Let's Sell Drugs (And Sex, Too): Marketing for Taboo Industries
Some products are easy to advertise. Everyone loves a Porsche, no one's embarrassed about their toothpaste, and fashion is just plain sexy. But what happens when your product is part of a culturally taboo category, an embarrassing health issue, or an almost-illegal industry?
For some brands, from cannabis and psychedelics to periods and sexual wellness, marketing can be a special kind of challenge. At January Third, we're passionate about building brands and designing campaigns for products we shouldn't be embarrassed to talk about—but somehow (kind of, sometimes, occasionally) still are.
Let's dive in to three different strategies we've deployed for marketing various taboo products, from Nixit to Khalifa Kush to Glissant personal lubricant.
Each example will show how we addressed three key challenges of taboo marketing:
1. A strategy that responds to taboo or negative perceptions
2. Creative and messaging that gives our audience confidence to engage with/buy the product
3. A media strategy that navigates censorship on Facebook, Instagram and other digital platforms
This isn't medicine. Here, we're selling drugs.
Cannabis legalization in many states has led to a huge influx of brands marketing THC-based products, and not just for medical purposes.
Today, the industry is defining what it looks like when we're actually allowed to brand, advertise and sell cannabis for recreational purposes. Many brands have gone with trustworthy, category-legitimizing identities, which is a strategically sound move for a lot of companies.
But medicine is not the goal of Wiz Khalifa's weed brand. Khalifa Kush is grown for unabashed fun. So when the team came to January Third to rebrand Khalifa Kush ahead of a multi-state expansion, we started thinking:
How do we preserve the fun, the intrigue, and the Wiz-filled spirit of powerful-yet-safe, plant-based … drugs?
Preserve the fun of illegal drugs while firmly following current cannabis advertising laws, rules and regulations.
Some products are alluring because they're taboo. And this is one of them.
Khalifa Kush isn't selling medicinal cannabis. We're selling potent, powerful, premium weed from Wiz Khalifa's personal stash.
Using Wiz's organic social reach paired with outdoor ads run by the dispensaries where cannabis is recreationally legal ensured that we could reach our target audience while keeping social profiles safe from Facebook censorship.
Battling period embarrassment with healthcare innovation.
People have been made to feel ashamed, embarrassed, and generally just bad about menstruation for … probably as long as humanity has existed. Maybe that's why there's been very little innovation in period care over the past century.
The campaign contrasted tampons, invented in 1929, with Nixit's innovative menstrual cup. We used a trendy, very *now* visual style paired with tech-forward language to suggest that this newer type of product—a stemless menstrual cup that sits in the vaginal fornix—is like the iPhone of period care.
Position menstrual cups as a new innovation in the evolution of period care.
The creative features a fashion-forward visual style to show that it's OK to be proud of our periods.
Tampons were invented in the 1920s. We deserve period progress.
Leaning into innovation messaging, not mentioning sex or specific body parts.
Bringing lube out of the nightstand drawer.
Sex as a sales device is tried and true. But the supporting cast of sex—lube, toys, condoms and the like—are mostly hidden away in our nightstand drawers.
Glissant is personal lubricant made by doctors, who are also women, to help alleviate pain due to vaginal dryness. Patients were reportedly embarrassed about having ugly, teenage-looking lube in their bedside table, and were looking for something more suited to their age and demographic.
So we built a campaign that uses the visual vernacular of perfume, makeup and luxury goods targeted to women to position our product as an object of beauty designed to be prominently displayed. Something this beautiful shouldn't be hidden away.
Why should lube be embarrassing if it makes us feel good?
The creative faces the taboo head-on and declares it plainly wrong.
Pleasure is not something to be ashamed of. It's something to be proud of.
Like many sexual health brands, Glissant had ads taken down and censored on Facebook and Instagram, so they deployed an interstitial landing page that would help the ads get the approval algorithm's thumbs-up. A landing page that didn't mention sex helped the ads get approved.
Key takeaways for marketing taboo brands
The specific strategies we deploy on a current project change based on the brand and business goals, but there are several things we always consider.
1. In some ways, taboo products come supercharged with cultural tension, adding inherent attention-grabbing value that can be strategically repurposed as brand equity. What is the most effective way for the brand in question to address its taboo?
2. Taboo categories often have unspoken rules about the way products are advertised (like the blue liquid that drips strangely onto pads in TV spots). Sometimes breaking the mold is enough.
3. There is great power in saying plainly what most brands have used euphemisms to obliquely reference. Simply saying the word "vagina" in an ad is a radical idea.
4. Using the tools of design can add legitimacy, excitement or pique the audience's interest in the brand. Just picture the difference between Venus razors and Billie.
5. Older audiences are deeply familiar with traditions and tropes when it comes to taboo industries. But young people have had fewer years of cultural indoctrination, leaving them more open to new language that squares better with their day-to-day experience.
6. Engaging with a consumer on a sensitive topic is inherently an intimate act. As the consumer engages with the brand, they're opening up a little bit of themselves. When a brand is willing to engage in awkward conversation in a direct and trustworthy way, it builds a stronger, more loyal connection to the brand over time.
7. Is the taboo an alluring benefit or a challenge to be reframed? In Khalifa Kush's case, the taboo of illegal drugs helps lend the brand some interesting intrigue, but hurts when trying to advertise on social. For Nixit and Glissant, the taboo of openly discussing sexual health and pleasure makes advertising an interesting and fun challenge (but getting ads approved on Facebook is a whole other story).
Are you working on product development, branding, or marketing in a taboo industry? Let’s talk about it! You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.