Breaking taboos: packaging socially awkward products

We all face embarrassing situations from time to time. Sometimes we want to buy a sexual wellness or health product, but don't want everyone to know what we’re up to. Maybe you live in a small town and don't want the entire community to get a glimpse of what you’re buying. Purchasing anything private is difficult, whether it be an intimate personal product or something like toilet paper or a magazine.

It’s a scene played out in sitcoms and movies across the world, often one of embarrassment. But for many people, this is a more common occurrence than you might imagine.  A customer attempts to purchase an embarrassing product — one of those that are seen but not talked about like condoms, underwear or an intimate cream — but is caught in the act when there's a problem at the checkout or they bump into a neighbour.

Let’s face it, we all purchase these products at some point, but the fact remains that it can be a somewhat embarrassing experience. That’s why products in this category require a whole new level of discretion when we create the packaging.

Distinctive and easily recognisable

Packaging is an important part of branding. The way that your brand appears on shelf can determine whether the product is picked up by a customer or not. Your package needs to stand out, be distinctive and easily recognisable.

For this reason ostentatious packaging is often utilised by brands looking to gain maximum impact. Using such a ploy for socially awkward products, however, can actually decrease purchase intentions. Anonymity is preferred by consumers in this case, and should be reflected in the packaging design and how the product is merchandised.

Product anonymity

Product anonymity relates to consumers’ perception that their purchases are invisible among other similar purchases. Several factors influence this perception such as colour, typeface, shape, and imagery.

Research has shown that consumers feel more comfortable purchasing socially awkward products when they’re packaged in a certain way. Colour plays a big part in this process and should be considered carefully. For instance, blue is considered the most anonymous of all packaging colours. Red and yellow on the other hand are practically neon signs saying ''Here I am!'' and should be avoided at all costs.

Font size is also closely related to anonymity. Small fonts are less exposed than large or medium-sized ones. Pack formats also comes into play; a box or carton is considered more anonymous than a pump bottle or tube. Brand owners should bear these points in mind when considering packaging redesign, branding and marketing strategies. Authenticity, sensitivity, and design cues that evoke trust are proving to be crucial attributes.

Address the elephant in the room

The socially awkward product market is huge, highly specific and continues to expand. It’s not limited to one or two specialities either and reaches many segments of society from the socially awkward to the overly confident. Brands need to factor this in when creating marketing strategies.

Marketers have traditionally come up with creative ways to sell their products. And today, they are turning to new strategies that make buying into socially awkward products seem less embarrassing: by using clever humour and metaphorical language, they present their product in such a way that makes it seem less embarrassing to consumers. In an age of social media and the internet, brands are realising that it's sometimes better to address issues head on than dance around them.

Rather than avoiding the elephant in the room, brands are coming out and embracing the fact that purchasing these products can be awkward... and communicating there's nothing to be ashamed about doing so.

Metaphorical nod and a brown paper bag

So, what does this new frankness mean for brand and packaging designers? Should they continue to respond to it with a metaphorical nod and a brown paper bag of shame? Or should they take a new humorous, educational and empathetic approach?

The marketing team for Poo-Pourri lead the way when it comes to adopting a humorous and original take on what’s considered a taboo product. The campaign for their ‘‘spritz the bowl before you go toilet freshener’’ starred a well to do consumer boasting about the product while perched on a porcelain throne, banishing the stigma associated with everyday bathroom odours - a ‘‘poop-positive brand dumping the shame around the things we all do’’

So, never under estimate the power of word-of-mouth and consumers when you’ve got a product that does what it claims to do. Viral posts and consumer engagement certainly created a buzz on social media around a product that would have otherwise be banished to a bathroom cabinet. The brand’s advertising and media coverage made for a product that was highly shareable.

Likewise, its packaging was certainly created with social media in mind. When consumers reach for their before-you-go toilet spray it's like reaching out for miniature works of art — custom designed bottles have been adorned with embossed monogram caps and intricate, hand-drawn illustrations. Updated packaging copy ("POO-etry") has been created by the Poo-Pourri in-house "PooCrew" to pump up the attitude of each scent variant.

The new normal

Packaging design and branding can also have a big effect on normalising everyday problems. A great example is the redesign of underwear products for children who wet the bed. The original packaging was dark blue and featured an image of two children in what looked like a hospital bed. The design agency tasked with modernising the pack updated the image to show a picture of children jumping up and down on a bed and renamed the product “pyjama pants”

Agency Pearlfisher created hygiene brand Femme to address the taboo of tampons amongst Chinese consumers. The contemporary and stylish packaging elevated a basic product to be associated with ideas of a high-end lifestyle, while also being discreet and empowering modern consumers to be educated and informed about their periods.

As consumers start to become more comfortable purchasing top shelf bathroom products with their weekly grocery shop, packaging becomes more important than ever. With new humorous and empathetic branding and marketing strategies, under-the-counter plain boxes are starting to be transformed from dull everyday items into desirable lifestyle purchases.

If all else fails...

Despite the great strides that have been made in the way these products are packaged and marketed, some of us are still concerned about making that taboo purchase or leaving a digital footprint online. But don’t worry, one shopping technique still works rather well – just throw on some dark sunglasses, clothing and a baseball cap, grab a wad of cash and give the checkout operator a smile that says, "I'm not buying this for me — I'm buying it for someone else."