SAN FRANCISCO — Consumer giant P&G used Saturday's $25.3 billion online shopping holiday to sell Chinese women a product they rarely buy: tampons.
Just 1% of Chinese women use these alternatives to menstrual pads, as compared to about 60% in the United States, according to Tampax, which invented them in 1933.
That sales potential has prompted Procter & Gamble's Tampax brand to launch a new, China-specific branded tampon during the annual Singles' Day deals event e-commerce giant Alibaba held Nov. 11. This year's sales represented a 39% increase over last year.
Menstruation products represent a $5.9 billion industry in the United States and a $35.4 billion one worldwide. Sales are expected to top $40 billion globally in the next three years, according to Global Industry Analysts.
Singles' Day began as Valentine's Day-like holiday in the 1990s among university students in China. Since 2009 Alibaba (BABA) has rebranded it as a shopping day, marketed as a "get something for yourself day" that's grown into a multi-billion dollar sales event.
The shopping event is also a big target for U.S. retailers looking to reach Chinese consumers. In 2016, 37% of total buyers purchased from international brands or merchants — with the United States the top seller of imported goods, according to Alibaba. Citigroup estimates sales could rise as high as $24 billion this year.
The “something just for me” ethos of Single’s Day was perfect for Procter & Gamble, which chose Single’s Day last year as a test run for bringing tampons out in the open to Chinese women.
Periods are still considered unmentionable in Chinese society, where women tend to use euphemisms such as “getting a visit from my aunt” to describe them.
That's why Chinese swimmer Yuanhui Fu made such waves during the Rio Olympics last year when she openly said she was having her period after a difficult race.
Chinese women praised her on social media for her courage in admitting to menstruating. A hashtag about the topic on Weibao, China’s Twitter equivalent, was used more than half a million times in the days after the race.
Fu was also criticized, mainly by men, who said that for women to swim while menstruating was unhealthy and unhygienic.
Three months later Tampax used 11.11 as a test, selling 5,000 Tampax kits as pre-sales in the run up to the actual day. These types of sales are much like pre-Black Friday sales in the United States.
Once it realized there was a market, Tampax used Alibaba’s platforms to gain insight into what Chinese women thought of tampons and what kinds of marketing and design might help them reach more customers, the company said.
That included a strong focus on water sports, including sponsoring outings to water activities in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and a trip for some lucky customers to the tropical island nation of the Maldives.
An ad for Tampax that ran on 11-11 features a blond woman in a red bikini surfing on a pink Tampax applicator. Behind her, another woman scuba dives and one paraglides. while sailboats sail, a Tampa-branded dirigible hangs in the air and a champagne bottle pops.
This year Tampax went all out during Singles' Day, pushing ads and marketing material online meant to specifically appeal to younger Chinese women who may be more open to new ideas and less bound by older social constraints.
Its goal in China is to “enable Chinese women to gain a true sense of liberation during their menstrual period,” said Hong Zhang, manager of external relations for feminine care for Tampax China.
“We want them to feel that on those days, there are no restrictions on their daily lives. If they want to get glammed up, if they want to do physical exercise, hike, or even go swimming in the ocean — with tampons, they can do it all," he said.
Alibaba touts its ability for Proctor & Gamble to use its powerful platforms to reach China's 1.3 billion people.
Unlike Amazon in the United States, Alibaba hosts a complex ecosystem of sites, including the eBay-like Tabao; TMall, where brands sell directly to consumers; and the business-to-business site Alibaba.com. Alibaba also owns AliPay, used by 520 million Chinese as an online payment system.
"Through efforts like this, we are proud to empower the lives of millions of women in China who are looking for quality products and better lifestyles," said Chris Tung, chief marketing officer for the Alibaba Group in Hangzhou, China.
Moving beyond tampons
In the United States, the feminine hygiene market is actually moving beyond tampons. Increasingly younger women are opting for what they feel are more natural and eco-friendly options, often made by women.
This can range from reusable period underwear to natural latex menstrual cups, reusable natural sponge tampons, washable cloth pads and homemade cloth sanitary pads.
American women have also railed against the so-called tampon tax, pushing to have feminine hygiene products exempted from sales tax, because, like food and prescriptions, they're considered life essentials.
Many states have carved out other sales-tax exceptions over the years, often based on local interests or aggressive lobbying.
China still has a ways to go in this trajectory. The country didn't get its first domestic tampon until last year, when an engineer launched the Danbishuang brand, which means Crimson Jade Cool.
Contributing: Zlati Meyer in New York City.