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How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives

P&G's 'Touch the Pickle' campaign for sanitary napkin brand Whisper has been the surprise winner in this year's Cannes Lions. A look at what went into the making of this Grand Prix-winner.

Taboos and prejudices are a part of Indian culture. But when it becomes internalised within one section of society, so much that it becomes the unsaid rule, someone has to speak up, has to play a bigger role. And, in the case of menstruation related taboos in India, P&G's Whisper took a stand.

Around this time last year, the brand launched a small campaign called 'Touch the Pickle'. While literally it had nothing to do with the product category, it was a silent cry of revolution, asking women to break out of the period-related taboos that they have grown up with. A year down the line, it has got one of the biggest honours - a Grand Prix in the recently introduced Glass Lion category at Cannes. A Lion is big news, but what is bigger still is the very behaviour it is trying to change through debate, discussion and gentle pushes.

How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives
How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives
Reach of the campaign...

The final 'Touch the Pickle' campaign saw direct participation from 2.9 million women. The film received over 1.9 million true views on YouTube. The press events in top four markets, features and authored columns garnered earned media worth USD 6.1 million and 1,200 million earned impressions.

The campaign received exposure across Tier-1 Indian media with a strong global interest from BBC, FT, Reuters and Wall Street Journal.

The Cannes Lion is, then, just the cherry on top.

How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives
The Starting Point...
How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives
While for many years the topic of menstruation had itself been a tabooed topic for discussion, in 2014, Procter & Gamble's sanitary napkin brand Whisper, along with IPSOS, carried out a survey among 1,105 women and 202 men across 10 cities. The results of the survey were shocking, especially since the respondents were women aged 13 to 49, living in SEC A and B cities of India.

According to the P&G-IPSOS survey, a shocking 50 per cent of urban Indian women still behave in ways prescribed by age-old beliefs. These range from washing their hair only after the fourth day of the menses (65 per cent of women surveyed follow this), not watering plants during periods (54 per cent), or even touching pickle jars (59 per cent).

Regional variations were also noticed of similar tabooed actions. For example, 70 per cent women from Northern India felt they should not touch pickle during their periods. The number is just slightly better for Eastern India. Similar taboos involving setting curd (48 per cent women), sharing a room with your husband (48 per cent) and touching the masala box (55 per cent women) were also prevalent in Western India. In Eastern India, meanwhile, more than behaviour, it was social embarrassment that was kept in mind. 86 per cent women in Eastern India bought their sanitary napkins wrapped in newspapers and a similar percentage of men revealed that they felt more embarrassed to buy a sanitary napkin than to purchase condoms.

"Whisper's brand purpose is to advocate for and empower women to reach their fullest potential. The Whisper 'Touch the Pickle' movement was conceived when we realised that a majority of Indian women were feeling restricted from achieving their dreams because of irrational period taboos. With superior quality sanitary protection like Whisper, we believe women should not feel restricted on their period days. Women across India overwhelmingly responded to our campaign with their own stories of breaking taboos," explained the Whisper India spokesperson.

How It Happened...

But, it is one thing to try to break taboos and another to make people actually take notice. BBDO India, headed by Josy Paul (chairman and chief creative director), was already handling P&G's Gillette account. After an informal chat with members of the team, Paul was surprised by the different dynamics and taboos that plagued the society, even in educated sections.

How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives
"I have grown up with sisters, but never realised these taboos exist. It was only after the fireside chat that we started to think about really making a difference. While P&G did its formal research, at BBDO, we too started asking our female colleagues and friends about anecdotes around to period-related taboos," he recalls.

About the campaign title, Paul explains, "We felt 'Touch the Pickle' had the right tone and intrigue to lead the taboo conversation. It was light, odd and not intense. We thought it was a great metaphor for all the period taboos."

Paul's aim was to increase the emotional equity of Whisper - a brand which, being the leader in the Rs 7,000 million sanitary pad market, already enjoyed a strong performance equity.

The Planning Stage...

How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives
And thus started the movement of encouraging women to question age-old practices. The entire campaign was divided into three parts.

The first phase involved the survey; it was followed by discussions in public forums. RJ Malishka conducted shows on radio to bring up the topic of taboos in periods, influencers on social media discussed it further, news channels became a part of it as the topic was debated on air. The brand also had to clear the air about the term 'pickle' - because a lot of women related pickles with only pregnancy - so that the campaign stayed on track.

How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives

Here's something interesting on the media buying front. Tanvi Garg, senior business director at MediaCom, says, "We did a lot of last minute, 'opportunity buy'." What does she mean? "For example," she explains, "when something related to the subject was being discussed on TV, and P&G was not involved directly, we would place an ad at the last minute to keep the conversation going."

How Procter & Gamble India touched the pickle, hearts and lives
"Similarly," she goes on, "we kept our ears open for any relevant videos which were being shared online or had gone viral. We would then push it ourselves, if it had anything to do with our movement." Say, when Parineeti Chopra refused to answer a journalist's question till he mentioned the word 'period' (his original choice was 'problem'), the media/brand team took it up as a topic of discussion and linked it to the campaign.

In the second phase of the campaign, the film was launched on digital and television platforms, along with front page ads in leading dailies in six cities. The third phase asked people to participate. Madison PR extended the reach of the campaigns by arranging innovative photo opportunities and live events. Women from all walks of life - celebrities as well as non-celebrities - came forward to share their own 'taboo stories', eminent anthropologists shared the root and history of these taboos, on-ground events were organised and innovative pull-outs were inserted into magazines. Influencers such as Menstrupedia's founder Aditi Gupta, film actors Mandira Bedi, Tanvi Azmi and Shraddha Kapoor, and medical expert Dr. Suneela Garg came on board. Moreover, Gupta and her husband delivered TED talks to spread the message.

The Winning Strategy...

Only about 40 per cent of urban Indian women use sanitary napkins. With only 40 per cent penetration, the campaign, thus, became as relevant to the urban as the semi-urban or rural population.

"It is easier to see the change in mindsets and behaviours in urban audiences. Did we think it could offend some people, maybe grandparents and mothers who originally passed the taboos to the present generation? Yes. Because of that, our choice of media was also niche channels. We did not advertise on Hindi GECs, but on channels with a more educated and evolved audience," adds Mediacom's Garg.

Her team intentionally chose "lean-forward touch points," which had a more personal and closer engagement with the audience. So, instead of just television, the campaign was more focussed on personal platforms like digital and magazines. However, since the aim was to change the mindset of a whole family, the campaign was not a hushed one.

Speaking about menstruation openly, obviously, has led to more changes in the environment and not just for Whisper. Recently, other brands like Sofy and Stayfree have joined in the conversation with digital campaigns. Mainline actors who traditionally never endorsed sanitary pads, have now started becoming the face of these products. Conversations around menstruation have also increased on social media. So then, maybe it is true that the buzz word has shifted from brand solutions to social solutions.

Says the Whisper India spokesperson, "We believe that the social context of our consumers inspires creative thinking and creative communication impacts society. As marketers, we can impact and shape social fabric by an in-depth understanding of her social context and our brands can help her achieve what she wants. If we demonstrate that we understand her and provide solutions that make a difference to her daily life, she will trust us. It is important to build trust and that is the only way to build brands. Our campaigns recognise this truth, especially around women empowerment and the consumer's need for social change."