Julie De La Rosa was camping out at Coachella when she overheard a woman say, “I’ll be back. I have to go clean out my DivaCup.”
“What’s that?” De La Rosa asked.
She learned that the DivaCup is a flexible, reusable, bell-shaped silicone cup that women insert manually into the vaginal canal to catch period blood. The concept initially repulsed her. However, after months searching for a chemical-free alternative to tampons, De La Rosa’s curiosity beat out her disgust and she gave the DivaCup a shot. Inspired, the 24-year-old wrote a blog post about the experience, and the chorus of comments from fellow converts came fast: “This has changed my life!” one woman wrote. “I wish I had known about this sooner,” wrote another. De La Rosa herself became evangelical: “When I have a daughter,” she says, “we’re going to skip the tampon and go straight to the cup.”
Behold the DivaCup fandom. Since Diva International launched its star product in 2003 out of Kitchener, Ont., a cult-like following of women have been hailing the virtues of the flow catcher, citing reduced landfill waste and leak-free sleeping. Others encouraged reluctant users like De La Rosa to talk more frankly about their periods. Founded by CEO Carinne Chambers-Saini and her mother, Francine Chambers, Diva has dramatically grown in the past five years, with revenues up 712 percent — enough to land the No. 103 spot on the 2017 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. Sold in 21 countries, its annual sales now top $20 million, thanks to the founders’ efforts to take a niche product to the masses.
The roots of Diva International date to the 1960s when Francine, now chair of the company’s board, got her period and had her first encounter with the elastic belts and pins used to awkwardly hold diaper-like pads in place. Miserable, she thought, “Why can’t they invent something that you put inside to catch the flow?” It wasn’t until 1992, when she saw an ad for a latex menstrual cup called the Keeper, that she realized someone had; in fact, menstrual cups had been around since the 1930s. She was so excited she started selling the Keeper out of her jewellery kiosk in Waterloo, Ont.
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Francine loved the Keeper, but believed it could be better. So when Carinne graduated with a business degree from Wilfrid Laurier University, the mother-daughter pair teamed up to modernize the cup using medical-grade, translucent silicone (BPA-, latex- and dye-free), packaged in a bright box bedecked with flowers. Their invention — the same DivaCup sold today — can be left in the vagina for up to 12 hours and reused for up to a year. Sold for around $40, it can also save the average woman — who spends $100 per year on pads and tampons — thousands of dollars over her lifetime.
This clear value proposition meant that early sales, mostly to health-food stores, were brisk, with Francine — who can talk for hours with passionate intensity — handling marketing, and Carinne managing client relationships with a calm demeanour and a tailored blazer. But as rival menstrual cups Softcup, Lunette and Moon Cup grew in popularity, the duo realized success relied on getting mainstream chains to stock their decidedly non-mainstream product. That proved no easy feat.
Their first attempt was in 2005, during a retail trade show in San Diego. Wearing leather skirts and bright pink suede jackets, their charming Gilmore Girls dynamic stood out, yet they got zero orders. “The ‘ick factor’ was an issue,” says Carinne. “We were always telling buyers, ‘You don’t have to use this product, but women love it.’” Over time, they learned that winning over giants would mean evolving their pitch.
They came to understand that retail buyers don’t much care about a charming backstory or diehard customers; they care about money. And a single DivaCup requires less shelf space — and boasts a higher profit margin per inch — than conventional period products. Also, Carinne and Francine had come to discover that, for major chains, their hands-on involvement in the sales process was a liability, not the asset it was with smaller shops. “If you’re the owner of a company saying, ‘Hey, buy my product!’ retailers don’t necessarily feel confident that you can do business with them effectively,” says Carinne. So the pair hired a senior rep with experience in complex retail channels.
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The new approach worked. In 2013, Shoppers Drug Mart started carrying the DivaCup. That deal gave the brand the clout to then nab a series of yeses from such U.S. giants as CVS, Target and Walgreens.
With DivaCups on chain shelves, the company focused on consumer awareness to keep them selling, lest it face the potentially brand-sinking setback of being delisted. Word of mouth remained a key marketing tactic, but the team worked to buttress it by urging medical professionals and educators to help to spread the word. They also prepared coupons, staged giveaways and developed a robust social media presence to drive would-be DivaCup users to stores. (The tone of their campaigns, such as a new one using the hashtag #StopPeriodParanoia, is defiantly lighthearted — a smart move, according to Toronto-based marketing consultant Joanne Thomas Yaccato, who says, “Poking fun at [periods] is one of the best ways to reach women today.”) Finally, they made the decision to shutter their direct-to-consumer online store to maximize in-store demand. “That was a major turning point for our business,” says Carinne.
As a result, the once-secret DivaCup cult is now a big thing, used by everyone from Olympic swimmers to YouTube stars. In fact, according to Nielsen, DivaCup’s Model 1 was the top-selling feminine hygiene product across Canada by dollar value in 2016, ahead of stalwart staples from Always, Kotex and Tampax.
Big sales are obviously welcome, but for Carinne and Francine, going mainstream was simply the most effective way to change how women experience their periods. “It would’ve been way easier to sell jewellery,” says Francine, “but I wanted to do this. This product actually changes lives.”