Too lumpy and not absorbent enough – that was his verdict on his early attempts. It turns out that making tampons isn’t easy, especially if you insist on designing all the machines yourself.
But Ye Deliang persevered, and next month the 51 year-old businessman will launch China’s first domestic tampon brand: Danbishuang.
He is taking a punt. China’s sanitary pad makers think it is too early to produce tampons – and that the market simply isn’t ready to adopt them.
Yet Ye says now is the time for small producers like himself. Attitudes towards sex and menstruation are changing and he thinks those who enter the tampon industry will be rewarded.
“Every industry needs a pioneer and I want to be this industry’s,” he told WiC in an interview.
“Our research shows interest in tampons is growing,” he adds. Currently sanitary pads hold sway – often the bigger the better. Chinese women used some 85 billion of them last year.
By comparison only 2% of China’s 350 million menstruating women – calculated as women aged between 15 and 50 years old – use tampons, according to recent research by the American cotton industry.
As Ye sees it, the barriers to tampon use are as follows: low levels of sex education, traditional attitudes to female virginity and little commercial exposure to the product.
It is worth remembering that tampons can be hard to find even in China’s bigger cities. Women generally learn about period management from their mothers who use sanitary towels. Chinese schools do not teach children about the reproductive organs, so many women have little understanding of their own anatomy – leading them to think tampons will be painful or rob them of their virginity.
Lastly, many don’t see how a small, discreet tampon could do the job of much larger sanitary pad.
“When I first tried tampons I kept asking my husband if I was leaking,” one cautious tampon-user says. But as Chinese women increasingly go abroad to study they are encountering a different message – that tampons are comfortable, hygienic and easy to use.
Some women have even picked up on the feminist message: “It’s nobody’s business but mine if my hymen is intact,” said one 27 year-old who studied in the US.
Such customers form the bedrock of the existing tampon market in China – served by imports such as Johnson & Johnson’s o.b. tampons – which are stocked in selected stores – and Tampax, which is available online.
Ye’s trick will be getting these women to switch to a domestic brand and encourage non-users to try his product.
One of the ways he is considering doing that is by selling his goods in maternity shops. It sounds counter-intuitive at first, given that pregnant and nursing women don’t have periods, but Ye says women who have had babies at least know how their bodies work.
He can also stress the ‘no fuss’ aspect to these women – the tampon as an aid that allows you to spend more time with your children.
He says that some of the Western marketing messages for tampons – that they allow women to be active and do sport during menstruation – don’t work in China because women there generally believe they should be careful during menstruation, avoiding strenuous activity.
He also says that he will need to be careful about directing his marketing towards young or unmarried girls to avoid a backlash.
But Ye might be being too cautious. Some 71% of Chinese people now have sex before marriage.
Two other start-ups that import foreign tampons say they are doing a roaring trade. Puff House based in Guangdong simply sells American Tampax on line but the other Wishu takes foreign tampons and rebrands them with their own logos.
It shows there might be a market for a domestic Chinese label. But if there isn’t, Danbishuang can always leverage its name. It’s almost identical to Danbisi – Tampax’s name in Chinese.
Some consumers may still think they are buying a foreign brand anyway.
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