Growth 500

How the DivaCup went mainstream

Taking on the job of bringing a menstrual product to the far-reaching masses, Kitchener-based Diva International had to expand its marketing creativity—and cultural consciousness

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies

During the course of a 15-minute video called “I Tried the DivaCup,” California-based YouTuber Safiya Nygaard gives viewers a no-holds-barred play-by-play of her period—the first one for which she’s employed the help of the now widely used menstrual device. Over the seven documented days, Nygaard removes, replaces, sleeps, hikes and even does a forearm stand while wearing it. More than eight million people around the world have watched her journey.

The DivaCup has only recently entered the domain of stunt internet videos, but menstrual cups definitely aren’t new. The earliest versions appeared almost a century ago—made first with rubber, then latex, and now medical-grade silicone. Once considered something of a fringe product, the cup gained support for its sustainable properties. (For the uninitiated, the DivaCup can be worn for up to 12 hours before being removed, rinsed and reinserted after boiling to sterilize.) And just last year, menstruation monolith Tampax introduced its own facsimile, a key sign of the product—excuse the phrase—going mainstream.

Diva International, headquartered in Kitchener, is perhaps the cup’s best-known purveyor—its marquee product sold as an eco-friendly, worry-free money-saver associated with the fourth wave of women’s liberation and the ongoing pursuit of more and better choices. Having broken into the American market in 2003, selling mainly online and through small retailers, the company—which boasts 311% five-year sales growth, clinching the No. 272 spot on the 2019 Growth 500 ranking—is now wading into international waters. From Australia to Mexico and, most recently, Hong Kong, Diva has taken on the task of selling a taboo product that addresses a regrettably taboo need. So how does a company thrive within a product vertical many people would rather not acknowledge?

For the certified B Corp, the answer lies in first busting through lingering stigma at home. “We’re asking women to challenge the status quo,” says Carinne Chambers-Saini, who founded Diva with her mother, Francine Chambers. One such challenge came in the form of Diva’s most recent North American campaign, dubbed Inner Revolution, which kicked off in February with a Times Square takeover, plus TV, print, radio, social and digital ads filtered across North America. “We have to realize that many people still feel embarrassed when talking about menstruation,” says Chambers-Saini. “But we’ve tried to normalize the conversation.”

While some might see talk of a period “revolution” as unnecessary hyperbole, it’s no secret that menstruation has long been associated with embarrassment, diminished capacity or general uncleanliness. Outside of North America, period stigma can result in missed days at work or school and, in severe cases, forced isolation.

The initial inspiration behind the DivaCup ties in squarely with that shame and frustration. In the 1960s, Diva’s founder Francine Chambers hated her period. She was a sports-loving girl in a family of three brothers, but once a month she felt acutely different. “She felt like her freedom was taken away,” explains her daughter.

But when Chambers later discovered menstrual cups, she experienced a form of liberation that she later passed down to her own daughters. (Chambers-Saini received one from her mother at age 14.) Chambers found it comfortable and liked that she could wear it for an extended window of time—almost like it wasn’t even there. “It was a complete game-changer,” Chambers-Saini says.

Once Chambers-Saini graduated with a business administration degree from Wilfred Laurier University, the mother-daughter team decided to work from their dining-room table to modernize the menstrual cup for a new generation. In 2003, they developed a new prototype, reworking its shape slightly, adding flow measure lines so users could monitor changes, and upgrading to a hypoallergenic medical-grade silicone. Then they went on a mission to take their reinvented cup to the masses.

It was a task loaded with obstacles. Even in the early 21st century, there were few female executives in the menstrual-health industry. “Most of the buyers we met with were men who had never experienced a period and didn’t understand the need for innovation,” says Chambers-Saini. “We were pretty much locked out of every trade show and boardroom.”

They found it difficult to convince buyers and retailers, dependent on repeat monthly business, that it was to their advantage to offer their customers a choice. Determined to have their cup made in Canada, Diva also found it tough to find a manufacturer who would work with them on the right tooling for the product. They struggled with regulatory approvals for a medical device, and had to request the creation of a new customs category when they looked to ship over the border. All this happened long before they experienced blowback from a hush-hush customer base.

Diva initially rolled out their products in health food stores, which helped to create a niche. Chambers-Saini would arrive in a market, meet with sales reps and go store to store, training the staff and talking about the product in what she calls “a very grassroots” way.

After 11 years of pounding the pavement, the mother-daughter duo landed their first national account with Shoppers Drug Mart in 2014. “That’s when we could see [success] in the mass market,” says Chambers-Saini. The DivaCup is now sold in over 35,000 North American outlets.

As the company expanded at home—growing from four employees in 2012 to 40 in 2019—it began eyeing international territory, which has led to a host of novel challenges. Chambers-Saini says they don’t take lightly the task of strategy-setting for unfamiliar markets. “Every region has so many different components,” she says. “We always look for the market’s familiarity with reusable products and internal products, how amenable people are to trying something new and where they’re going to purchase it.”

Then there are procedural matters, like regulatory hurdles and trademarks. Diva’s executives have had to school themselves in the specific nuts and bolts of distribution, which can vary in unexpected ways. “In Germany, for example, you don’t collect things from the pharmacy shelves; you order things from a catalogue at the counter,” Chambers-Saini explains. “Every market is so different.”

When going into a market full force, as with their recent entrée into Hong Kong, they reach out to Canadian trade offices abroad, who have been helpful connecting Diva to appropriate partners. Diva also conducts market research beforehand to determine product suitability, gauge the price of competing products and find what messaging might resonate with potential customers.

If there is a marketing taboo attached to a product like this, it’s not a threat as long as it’s recognized, says Karen Cvitkovich, consultant with Mosaic Global Solutions in Boston. “Korea, for example, is very conservative and communicating [messaging] in the right way is very important. By focusing on the cleanliness of the product, Diva is showing that it’s knowledgeable about the country’s values.” She adds that tailoring the message acknowledges that there’s also a gap between intended communication and what gets heard, one that grows even wider when companies cross cultures.

In parts of Africa, the company has found an emphasis on cost savings to be most effective from an advertising perspective. In the Middle East, Diva has amended their user’s guide to include a warning about the potential for hymen breakage. And in other parts of Asia, where discussions about periods are less public—and habits tend to be passed down through the family—Diva’s outreach has targeted an older generation.

“We say, ‘Why don’t you try it and see if it’s good enough for your daughter?” says Roxanne Law, vice-president of operations for Diva. “We’re trying to educate people that it is a safe and clean alternative for you and those you love.”

Sometimes, Diva’s success has come as a bit of a surprise. Breaking into the Mexican market initially looked like a bit of an uphill battle, but preliminary research indicated that its female population is both young and highly interested in eco-conscious products—an ideal new constituency. “Mexico has been incredibly receptive to our messaging, and the average age of women there is about 27,” says Chambers-Saini. In the Canadian and United States markets, Diva’s top social media post is an Earth Day giveaway, which has approximately 2,000 likes. By contrast, a similar giveaway post targeting Mexico has over 12,000 likes.

But while menstruation products should be contextualized to a particular environment, menstruation itself is a completely universal experience. Juana Du, associate professor of communication and culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., says Diva has made effective efforts to communicate not just differences, but commonly accepted values. “The consumer makes decisions based on what values products bring to their life—convenience, health, environmental concerns—and pushing those across countries and cultures can create a universal [acceptability],” she says.

Diva is also making headway with strategic partnerships to help get the word out in places that aren’t well-suited to communication through massive, highway-adjacent billboards. “Social media and influencers are a huge way to break through stigma,” says Law. “If [potential customers] see someone they know saying something positive about your product or making a call-out to menstrual cups in general, whether it’s a celebrity or an athlete, that’s probably where you’re going to have your best gains.”

In past years, the company has partnered with, among others, WNBA star Layshia Clarendon and Olympic runner Natasha Hastings. One U.K.–based influencer, Jill Matthews—a Diva ambassador who describes herself as a “sustainability enthusiast”—has an enviable feed of images featuring standup paddle-boarding, European cityscapes, DIY body butter, and comfortable-looking wardrobe choices. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in sports or if they’re in fashion. If they’re an influencer who menstruates, we’ll consider them,” explains Law.

Chambers-Saini says Diva maintains a rigorous selection process for influencers, working with them directly to create content and closely tracking online impressions. “We don’t partner with people who don’t align with our values,” she says. Instead, they look for “authenticity”—the buzzword du jour. The key, though, is seeking out people who actually use and love the product. “We think that women can benefit from hearing about someone else’s experience,” says Chambers-Saini, who notes that influencers have been a massively effective arm of Diva’s overall marketing effort.

When it comes to hiring full-time employees, that, too, follows a rigorous selection process: in particular, Chambers-Saini has sought out individuals with a broad world view. “Because we’re now an international organization, we look for people who have either lived in other countries or have experiences with international markets,” she says. “We want people who can bring those insights and perspectives as we do business in more and more cultures.” As such, Diva recently added team members from Colombia and China.

As part of its corporate cultural consciousness, Diva also strives to keep its product affordable in every market. “We feel it’s a necessity, not a luxury,” says Law. “The cost can seem daunting at first, and it’s a little more than you pay for a carton of tampons or pads. But it’s a one-time purchase, so it’s actually saving money. And it’s an investment up front—for your health, the environment and your pocketbook.”

Still, the DivaCup—which retails in Canada for about $40—can seem like a steep initial outlay. Even in affluent Canada, according to a 2018 report from Plan International, one in three women has struggled to afford menstrual health products. DivaCares, the company’s philanthropic arm, was established in May to address issues of period poverty, and to establish sponsorships and partnerships in local markets related to menstrual equity.

“We’re trying to look at a person’s period experience holistically,” says Alexis Biermann, DivaCares manager. “It isn’t just about lowering your environmental impact or finding a better way to care for yourself; it’s also about addressing actual barriers [in women’s lives].”

In the last two years, Diva says it has distributed more than 15,000 menstrual cups worldwide, and plans to donate an additional 15,000 cups by April 2020. In addition, DivaCares works in tandem with a number of groups, including Toronto’s The Period Purse, (which has chapters across the United States) and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network in Toronto, to offer education and expanded access. “At some point, someone decided that we needed free toilet paper and soap in our bathrooms, but not free menstrual products,” says Jana Girdauskas, founder of The Period Purse. “Our mission is to bring those free supplies to marginalized menstruators.”

For Diva, and a new generation of menstrual-health advocates, the inner revolution will not be confined. And while Chambers is reluctant to tie Diva’s advocacy and altruism directly to her bottom line, there’s no doubt that a growing awakening will lift sales. She notes that the DivaCup is now the number-one-selling menstrual cup product on “We’ve known for a long time that there’s a lack of education about how women’s bodies and a product like this might work,” she says. “Having these conversations is not just good for society as a whole; it’s absolutely good for business.”