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Brands are getting more “woke.” Who actually benefits?

Always removed the Venus symbol from its period products. While it’s a step forward, some consumers are understandably skeptical.

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Skateboarding, mountain biking, and downhill street luge all pale in comparison to the extreme sport that is trying to change your pad in the stall of a public men’s restroom.

Men’s room stalls never come equipped with the little metal trash cans they offer in women’s restrooms to toss out your used hygiene products, so from the get you’re probably executing half of the maneuver one-handed, with the other hand holding your trash. This complicates the other objective of trying to move through this process as silently as possible, lest you alert anyone else in the bathroom that you’re committing Gender Deviance — but the crinkle of pad packaging being unwrapped in a public restroom booms at about 150 decibels, so you become certain everyone can hear you and knows there’s a trans person in the stall.

None of this is great! Compounding this stress by seeing that impossibly loud packaging material dotted with little female symbols, reminding you that no part of this process was designed with you in mind, can make an already unpleasant process borderline unbearable.

And yet, when a mass-market producer of sanitary pads scrapped its hyper-feminized packaging, something felt slightly off. Surely the countdown, until some kind of “but” was added to the announcement, had begun — as seemingly every viral post reveals itself to be sponcon or a milkshake duck, surely every “woke” marketing move comes with some kind of catch, or is merely an empty gesture. When it’s enacted by a major company, can marketing inclusivity ever simply just be ... good?

The symbolic value of removing a symbol

In October, menstrual product brand Always changed the packaging of some of its sanitary pads. The company removed the Venus symbol, also recognized as the female symbol, from their products’ branding.

A predictable fracas broke out online. An Always spokesperson provided me with examples of some folks who were enthused about the change; other opinions more closely resembled nodding along than wild cheering.

Opponents of the move decried the removal of a pictogram from the wrapper of a mass-produced sanitary napkin as yet another example of society bending to the whims of the sinister transsexual agenda and as an affront to femininity as a whole. Some TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) tweeted and wrote columns about this latest assault on womanhood. Author Sady Doyle, on the other hand, helpfully dismantled the essentialist arguments for indelibly linking menstruation, and by extension, the packaging of menstruation-related products, to womanhood.

(The history of the Venus symbol as associated with femaleness is surprisingly intricate, but is not rooted in any kind of proud feminist history — it ultimately traces back to shorthand used by 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in a study of hybrid plants.)

To its credit, Always appears to have made the move to less gendered packaging with trans people in mind, though a statement from a spokesperson for the company didn’t mention transgender people explicitly:

”For over 35 years Always has championed girls and women, and we will continue to do so. We’re also committed to diversity & inclusion and are on a continual journey to understand the needs of all of our consumers. We routinely assess our products, packaging, & designs, taking into account a variety of inputs including in depth consumer research, to ensure we are meeting the needs of everyone who uses our products. The change to our pad wrapper design is consistent with that practice.”

Presumably the “all of” and “everyone” in Always’s statement includes transmasculine and non-binary people, many of whom may prefer a more no-frills sanitary product. “The change is clearly meaningful for many non-female people who menstruate,” Heron Greenesmith, a senior research analyst for LGBTQI justice with Political Research Associates, said. “As a non-female person who menstruates, I would much rather use non-gendered period products. My period is a personal experience.”

Plenty of smaller brands have preceded Always in recognizing the market’s many-gendered customer base. “We speak about menstruation in a gender neutral way because not all women have periods, and not all those who have periods are women,” said Jane Hope, a spokesperson for the company Lunapads.

”Marketing around periods is hyper-feminized, when the reality of our customers is that there are cisgender, transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer individuals who have periods. We want to include them. I’d also venture that our products are not gender neutral; they serve folks along the gender spectrum.”

Attempting ethical consumption

Whenever a large corporation does something (ugh) “woke,” it would be naive to praise the corporate entity without examining the potential motives behind its actions; Chick-fil-A’s decision to stop donating to anti-LGBT causes likely has more to do with outside pressure and recent competition from Popeyes than a sudden change in values. Examples of “corporate responsibility” being undercut by a brand’s own actions aren’t hard to find — in September, The Goods tracked the fallout following the reveal of putatively feminist bra company ThirdLove’s male co-CEO allegedly bullying and harassing their largely female staff.

None of this is new to consumers, who approach announcements like the one from Always with skepticism — even those who were in favor of the new packaging.

”I thought it was a nice gesture. It isn’t a brand that I use, but I’m always happy to see companies listen to consumers.” said e.lee sule, a painter and art director who tweeted her approval shortly after the announcement. “I mean, I have little faith that they did it because they thought it was the ethical and compassionate thing, but I’ll take it.”

Caveats like sule’s were common among supporters of the change. When I approached Greensmith for comment, they kicked off our discussion by saying, “I have no doubt that Always merely looked at where the money lay and decided to do what they thought would create the most profit for them.” (Always, which is a subsidiary of Procter & Gamble, has not commented on a financial motive for the change, citing instead the company’s desire “To ensure that anyone who needs to use a period product feels comfortable in doing so with Always.”)

No one is suggesting Always sell tampons at a loss, or that it tithe 50% of its profits directly to the country’s trans population (not yet, anyway, but if it adopts that policy I can accept PayPal or Venmo). Few companies go above and beyond to take a stand for transgender equality, excepting perhaps Lush’s surprisingly bold 2018 trans rights campaign. That said, Always’s nod toward its trans customer base does warrant an inquiry into how it treats its LGBTQ employees.

When asked if the company had policies in place to specifically protect trans employees (such as a trans-inclusion policy and employee-sponsored coverage for trans health care like hormone replacement therapy and gender confirmation surgeries), a Procter & Gamble spokesperson would not offer specifics, but replied with the following statement:

”P&G’s journey for LGBT+ inclusion started more than 30 years ago. In 1992, P&G was one of the first Fortune 500 companies to include sexual orientation in its diversity statement. We are proud that P&G added gender identity into its diversity statement in 2009. In 2011, P&G began to provide benefits for medical transition procedures. We have been driven by courageous employees, and through work with organizations like GLAAD, Stonewall and the Partnership for Global LGBTI+ Equality, to continue to learn and progress.”

Supporting these claims is P&G’s score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, the highest mark a company can receive. “The Corporate Equality Index criteria has 15 points allocated to external engagement with the LGBTQ community, which can include things like marketing, advertising, philanthropic support, support for LGBTQ equality under the law, and inclusive products or services,” said Nick Morrow, deputy communications director at the Human Rights Campaign. According to Morrow, even something like removing the Venus symbol from a sanitary pad wrapper can positively impact a company’s score.

”It’s a simple change, sure, but it is one that was largely received positively by trans and non-binary folks. If it makes someone feel better in the checkout line, that’s a net positive for all of us.”

”An unexpected positive effect”

It makes intuitive sense that moves toward inclusivity — even literally surface-level ones like new packaging — benefit everyone, but finding scientific data to support that feeling is trickier, even as entire industries adopt more progressive policies.

This move toward more inclusive language extends beyond menstrual products and into reproductive health as a whole — even using terminology like “reproductive health” can be attributed to organizations like Planned Parenthood, who have led the shift away from “women’s health care” language. As covered by The Establishment in 2016, the change has become more pronounced in the past five to ten years or so, but the movement to adopt more gender-neutral terms in reproductive care settings has been in the works for decades. In the same way not everyone who has a period is a woman, not everyone who uses Planned Parenthood’s services is a woman, and proliferation of inclusive language which began at the affiliate level have become standard usage for the Federation.

But this move hasn’t just affected Planned Parenthood’s trans and non-binary patients. As A.J. O’Connell reported, a change in Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes’s patient intake form benefitted a wide variety of their patients (Full disclosure: I was formerly an employee of Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes.):

”When the intake form was changed, Kelly says, there was some concern that people who didn’t know a lot about gender or sexuality spectrums might be confused by the new language. But that hasn’t been the case. In fact, the form has had an unexpected positive effect: Many people, not just those who don’t identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, go by something other than the name on their birth certificates — Margarets who want to be called Peg, for example, and Josés who want to be called Joe. Allowing people to specify their preferred name on the intake form lets everyone feel more comfortable.”

There’s ample anecdotal evidence to support that shifts toward inclusion in reproductive care ranging from abortion to STI testing to, yes, even the packing on sanitary pads, can have a positive effect on people both trans and cis, queer and straight. But is that “positive effect” quantifiable beyond anecdotal evidence of people being made to feel more comfortable?

Well, it’s quantifiable for the companies themselves. About 70% of millennial consumers are “more likely to choose one brand over another if that brand demonstrates inclusion and diversity in terms of its promotions and offers,” according to a 2018 Accenture survey, and it looks like Gen Z buyers are similarly oriented to brands that support inclusivity and social justice.

Determining if changes like this help the marginalized populations they’re supposedly done in support of is trickier. It’s unlikely Always will conduct some kind of massive census a year from now to assess if its trans customers feel less psychologically burdened by their branding. The National Center for Transgender Equality actually does conduct a regular US Transgender Survey, though the future of that survey is as unclear as the future of the organization itself. The results of the organization’s 2015 survey of the trans population within the US determined that: “Thirty-nine percent (39%) of respondents were currently experiencing serious psychological distress, nearly eight times the rate in the U.S. population (5%).” That population-wide serious psychological distress obviously won’t be alleviated by a single brand’s marketing decisions. That said, it probably can’t hurt, either.

It’s nearly impossible to determine the true motives of a mega corporation’s choice to do anything, including altering the packaging of a sanitary pad. What we’re left with is conjecture and educated guesses: Always probably removed the Venus symbol from the pad wrapper for a combination of socially conscious and financial reasons; the change will probably benefit trans and non-binary people who buy its products; the conversation about trans equality will probably, one day, leave the realm of the bathroom and escape to somewhere new.

Until then, the HRC’s Nick Morrow expressed at least one statement I can get behind with certainty, “No one loses anything by greater inclusion.”

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