In October 2019, a new period emoji made its way onto mobile phones all over the world. Designed by the team at Plan International UK, the emoji hopes to open up the conversation around menstruation and period poverty.
We asked Laura MacLeman, Press and Media Manager at Plan International UK to give us a behind the scenes look at the campaign.
Q: How did you conceive and develop the idea for the Period Emoji campaign?
Back in 2017, the idea came up in a creative brainstorm. We knew we had a series of PR moments coming up focusing on reproductive health and rights, starting with Menstrual Hygiene Day in May. We’d also just started to build our work on girls’ rights here in the UK and we were looking for ideas that bridged the gap between our global and domestic work. The emoji felt like a creative, relevant and low-cost way to talk about the sometimes difficult topic of menstruation, and something that could have a tangible impact. We carried out a survey which found that almost half of women aged 18-34 believed that a period emoji would make it easier to discuss periods with friends and partners. That seemed like reason enough to try and make it a reality.
Q: What was involved in bringing the idea to life? Can you describe the process of creating an emoji?
The best word I can use for the process is long! Our Digital team did a lot of research before the campaign, so we knew we had to show the Unicode Consortium – who decide which emojis to take forward – that there was a significant public interest in this emoji being approved, and that nothing else existed that could stand in its place.
We did this by getting our supporters involved from the outset. Our in-house designer created various emojis and we asked the public to vote for their favourite. We had over 55,000 votes, so we knew we were on to something.
Unfortunately, the ‘period pants’ design that was originally chosen was rejected by Unicode and we were advised that we were more likely to be successful if the emoji had multiple uses. So we teamed up with NHS Blood to resubmit the successful blood drop emoji (the runner-up in the public vote).
Q: Did you have a specific target audience in mind for this campaign?
We wanted to get as many people on board as possible to show Unicode that there was a real need for the emoji. But we also knew it would resonate most with a younger female audience – which is slightly different to our existing supporter base – so we adjusted our communications accordingly. Our main media targets were places like Marie Claire, Grazia and Stylist – outwardly feminist titles read by our primary target audience. We also did some paid Facebook activity targeting younger women.
Q: How did you plan your media and communications to sustain engagement with the public throughout the campaign?
We knew that if we could get campaigners and journalists on side from the beginning, they would want to follow this story through to the end no matter what the outcome. If we hadn’t got the emoji that would have been a story in itself – why have emojis for unicorns, wizards and at least three different types of trains been approved, but not one for periods?!
Our campaign on period stigma has also been a lot wider than the emoji. In the past two years we’ve released the only representative statistics on girls facing period poverty in the UK, written a first-of-its-kind report, Break the Barriers, looking at period poverty and stigma in the UK and how this is linked to period poverty globally, and our Let’s Talk. Period. programme with sexual health and wellbeing charity, Brook, which has supported a huge number of girls across the UK.
Building up our expertise in this area has meant we’re consistently quoted in media stories and have become a go-to voice on periods.
Q: How has the media responded? Why do you think this is?
The media reaction to the arrival of the period emoji has been incredible, and we’ve had coverage everywhere from the Sun to Vogue. We really targeted technology reporters and women’s interest press, both of whom had a specific interest in the emoji, and the majority of coverage has been really positive and supportive.
There has definitely been a step change in the past two or three years around reporting about menstruation, though. When we first launched the campaign in early 2017, members of my team remember it being a really hard sell, with journalists literally laughing down the phone. So much has changed in that time – period poverty in the UK, and the stigma that contributes to this, has been highlighted as a real issue by individuals and organisations including Plan International UK, so I think by the time we were successful in getting the emoji the need for it was much more widely accepted.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced during this campaign?
Unicode don’t share a lot of information on their decision-making process, so we never knew the timelines they were working to. We found out that the emoji was on keyboards when a member of staff happened to download their IOS update! That made communications tricky, as we had to be nimble and reactive rather than being able to plan in advance. We had to get as much ready to go as possible, and then just work like mad to get it all out there.
Q: How have you measured the impact of the campaign?
The main objective of all Plan International UK’s campaigns is to create actual change for girls, so the approval of the emoji and it now being available to use globally is the most tangible measure of success, and the one we’re most proud of.
We aimed to create this change – and open up the conversation around periods at the same time – through media coverage and digital engagement, and had measurable KPIs. We were aiming for a social media reach of 2 million (with 2,000 engagements across all channels), 500 solidarity votes on which emoji to put forward, and a modest 20 media clippings (as previously mentioned, the media environment wasn’t as period-friendly then as it is now).
The campaign completely outperformed these targets; from the activity surrounding the approval of the emoji in February 2019 alone we had 295 pieces of UK media coverage (and many more globally), our social media posts reached 4 million people with 8,500 engagements and drove 30,000 visits to our website – all at no cost.
It’s also been really interesting to see that the emoji has resonated across countries, and our colleagues in other Plan offices have been able to get real cut-through in their media landscapes too – from the Netherlands to Australia and even the government-run channels in China! So in that sense it’s been a truly global campaign.
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