Tampons aren't really a thing in China. So a tampon brand tried to build awareness on social media during the Olympics by explaining what they are and that women athletes use them. "Tampons are put inside and won't leak. You can move around freely!" the Greener Life brand explained.
That post on Weibo was illustrated with a comic-book style image of bronze medal-winning swimmer Fu Yuanhui. Coincidentally, a few days later Ms. Fu admitted she actually had gotten her period during the Games, sparking chatter on social media for talking so frankly about menstruation. (Prime-time commercials for sanitary products were banned in China in a crackdown on advertising deemed "vulgar.")
Tampons were introduced to China over two decades ago, but they never really caught on and can be hard to find. Tampax tried the market years ago but eventually departed; OB is available in some convenience stores, and there are small internet retailers selling imported tampons from abroad. The retail value of tampons in 2015 in China was $3.6 million, just 0.03% of the total sanitary protection market, according to Euromonitor International.
Given that sanitary pads are ubiquitous and tampons aren't seen as an option, Chinese women often skip activities like swimming when they have their periods.
For tampon marketers, Ms. Fu's taboo-breaking could have been a moment made in social media heaven, an opportunity to surf on a wave of internet chatter and capitalize on the public's embrace of charismatic Ms. Fu.
But since there are so few tampon brands here, it was largely a missed opportunity for them to explain what tampons are and how they can make life better. The post from Greener Life – before Ms. Fu even talked about getting her period -- was one of the few Ad Age could find. Marketing and advertising investment in the category appears tiny. After Ms. Fu's comments, it fell to the United Nations women's organization to post something on Weibo that a tampon brand could have posted, explaining that using tampons doesn't take away your virginity.
A brief history of tampons in China
June Bu, an independent marketing consultant and former Johnson & Johnson executive who helped launch OB tampons in China in 1993, recalls running a commercial back then (when TV ad time was still affordable in China) showing a gynecologist putting a tampon in a test tube to stop leakage. There were early adopters, she said, but it was difficult to get to the next level. She estimates that less than 1% of Chinese women use tampons today.
"There's a traditional taboo – there's a concern it will hurt, or that it will impact their virginity, which still a very serious belief for women who are not married yet," said Ms. Bu, who later headed China marketing for all J&J personal care brands and was named an Ad Age Women to Watch China in 2013. Also, Ms. Bu said, some women try tampons but have a hard time putting then in. "A lot of people give up at that stage. The drop rate is very high."
Ms. Bu sees new potential for the category among young women, especially the fashion-forward. "This is a very discreet product format -- when people wear shorts for example, they don't want people to see them wearing a sanitary pad." People recommending it to friends will help, she said. But, she said, "you have to gradually change people's mindsets."
A few entrepreneurs are betting on more interest. A brand called Wishu, with French founders, is selling German-made tampons and sanitary products in stores in several big cities and online. It entered the market four years ago.
"There is no information shared from mothers to daughters on this issue, the only place they can get it in the internet," said Jeremy Rigaud, Wishu's co-founder. "We sell a lot on internet, because it's the best place to provide sensitive information like this. We talk about how it will benefit their lifestyle. You should not stop living just because you have your period."
Another company is planning to launch what it says will be China's first locally manufactured tampons, with products made at its existing factory for health products in Henan province. It plans to sell first online, then in retail. The brand name is Dan Bi Shuang – one character off from Tampax's Chinese brand name, Dan Bi Si.
"Now, students' education is influenced by Western ideas, so they accept tampons," said sales manager Ye Deliang. "Also, some people are traveling abroad, and when they come back, they're asking for them."