech start-ups offering feminine hygiene products, mostly through their digital platforms.

Tanvi Johri, Co-Founder & CEO, Carmesi, asserts, “A few years back, since start-ups like Carmesi came to function in this space, the only conversation that was happening around menstrual hygiene was about the performance of the sanitary pads. All the big FMCG brands were talking about a few parameters like length, dryness, and the absorption capacity of the pad. With new-age start-ups entering the menstrual hygiene space, the conversation has radically shifted from performance to comfort. Since then, a lot of start-ups have also started offering natural and organic sanitary pads. Another major shift that we are seeing today is that personal hygiene is not just restricted to sanitary pads, people are exploring many more options to take care of their menstrual hygiene and that very much relates to the fact that women are becoming more aware. Therefore, even products like panty liners, tampons, menstrual cups, intimate cleansers, that were non-existent over a decade before, have started gaining prominence. Today, women are actively finding information on these products, they’re reading up on it, trying it, asking questions about it.”

The Driving Factors

While the feminine hygiene market in India is still at a nascent stage but the growth opportunities are massive – not just in general wellness and intimate hygiene, but also in fertility, pre/ postnatal solutions, fitness, and even mental wellness category. The start-ups in the segment too are taking initiatives and are aggressively involving themselves to keep these conversations going, normalizing these conversations and helping build agility of talk and action with their corporate peers.

Sahil Dharia, Founder & CEO, Soothe Healthcare (which retails Paree brand), maintains, “The feminine hygiene market is mainly driven by the awareness about feminine hygiene products. Almost a decade ago, when Soothe was founded in 2012, only 12 percent of women used hygienic means of menstrual hygiene protection, and now it has grown close to almost 18 percent. 23 percent of girls drop out of school at puberty as parents don’t know how to manage her cycle (UNICEF data). 75,000 women die of cervical cancer in India with an additional 150,000 diagnosed each year (Ministry of H&FW data). Women these days are more aware and familiar about menstrual hygiene and the numerous products available to suit their requirements and today with the ongoing crisis, consumers are unwilling to compromise on their health and hygiene in any way and their willingness to spend a larger wallet share on personal hygiene products is evident. In fact, social media too has brought a positive change – there are progressive conversations about periods, women's hygiene products, and women's health and this is helping people ease out about the subject. I feel the more these conversations accelerate and permeate, the more innovation and agility you will see in the personal hygiene industry. So, the future of the industry looks robust.”

Furthermore, regular campaigns promoting personal hygiene, growing trend of product premiumization, rising expenditure capacities of the consumers and rapid urbanization, and natural and organic nature of the products, etc. are some of the factors leading to the growth of this category.

What’s Performing?

It's the year of innovation and accountability and of conscious and aware consumers and brands are carefully taking note of what’s in demand and what will work going forward. The female health-tech start-ups are also attracting the investors’ attention with about 83 percent of the over US$ 123 million funding poured into these fem-tech start-ups going into the ones working in the female healthcare space.

Ravi Ramachandran, Founder, and CEO, Nua, asserts, “At Nua, we aim at creating holistic solutions for women across different age groups and demographics. We look at providing personalized solutions and catering to real-world issues around women’s wellness. Irrespective of whether they are a direct user of our product, we engage with a large community of women to drive conversations and provide them with a platform where they can interact and voice their opinions. Basis scientific research and valuable feedback from our community of over 4 lakh women, we have launched products for menstruation as well as feminine personal care, including sanitary pads customized as per period flow, self-heating patch called Cramp Comfort, Uplift which is a scientific period nutrition mix that helps with PMS and menstrual symptoms, foaming intimate wash and everyday liners. We take utmost care in manufacturing these products keeping the best interests of our customers in mind. Our products are completely toxin-free and rash-free and the Cramp Comfort and Uplift are made with 100 percent natural ingredients and are safe to use.”

Sustainability has proven to be the defining factor today with the rise of the more woke and conscious consumers, across categories. Tanvi Johri avers, “Women are exploring more options when it comes to the feminine hygiene segment. They are no longer restricted to just a sanitary pad but they are looking for more convenient options in the market. Also, I think sustainability, even though today is a very new concept, many people in India are basing their buying decision on choosing a sustainable product. I feel this evolution is building up, down the line you can expect more people supporting sustainable products and making their buying decisions based on how environmentally conscious the brand is. I think that shift has also happened because menstrual cups are trending in India. Even though a lot of women are slightly hesitant to try it, they are searching and reading about it a lot. This indicates that people are open to the idea of sustainability and they want their product to be environmentally friendly.”

While the segment was dominated by the majors like P&G, etc., what’s working out for these start-ups is not just the product but being actively involved in solving the real problems faced by the consumers.

“In our endeavor towards it, we have formed a strong community of around 400,000 women thus creating a platform where they are heard. We also belong to that school of thought which doesn’t subscribe to the idea of ‘one-size-fits-all. According to the insights from our community, every woman has a different need when it comes to periods. Such contributions from our community help us in finding the pulse of what women need thus helping us create holistic solutions for them through our innovative product range that can be delivered at their doorstep. While there are a lot of other brands, both established and new operating in our segment, we believe that our community-driven approach along with our state-of-the-art technology will help us in catering to the consumers in the way they would want us to,” prides Ravi Ramachandran.

Moreover, what’s helping these newer brands in the segment is also their D2C approach which allows them to connect directly with their consumer base while also maintaining complete control over product development, marketing, and distribution.

Sahil Dharia agrees while he stresses the importance of offline presence as well to add to the sales, “The D2C business model has helped a lot of small business establish itself in the marketplace with respect to both sales and visibility. Especially during the pandemic, the model and the various platforms have helped start-ups not only begin doing business but also flourish. But the Indian demographic is such that just a presence on an online portal can push for only so many sales. It is essential for a brand to have a distribution channel set up and these offline stores then contribute very well to your sales.” Others like Carmesi, Nua, Heyday, etc. are digital-only brands that offer products on marketplaces and their websites for direct sale as well as for subscription.

Challenges & The Road Ahead

In the last decade, the government has launched various schemes including the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (2011) and the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (in 2014) to promote menstrual hygiene amongst adolescent girls in the age group of 10 to 19. Apart from central government schemes, state governments have also implemented programs to distribute sanitary pads in schools. However, too much still needs to be done in order to make people aware and be educated about the topic.

“For any e-commerce company, the first major challenge is awareness. More so in our industry, primarily because of two reasons, one is that it’s a tabooed category and second is not being able to find great products both online and offline. Also, as a new-age brand, people don’t trust you, in addition, you are trying to change behavior and get customers to shop online which is quite difficult a task. The difficulty is not to find products offline and online, the challenge is to get customers who are used to buying their sanitary products from local Kirana shops to actually go and purchase it from a brand’s website online. That change in consumer behavior is a big challenge,” maintains Tanvi Johri. Meanwhile, Sahil Dharia feels the biggest challenge faced by the industry has been the established, bigger firms in the category who never made inroads in opening up the segment and has done a “huge disservice by not talking about the real issues faced by women during their periods”.

In line with this, most of these start-ups are taking the social media channels for their marketing and promotions strategies. Ravi Ramachandran avers, “At the moment, we are extremely focused on organic and low-cost performance marketing efforts. We have seen referrals and word of mouth have a tremendous impact on our business. Platforms that allow us to engage in direct conversations with women - whether they are our customers or not - have been successful for us in driving organic traffic. Our focus has been on creating a meaningful dialogue with women to discuss their wellness issues, along with thought-through content that is well-researched. Creating a safe space for women to talk about things that have historically been pushed under the carpet, but in a way that is not intimidating nor intrusive, has helped us build a strong brand pull.”

While the pandemic sure accelerated growth for these digital-first brands, helping them add more zeroes to their turnovers and revenue generated, it was definitely not without its fair share of challenges.

“Covid had been difficult for new-age brands like us to function because we are all start-ups and it was difficult to manage to finance, just dealing with the day to day activities of new-age brands, etc., but slowly, of course, we all got accustomed to it and a lot of brands, fortunately, made its way through this entire phase, and what we’ve seen is that because of Covid, a lot of users that were initially buying offline started looking and shopping from online because of the whole scare of going out,” concludes Tanvi Johri.

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