The first time I saw the website for Hims, a new men’s wellness startup, I thought it was elaborate satire.
The page had all the telltale signs of a millennial-focused women’s beauty brand: a gauzy-peach color palette, contemporary type, a clever name, copy about looking your best instead of masking your flaws. There were also a few unexpected winks. A GIF of a bonsai tree sheds its leaves next to a link to its anti-baldness products. Attractive men receive scalp massages with foamy hair regrowth shampoo. An eggplant emoji runs alongside erectile dysfunction medicine. I forwarded the link to a few friends, and they agreed: Hims, a company selling gummy vitamins for hair health, couldn’t possibly be an actual brand.
So I called the customer service line. “Are you a real company?,” I asked. Yes, the person on the other end of the line answered, Hims is a real brand, selling real products.
Hims is the brainchild of Andrew Dudum, a partner at Atomic, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm backed by PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel. The company launched November 1 with its first fleet of products: affordable, direct-to-consumer hair-loss prevention shampoos, serums, vitamins, and pills. It bills itself as “the one-stop shop for trusted self-care solutions.” Today it debuted its next offering: treatments for erectile dysfunction. Eventually the lifestyle brand will expand into skincare, oral hygiene, and dietary supplements.
Anti-baldness medicine isn’t new. Penis pills aren’t new. Moisturizer isn’t new. But talking about them to men in a frank, conversational tone is. Packaging them in neutral-hued bottles is. Rebranding these touchy topics–typically associated with embarrassment and bruised egos–with a young voice is. These products are aimed squarely at insecurities men have grappled with for decades. But like many new wellness and cosmetic brands for women, Hims using design and branding to market to men in a new way–a kind of Goop for men.
Viagra By Any Other Name
Dudum founded Hims based on personal experience and observations, and envisions the brand as something that will speak to all men regardless of demographics. “Over the last decade, I watched as close friends, cousins, and colleagues have struggled though the same sets of issues and suffered in silence,” he tells Co.Design. “It’s perplexing that there wasn’t a brand that started with you when you’re a late teen–when you’re becoming aware of your health–and could grow with you.”
These are sensitive issues that many men don’t feel comfortable talking about, so relatively few ever seek treatment. The products themselves are typically medicinal and experienced in a way that makes its users feel sick–orange prescription canisters, ugly shampoo bottles with jargon printed on them. The current crop of baldness and virility treatments mostly target graying, middle-aged men. You know the type–the “active” Cialis and Viagra man making eyes at his partner, the “concerned” man examining his hairline in a mirror.
Hims is attempting to change that conversation around men’s health and wellness–primarily through branding and marketing. The medicines aren’t novel, but the experience around taking them is. First comes the name Hims, authored by Partners & Spade, which speaks to all people who identify as men. Rendered in lowercase in a custom font by art director Lacey Waterman, it matches the informal tone Hims is trying to strike.
Next comes the tone of Hims’ copy. From its calls to action (“Thanks to science, baldness is now optional”) to a blog that covers how to properly moisturize in winter, Dudum and Partners & Spade personify the brand’s voice as your older sister or uncle who is direct, honest, and almost too casual. “There are run-ons and short sentences, and misplaced punctuation,” Dudum says. “It really is meant to be read as it’s being spoken, and that was an important part of the brand.” Hims cracks jokes to get uncomfortable stuff out of the way (“Prevention, more effective than denial”), and then introduces consumers to the products (“Hands want something to run through, the wind needs something to mess up. Graciously oblige by doing what you need to keep your hair on your head [male hair flip emoji]”).
Hims’ models are young, handsome, and racially diverse–all with full heads of hair and beaming smiles, of course. They’re stylish, but they’re not a “type.” That’s by design. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, from California or North Carolina, low income or high income–every guy has the same chance of suffering from these challenges,” Dudum says. “It was really important that down to the photography, and words, and how we how present the product, there’s no ‘Hims’ guy. There’s no certain ‘type’ of man that uses this stuff.”
“These Are Products We Need And Want”
Years ago, progressive women’s health and beauty brands retooled to focus on accentuating the best version of yourself instead of fixing or hiding flaws as a marketing tactic to sell empowerment–think of Dove’s body-positive ads. Whether or not you believe such campaigns represent positive change, men’s wellness and grooming brands have, for the most part, continued to sell a more traditional image of maleness–the ripped Old Spice spokesperson hawking some deodorant called “Swagger.” Male-focused branding, like Axe spray with its garish jet-black packaging and bold all-caps lettering, has also remained unchanged.
“You look at a fair amount of websites–editorial or commercial–and there’s an open dialog frankness and transparency on every issue on the women’s side,” Anthony Sperduti, cofounder of Partners & Spade, says. “You try to find that on the men’s side, and you’re really struggling. There should absolutely be no reason that’s the case.”
When Hims began speaking with Partners & Spade, the studio had a clear vision of what the brand wasn’t. Sperduti–who has worked with a number of startups and mainstream brands like Warby Parker, Harry’s, Coca-Cola, and J. Crew–sees two forces behind this gap in the market for men who appreciate more sophisticated-looking products. One is that men now are more comfortable caring about style and grooming. He suggests that this might be due in part to the rise of blogs and Instagram. The other factor he points to is that corporations have largely dominated the health, grooming, and wellness space–and they’re slow to pick up on changing consumer tastes. Shrinking and pinking women’s products is no longer acceptable, so why should men’s brands still rely on dark colors and hulking packaging?
Hims company plans to continually release new products, and they’re designed to both be discrete and look good together in your bathroom. Branch, the San Francisco design studio known for its work on Google’s Project Ara and other tech clients, that meant putting careful thought into details like materials and colorways. The design team specified raw cardboard for the packaging; it’s cost-effective and looks nice enough, but isn’t too precious. Because of labeling regulations for pharmaceuticals, the names of some medicines–like Minoxidil–needed to be the largest words on the packaging. Branch’s simple, type-based labels ensure that Hims’ products retain visual consistency while adhering to the law on disclosure.
“The core products are based in baldness and erectile dysfunction–things people don’t want to talk about,” Josh Morenstein, a founding partner at Branch, says. “But what’s unique to Hims and the brand as a whole is we don’t really care. There are products we need and we want. More recently, women don’t have a problem leaving out a serum that diminishes wrinkles. There’s maybe even pride in getting the best and one leaving it out. That’s something with what we’re trying to do with Hims.”
With another cue from the women’s beauty industry, Branch is also designing “gifts with purchase” designed to help Hims “stick” in everyday life, like matches, combs, and canvas totes that can be used as Dopp kits or to carry whatever it is you need. While pretty packaging and branded gifts might be enough to entice a first-time customer, the next challenge is keeping them. “The innovation here is really around the making this a new normal,” Sperduti says. “That was our mantra in the beginning–not doing something about baldness is not normal. Doing something should be normal.”
The wellness industrial complex
Today, we’re more and more aware about the ways masculinity manifests culturally. Dudum believes that Hims is ushering a new wave of savvier health and wellness branding for men. “Right now, you have a lot of brands going after the ‘modern man’ and talking about what the changing face of masculinity looks like,” he says. “I feel like the lines and the separation between what both genders are perceived to appreciate are actually merging or in reality they’ve merged and marketing has been so slow, it never caught up.” Sperduti says that it’s hard to augur the future here, but believes that the cookie-cutter approach to branding never works, and the same goes to how companies approach gender. “People want a real point of view from their brands,” he says. “The world does not need more generic corporate speak.”
But is repositioning products that play into the same old standards of peak “maleness”–a full head of hair and virile penis–really changing the conversation that much? The wellness industrial complex might be moving the needle just enough to ensure consumers feel good about forking over their hard-earned dollars. In the end, companies are still trying to earn a buck. And in the business of beauty–male or female–branding is a tool to get you to buy products.
Read more about Hims’ business model here.