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As audiences become more frank on ‘taboo’ topics like sex and menstruation, brands have the choice to move forward with changing societal expectations, or stick with sanitised language and get left behind

Sex. Mental health. Divorce. Menstruation. Death. Some things are hard to talk about.

Our societal discomfort has influenced the way businesses talk. They use euphemisms and delicate metaphors, like glasses of blue liquid in tampon adverts. (I’ve always been curious – who are they keeping the secret from…?)

But times are changing. Audiences are becoming more open and frank. Brands have a choice: move forward with changing societal expectations, or stick with sanitised language and get left behind.

Look at Bodyform’s Blood Normal campaign. Then compare it to Always – a brand that avoids the words blood and period in every single product description on its website.

Bodyform’s shift to talking more honestly and frankly about periods has paid off: nearly two-thirds of women have expressed a more positive opinion of Bodyform, and nearly a quarter are purchasing or looking for its products since the campaign.

Read more: The three eco-friendly feminine care options consumers want to see in supermarkets

As macabre as it is, life insurance and funeral companies have built their businesses around death – a topic we traditionally approach in cautious, hushed tones. Dead Happy is a life insurance company boldly rejecting that precedent. It specialises in ‘death wishes’ – ‘Not the desire for self-annihilation, but our way of helping you to express what you want to happen when you die.’

Granted, this level of brutal honesty isn’t for everyone. But they’re not trying to please everyone. They’re talking to the foolhardy younger audience who don’t like thinking about death. The generation who would rather laugh their way through serious topics.

Even brands which exist in a world of intimate moments still struggle with the conversations society shies away from. Reading the Durex website, I can’t help but feel the same awkward embarrassment associated with buying condoms in real life. ’Durex has finely tuned our condoms to create a comfortable fit and ultimately, a safe sexual experience.’ Sexual experience. Why can’t they just say sex?

It has left the field wide open for new kids like Hanx, which proudly proclaims: ‘It’s time the world stopped being weird about our sex lives.’ It uses wry humour to strip away awkwardness – ‘If you like your condoms the same as your sexual partners – smooth, clean scented, vegan, with great contours, and er… lubricated with a 52mm nominal width – look no further.’

When you stop treating a topic like it’s taboo, it stops being taboo.

Sex, death and periods are pretty different. But all three of these examples can have a few things in common when it comes to a brand’s approach.

Using the language of the people. By mirroring the words and phrases its audience uses, a brand shows it understands its customers.

Finding humour in the topics that make people clam up. Making someone smile puts them at ease. For brands, this shows audiences they’re comfortable with their topic – so their customers can be comfortable too.

Doing it boldly. It’s not enough to flirt with an edgy headline, and then retreat back into an awkward, distanced or cold tone of voice. It’s all or nothing.

Getting closer to your audience strengthens your brand and helps you stand out from the competition. It’s a technique that can give you an edge and reap commercial benefits.

Read more: How Pladis is making mental health its biggest project

But, it’s bigger than that.

Today, the biggest killer of men under 50 is suicide. One in three women are missing their cervical screening (or smear test) – while two people die from cervical cancer every day. More people worldwide have access to a mobile phone than to basic sanitary equipment, like a toilet.

While we shy away from conversations that make us feel uncomfortable, people suffer.

Finally, brands are pushing back. The Campaign Against Living Miserably is combatting male suicide. Who Gives A Crap makes toilet paper from recycled paper, and donates 50% of its profits to Water Aid. Public Health England has partnered with Treatwell to open conversations about smear tests over a bikini wax.

So, who’s next?

Which is going to be the first old people’s home to talk to its residents like the strong, unique individuals they are? Which is going to be the first pharmacy to take on a tone that really makes customers feel comfortable? Which will be the first laundry detergent to poke fun at the stains we’re really getting rid of? Coincidentally, that’s a perfect opportunity for a partnership with Bodyform.