From condoms to cannabis: how to market your taboo product

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The conversation around controversial and taboo sectors is changing. Topics that used to be hard to tackle even ten years ago are now out and in the open, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities for marketers and brands. It does, of course, also offer its own slice of challenges.

There are several ways in which a taboo product can be presented, marketed and sold to its target audience, and especially with delicate sectors it is fundamental to get it right. But just how do you market a taboo product?

We reached out to Simon Forster, founder and executive creative director at Robot Foods, who will be sharing below the best practices of running the voice of a brand in a controversial sector.


Photo by AMV BBDO

How design can help brands make headway in controversial sectors

Launching a product or service in a controversial or taboo sector has always presented its own set of challenges for brands and their design partners. Think of menstrual products, contraceptives, mental health services. But we’re seeing the dialogue change in lots of traditionally ‘behind-closed-doors’ areas right now, which is opening up all kinds of conversations – and opportunities.

Embarrassment, shame and stigma don’t fit with open, inclusive and accepting modern mores. Look at Durex’s latest offering, which challenges the effects that the porn industry has on how people believe sex should be. “So, what if we take a stand for sex? Worry less about how it ‘should’ look. Celebrate how it can feel. Where porn’s not the norm. And STDs are kinda real. Women aren’t judged too quick. Guys aren’t told they need a big ****.” We mightn’t have been ready for that ten years ago. Today? No discreet veil required.

The conversation’s changing around testicular and breast cancer, men and make-up, the cannabidiol (CBD) market and so much more.

But what does all this frankness mean for brand and packaging designers? How do we respond to the new way of talking about topics that have, thus far, provoked fear, or required a subtle nod and brown paper bag? Humour, education, empathy?

Number one when it comes to homing in on the right design solution and tone of voice for a taboo or controversial project has to be: know your audience, and the specific prejudices your product faces.


Photo by Roland Tiffany

When trust goes up in smoke

Cannabis and humans have had a relationship spanning millennia. It’s been used for making rope, as a food and a medicine, and its psychoactive properties played a big part in religious and recreational rituals. 

But somewhere along the line, it fell out of favour – and it’s had a pretty major image problem ever since. The positives fell by the wayside and it earned itself a reputation as a portal to hard drug use (Beware: one puff and there’s no going back). All the good stuff got forgotten as we eschewed natural remedies for everyday ailments in favour of over-the-counter and prescription pills and potions.

Right now, though, we’re in the midst of another big shift, and cannabis – specifically CBD, the non-psychotropic compound – is enjoying a surge in popularity.

This is, in part, because more people are looking for natural solutions to everyday niggles. Sleep aids, stress relievers, energisers, etc. And in part because restrictions on its sale have been lifted in a lot of countries. So, perhaps predictably, the CBD market is on fire right now, with new products launching in varying strengths, promising to remedy all manner of modern ailments. 

But it’s all a bit ‘wild west’. And the CBD industry has some work to do to gain trust and shake off its ‘head shop’ vibe.

The situation isn’t helped when you’ve got lab tests from the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis revealing that 62 per cent of the UK high street products studied didn’t contain the CBD content promised on the label. One product (retailing for £90) had no measurable amount of the CBD at all. And where lacking in advertised cannabidiol, some products were packing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating – and illegal – chemical that causes a cannabis high. According to the report nearly half of tested products had low levels of THC or cannabinol (CBN), another psychoactive substance.

So the market is confused and there’s, understandably, little confidence. What role can branding play to bridge the gap and restore faith?


Photo by i2i Art

A scientific approach to natural healing

Recently we worked with wellness startup Present Life, which wanted to create a product line, called Healist, to take advantage of this sector growth. Crucially, they wanted to change the narrative around CBD products by removing confusion, demonstrating integrity, and making the health benefits crystal clear to the consumer. 

To make it work we needed to create a brand with unique cut-through. It was important to remove the typical barriers associated with CBD products, to build trust and make it mainstream.


Photo by Robot Food

A key part of the strategy was to demonstrate the benefits to be found where modern science and botanical know-how meet, and show how that marriage can help consumers regain balance and ‘reclaim their 100%’.

To get that across, the fusion message is evident at every touchpoint on the consumer journey. The bespoke packaging format makes a real virtue of the science and nature story and focuses on the effectiveness of the ingredients. A lab-white ‘science’ sleeve with a die cut ‘H’ is removed to reveal the ‘nature’ layer, featuring botanical illustrations that showcase active ingredients, with four colourways so consumers can quickly differentiate the four main benefits (calm, sleep, well-being, relief).  

Moving the conversation on

Designers have a big role to play in changing the conversation around all kinds of topics, bringing them in from the cold and shifting them to the mainstream. That’s becoming more important as we see consumers demand that products and brand messaging chime with their views.

It can be tricky. Not everyone is on the same journey and, in the case of CBD oil, there may be quite a long a way to go before everyone sees it as the useful, unthreatening alternative to pharmaceuticals that it can be. 

Authenticity, sensitivity, and design cues that engender trust are crucial attributes. And devising brand strategies that extol the virtues of honesty and clarity is a pretty good place to start.

Simon Forster is the founder and executive creative director of Robot Food.


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