The long read: For decades, one company has ruled the world of tampons. But a new wave of brands has emerged, selling themselves as more ethical, more feminist and more ecological
The Queen of Tampons, one of several nicknames, is a jubilant woman called Melissa Suk. Four years on the throne as the associate brand director of Tampax, Suk holds court at the head office of the multinational consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) in Cincinnati, Ohio. From there, she oversees an empire spanning 70 countries, filling bathroom cupboards in cities, towns and villages across the globe. When it comes to tampons, Tampax is the undisputed overlord, with a 29% global market share. (P&Gs nearest rival in the sector, Johnson & Johnson, still has less than 20%.) Last year, more than 4.5bn boxes of Tampax were bought worldwide. And yet, somehow, there are still corners of the earth untouched by Tampax. If your potential territory is all of the worlds bleeding vaginas, there is always opportunity for further conquest.
On a recent chilly afternoon, I met Suk, beamed in from Ohio on to a giant screen in a meeting room in P&Gs European headquarters in Geneva. The multinational occupies a vast white block with blue glass windows, a design best described as hospital chic. Perhaps because the conglomerate owns so many cleaning-product brands, every surface had an antibacterial gleam and every staffer appeared to have just passed through a delicates cycle, shining with corporate hygiene.
In the gamut of P&G meeting rooms, ranging from mountain-view to bleak, we sat in one in the death-zone category, a basement chamber that contained the ghostly echoes of dial-in codes gone wrong. One wall was plastered with a mural-style photograph of the P&G dream: a woman holding a baby wearing a P&G Pampers nappy, while doing the laundry using P&G Ariel washing powder, next to a sink on which sits P&G Fairy washing-up liquid. Now that its been done by Sport England in a recent This Girl Can advert, they could also include a tell-tale Tampax string descending between the womans legs. Altogether, it is the ultimate commercial vision: a life in which brands are so braided into our existence, and that of our mothers before us, that their presence is as invisible and unquestioned as love.
Though it was dawn in Cincinnati, Suk was undimmed. She held a pink breakfast milkshake, her blond bob was immaculate and she spoke of her millions of customers her subjects in the very brightest of voices: We have a commitment to let her live a life without limits, whether shes on her period or not. And: Weve really played a role to teach her what is a tampon, how she should use it and why she should use Tampax. From a day of listening to Tampax staffers and watching their presentations PowerPoint is P&Gs love language it was clear that the Tampax-buyer is never a consumer or a client or a user. Shes she. Like a friend, just one whose name you dont know but whose menstrual cycle you are deeply familiar with.
The Tampax team know her intimately. Like all big brands, they run a rolling programme of focus groups, talking to hundreds of women every month. They want to know how she feels about her tampon, whether shes using it right, what would make it more comfortable, more convenient. They are led, always and exclusively, they like to say, by her needs and desires. What they dont say, but is implicit, is that they are also led by the need and desire to sell more tampons.
For Tampax, like any longstanding empire, has inherent weaknesses. Over the past few years, according to market researchers Euromonitor, the global consumption of tampons has been in steady decline from a high of 17bn boxes in 2007, down to 15.9bn in 2018. Back in the meeting room, Suk rattled off five contributing factors to this drop-off in a way that suggested this list was a feature of many panicky Cincinnati brainstorms:
1) Period cessation.
2) Abundance of options.
3) Education of the form. (In other words, women having misconceptions about tampons.)
4) Concern over ingredients.
5) Concern over sustainability. (Probably the lowest, noted Suk.)
Never mind about 3, 4 and 5 for the moment. In No 1, Tampax is facing perhaps its greatest existential threat the growing number of women choosing not to have periods at all. Last year, the faculty of sexual and reproductive healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists issued an updated guideline, stating that there was no health benefit to taking a week-long break from the pill to have a sort of faux-period. Women simply no longer need to shed blood if they dont want to.
In threat No 2 abundance of options Tampax is reckoning with the possible fate of any long-time ruler: the rising howl of revolution, a potential coup. Over the past few years, an array of new tampon brands and period products have appeared on the market. Obeying some unwritten law, they all seem to have cute, single-word names Lola, Cora, Callaly, Ohne, Freda, Flo, Thinx, Modibodi, Flex, Flux, Dame, Daye. And they all want to topple Tampax, offering women what they see as more ethical and ecological options to replace Tampaxs single-use plastic applicators and a marketing strategy that often emphasises discretion, as though a period should be something to hide. Its ripe for the taking, said Celia Pool, co-founder of Dame, about Tampaxs hegemonic grip on the market. A brand like Tampax has dominated for so long with such hideous messaging and hideous products in such a personal area of a womans life which they use every month.
So far, the startups strategy seems to be working. People are leaving the big brands, Roshida Khanom, category director of beauty and personal care at the market research company Mintel, told me. Women are switching their loyalties and trying these new disruptors. The disruptors, meanwhile, have their eye on a vast consumer base about 2 billion people, if you calculate that around 26% of the global population is of reproductive age and therefore likely to be menstruating. Periods, seen afresh, present a seductive retail opportunity: a naturally occurring regular event that requires a monthly purchase and continues for approximately 40 years. Get a customer signed up early and then for life and shes locked in for about 480 periods, 8,640 tampons, at least 1,500.
No wonder much of Tampaxs communication is geared towards pubescent first-timers. On its UK website, next to first tampon stories and a tampon quiz, theres a teen chatbot called Alya who has a 90s-Disney, skater-girl vibe and a long wave of jaunty red hair.
Hey Girl, shall we chat? asked Alya. Im Alya, here to answer your body and puberty questions.
Alya, I replied, Tampax has dominated the menstrual market for years: can it hold on?
To be fair to Alya, it was not in her programmed brief to answer such a question, but she gave it a go anyway: Did you mean: What are TAMPAX made from / Can a tampon fall out / Can I skip this puberty thing / None of the above.
None of the above, Alya, none of the above. But thank you for trying. Well find out for ourselves.
Many girls dont use tampons straight out of the gates. For the average 12-year-old, fresh to the questionable joy of periods and yet to have sex, there is a certain caution around inserting an object into your vagina. Some never use tampons at all, particularly in countries where they are considered taboo. This includes much of Asia and many religious societies. Like many, I started with pads, which in the early 90s were a very different class of item to the winged, body-contoured products of today. I recall waddling to assembly convinced that the squeak of the quasi-nappy I had stuffed in my pants was audible to the entire school. At some point, my older sister suggested there might be a better way. And so it begins: a marriage-length relationship with a rolled wad of cotton and rayon that you put inside yourself, with a string attached so you can yank it out again.
The tampon, a late chapter in the story of menstruation, is a significant upgrade after centuries of women making do with homemade efforts old rags, sheepskin, cheesecloth sacks stuffed with cotton, pieces of fabric pinned into pants. In parts of the world, including the UK, where many women cant afford menstrual products, makeshift options are still used. Bespoke period products came into existence shortly after the first world war, when nurses realised that the cellulose-based bandages they were using to dress wounds were better than cotton at absorbing blood. Kotex introduced the first mass-market sanitary pad in 1921; it had to be held in place by a belt. Ten years later, Earle Haas, a Colorado-based doctor, invented and patented the first cardboard applicator tampon. (For those unfamiliar with the form, an applicator is the telescopic-tube mechanism that inserts the tampon into the vagina. Non-applicator tampons, or digital tampons, are pushed in by hand. Oddly, depending on which brand reached a territory first, most countries have an in-built preference for one or another so the vast majority of US consumers use applicators, while most German users dont.)
Haas, possibly to his eternal regret, sold his patent in 1933 to a Denver businesswoman, Gertrude Tendrich, for $32,000. P&G adore Tendrich, the original #girlboss, who started Tampax the same year, and was the companys first president. P&G only acquired the brand in 1997, but have internalised the backstory with the zeal of the convert and an eye to the Insta-buzz around female founders. Were extremely proud, Suk told me.