Embarrassment is a peculiarly human emotion – one largely based on what we imagine people are thinking about us. So when it comes to buying potentially ‘embarrassing’ products, you’d have thought the anonymity of online shopping would have solved a lot of issues.

Not so according to a recent study, which found that even buying online can still make you blush.

Although embarrassment is generally something we experience only when we are around other people, research has also found that people are embarrassed when buying sensitive health care products privately online.

Products such as home test kits and medications for incontinence or sexual dysfunction, for example. Even though these can be hugely important for our health and wellbeing, we are still often embarrassed to show others we are taking care of ourselves. It’s a behaviour that still exists and needs to change.

So how can brands market embarrassing products?

They could start by making them more private and go direct.

Many brands have ‘gone DTC’ in recent years – countless companies are building direct relationships with customers, from indie snack companies to sportswear giants—some eagerly, and others forced by circumstance.

But when it comes to consumer healthcare products, it’s a different story. The benefits are clear, and the mechanisms are there. But we’re all aware of a troublesome, underlying truth: healthcare shopping is different from every other kind of shopping. And this complicates things, particularly for positioning your brand and marketing your products.

Our behavioural scientists have identified the four problem areas in how consumers shop for healthcare products. (At Unlimited, some of us call this the healthcare ‘mire’—a fitting name, but we do also enjoy a good acronym.) Here are three insights that can help guide brands looking to make the move to direct selling.

1. Entice shoppers to change their behaviour

Why should a consumer buy your product directly from you, instead of continuing to shop as they have before? What’s in it for them to change their behaviour? Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., introduced us to the idea that there are three ‘currencies’ that shoppers care about: time, money and angst. If you can help them to save a decent amount of any of these currencies, you’re onto a winning strategy. Thankfully, direct-to-consumer retail can help you with all three, so the idea shouldn’t be too hard a sell for consumers—especially as brands in other sectors have got them used to this approach.

2. Change the way shoppers ‘buy’

Behavioural scientists have thrown up four challenges for brands and product marketers. Therefore, showing immediately how DTC could help with embarrassment.

  • Motivation: healthcare shoppers are generally driven by one of two missions: replenishing something they already use, or they’re in distress right now, looking for immediate solutions. Neither primes them for nuanced marketing and careful purchasing decisions.
  • Infrequency: most consumer health categories don’t involve frequent purchases. As a result, many shoppers can’t even remember which brand they’ve bought before. In effect, your consumer starts a new customer journey each time they shop.
  • Restlessness: building any kind of loyalty can be tricky. Not only is shopping infrequent, but your shopper also wants the best solution for their condition, and they’re always on the lookout for this. They can be tempted away if they think something better meets their needs.
  • Embarrassment: few people are happy with the idea of others knowing their health issues. So, word-of-mouth recommendations are unlikely and in-store browsing is as brief as possible. The channels to reach your consumers are narrow.

Delivering products directly to consumers, in discreet packaging, easily sidesteps this challenge. But what about the others? Infrequent shopping, a restless consumer and tricky shopping motivations. How can DTC help brands address these?

Infrequency can be addressed neatly, through a programmatic approach. If your customer takes daily vitamins, for instance, and they’ve just bought a pack of 90, then a reminder email in 80 days could be a straightforward sale. This healthcare shopping quirk can turn from a challenge for over-the-counter sales to an advantage for DTC. Less customer churn, better ROI on customer recruitment, and we’ve used one of the shopper motivations to our advantage – replenishing is now effortless.

3. Build a relationship and solve the problem in one

Clearly, the ‘direct’ part of DTC holds the most value for marketers. Once your consumer has made their first purchase, you have the chance to build a relationship with them. If your marketing and communications show your company’s expertise and speak with empathy to your customer, then you’ll build trust.

But there’s also no reason why you can’t address their restlessness too. If your consumer is already inclined to look at new products and search for the best option, perhaps you shouldn’t fight this. Instead, recommend them. Send suggestions for alternative products in your range—or related ones that might prove helpful. They may have bought nicotine gum before, but patches might be a welcome change. Regular, well-managed communication like this could show that there’s no need to look elsewhere.

Finally, turning back to the four challenges, we still have the other half of the motivation conundrum: ‘distressed shoppers’, looking for immediate treatment. There may be no easy way to fix this. But, if you’ve built a strong DTC relationship with your consumer, when it comes to a one-off, over-the-counter purchase there’s a good chance they’ll be looking for your logo.

This article was written by Ivan Browne, shopper research consultant at Walnut Unlimited