UPDATE: This post was published in 2016. Miki Agrawal did step down from THINX as “SHE-EO” after sexual harassment allegations but seems to have a more behind the scenes role.
When menstruation makes the news you can bet that THINX, the company that made period panties a household name, will be mentioned. (We’re sure there’s a drinking game in here somewhere.) The success of the company is thanks in part to risqué visuals and a rabid fan base who turned their own passion for the products into “blood money.” Last month those fans found their blood money banks robbed — one losing as much as $22,000 in gift cards earned by referring blog readers to the product. Let us fill you in on how THINX used their most loyal fans to build their brand and then turned their backs on them.
2015 has been called The Year of The Period, and for good reason. From Donald Trump’s off-color remarks and women live-tweeting their periods to a boom in menstrual cup brands and the rise of the period panty, people of all genders are beginning to question why the word “menstruation” carries so much taboo.
The times really are changing – and fast.
All of this momentum came to a peak in the fall of 2015 when a new company hit the menstrual market and the media circuits in a big way. THINX period panties were e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e, and it seems that they’re still successfully riding every menstrual related viral wave as it comes. Articles have been published on a laundry list of major websites (Bustle, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Refinery29, and Glamour to name a few) and founder Miki Agrawal has appeared on several news shows sharing her entrepreneurial story. It wasn’t long at all before blogs picked up the story and reviews began to flood in, with headlines like “I Tried ‘Period-Proof Underwear’—and It Actually Worked” and “Screw Tampons! I Tried Thinx Period Panties“.
If the buzz wasn’t enough to get people trying their products, their enticing referral program was.
It seemed that THINX wasn’t holding back on making their mark. They generously offered customers the chance to give a friend $10 off of their first order while being able to earn panty money for their word-of-mouth advertising. “When they make a purchase you’ll also get a $10 THINX gift card as a reward! Pretty straightforward. Go on, now. Get that guap. You deserve it.” read the email.
Considering that their underwear run $24-$38 a pop, the ability to earn a free pair or two sounds great. Bloggers were quick to shell out their own money to review these buzz worthy new period underwear and, as bloggers tend to do, they used the referral program made available to them. (Who doesn’t love free underwear that rocks and that has been credited for “revolutionizing periods”?) THINX also actively recruited blog and vlog reviews through a PR agency.
“I had been asked about THINX several times by readers so when their PR person asked for a call to discuss a review and giveaway I figured ‘why not’. I spent 30 minutes chatting and the PR person was quick to offer free THINX for me to review, and she wanted a video review. When I mentioned I had fees for a giveaway she didn’t seem as pleased, but asked me to send that information. I didn’t hear from her again for 6 whole months, by which time I’d already purchased a pair, published a review, and earned hundreds of $10 gift codes.” — Kim, Dirty Diaper Laundry
As you might imagine, one only needs a certain quantity of even the most comfortable underwear. Period or otherwise.
As posts went menstrual-viral THINX sales were beginning to roll in. Lauren of lo-wren.com has received more than $37,000 in THINX codes to date. She was one of the earlier reviewers who also saw huge traffic on her review. In fact, she was so impressed with the marketing that she included them on not one, but two articles on her professional website about brands to follow with great marketing strategies.
As the sales rolled in, it was quickly becoming clear that their affiliate program and marketing strategy had a fatal flaw.
Kim said that she had reached out to THINX in an attempt to find a good solution before things got out of hand. She realized that if she used all of the codes she had amassed, along with the possibility of others doing the same, THINX would quickly be out tens of thousands of dollars in product. She decided to consult with them regarding the possibility of a more traditional affiliate program, where referrers typically earn 5-10%, which should be a far cry from $10 per sale regardless of the order value.
With their program a new customer would receive $10 off of their order (plus free shipping) and the new sale would earn the referrer $10 as well. With their cheapest product being just $24, THINX is very nearly in the red on a single purchase, and most of the new customers we’ve heard from bought just one of the product to try them out. THINX was likely hemorrhaging money on this program, and they must have known it.
— Lauren B. Stevens (@LaurenBStevens) December 30, 2015
“I used to run a blog as a hobby, but like so many others I found a way to turn it into a career. It afforded me the ability to stay home with my kids and it truly became my livelihood. I look for ways that my blog can work for me, including adding affiliate links to the products I write about.” said Kim. She explained that she had written to THINX when she began seeing a surge in traffic to her blog review. “In early April I emailed THINX and asked them if they were considering, or would consider, an affiliate program for bloggers. I knew that their current model made financial sense for their company for those who shared the link with friends on Facebook but for me, and other blogs, it didn’t. After all, we can’t eat panties, and we can’t pay bills with ‘blood money’. I wanted to see if we could make a mutually beneficial program that wouldn’t cause them to lose money.” THINX replied that they were discontinuing their current program, and said they would be in touch if other opportunities arose.
The $10 referrals didn’t stop immediately. They continued to arrive for two and a half weeks, sometimes as many as 20-50 per day, and then something changed. THINX revamped their referral system, with one noticeable change.
Something had changed…
As of April 28th, and this writing, those referring friends and fans to THINX earn a $10 coupon code, but only towards a single purchase. Codes are no longer considered “Gift Cards” and are no longer combined nor accrued in user’s account to be combined (which is standard on ecommerce sites that utilize social referral programs). The change effectively made it impossible to even earn a single pair of underwear. It essentially made the program useless to the referrers – blogger or not.“What can I do with over 100 $10 off coupons? I don’t even have that many friends who could/would order to share them with.” said one referral program user.
“I sent about $100 in Thinx codes from my bank of codes (my email where each individual code is sent once earned) to my hairdresser. The next day she messaged me to say they wouldn’t work and showed up as disabled. I was confused but when I started clicking the codes in my email each one showed up as disabled, every single one I clicked. I was so embarrassed about the situation and apologized to my hairdresser. Later 3 other friends I had sent codes to came to me with the same story and again I had to apologize. I was humiliated and felt robbed by the company I’d been shouting from the rooftops for months.” – Kim
Writer Lauren shares, “I received a call from Maria Carreon on the evening of Wednesday, May 4. She introduced herself and said that she was calling because the THINX website had been hacked, information had been leaked (not mine, though) and that they had to change the referral program as a result.”
“She asked if they could donate the over $22k I had amassed in [now deactivated] gift codes to both of my charities, in an equivalent amount of product, and she asked for the sizes both of my organizations needed and for me to send her my contacts at both agencies so that she could arrange shipment with them. I sent an email, asking if THINX would consider giving a small monetary donation to my local women’s shelter, in lieu of panties, as they’re currently embroiled in a legal battle and could use the money. She never addressed that nor did she confirm that donations were sent. I was told to let her know the gift code amount I needed to satisfy the two blog giveaways I had going on. The next morning, I went in to see if I could just purchase those with gift codes myself, but none of my over $22k in gift codes worked, as they had been disabled. Maria did re-issue the gift cards I needed [for the giveaway], but that was the last I heard from her.”
Lauren was not alone in her experience with THINX. When the program was changed, blogger Kim had approximately $2,000 in gift cards deactivated and nearly 120 $10 unstackable coupon codes accrued before she could even get an email out to THINX. Even as of this writing, friends and bloggers are just now discovering that the codes they earned are no longer valid.
Even as recent as this week THINX is actively reaching out to bloggers and customers, encouraging them to join their now defunct program. This email makes the program seem worthwhile without disclosing any of the “fine print”.
Now you may be wondering how this applies to you and why you should care that bloggers aren’t making panty money.
We, consumers, love to support brands that have strong ethics and generally ‘do good’ in the world. We like to feel that we can trust the brands we support and trust that they’ll honor our patronage with integrity.
The thing here is that, like companies have done since the dawn of time, THINX utilized word-of-mouth marketing to build their company. This is a legitimate method of marketing and the internet offers a social twist that is highly effective — and brands know it. That’s why companies offer such lucrative referral programs. First time buyers are enticed to buy their products with a significant discount while the people referring them (the word-of-mouth sales people) are compensated by sharing their love of the products – driving sales in big volumes!
“While Agrawal won’t share specific sales figures (Thinx is a private company), she says it has sold “hundreds of thousands of pairs” of period panties “for multiple millions of dollars.” The staff has grown from five employees to 30 in the past six months.” – a quote Agrawal in from NY Magazine’s The CUT
As you can see, word-of-mouth advertising can add up to big results, especially in THINX’s case. When the product has to be used to be believed, a first hand referral from a trusted friend or blogger means everything to the average consumer.
Day 16/28 – Coming soon to your wallet. It’s 2015 and Assley is ready for that new $10 bill (and the THINX referral program – in the works!!) #28daysofAssleytheAssMannequin #28days #assley #flatstanley #NotSoFlatStanley #FollowAssley #summer #summer2015 #adventuresofassley #dolladollabillsyall #itaintaboutthemoneymoneymoney #feministreserve #bbhmm #modellife #ladiesonthe10 @badgalriri A photo posted by THINX (@shethinx) on
America’s number one coffee destination is Starbucks. Whether you’re a fan or not, you’ve likely been there at least once. Starbucks offers a rewards program where members have the ability to earn stars which can be used to purchase free drinks or treats. As it happens, Starbucks also recently changed their rewards program. Thankfully Starbucks had the integrity to honor their current system and loyal customers while making the change.
Imagine for a moment that they had not and caffeine addicts all across America had lost out on their earned shots of espresso and deliciously crumbly pastries. People would have been rightfully upset that what they had been given, and had made a conscious decision to earn, had been taken away. Whether it’s panties, coffee, or actual money – what has been earned and given should not be taken back. It shows a lack of integrity, ethics, and respect for their customers.
Agrawal’s cunning marketing prowess and business savvy has made THINX a household name, but at what cost?
Menstrual hygiene is a 20 billion dollar a year industry and THINX is spending big bucks – just not by honoring the customers whose backs they built their brand on. They’re currently running ads in Union Square, Google Adwords (and other networks) — there’s even a good chance you may be seeing one of their ads now. We’ll take their pennies.
While the catalyst for this article was their deceptive referral program, THINX isn’t afraid to bend the rules. As many consumers have pointed out, THINX heavily advertises their product as a way to truly manage periods – even going so far as to say that they can be a replacement for tampons and pads and illustrating how many tampons worth of blood each panty holds. Yet their less obvious print suggests that it’s ideal for backup and you should “#knowyourflow”.
Additionally, Agrawal was the host of an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit and users were quick to point out what they perceived as deceptive practices and plain old bullshit.
Another component that this AMA brought into question was their charitable aspect. Speaking on their partnership with AFRIpads in an I AM MARIE interview, Aragwal says, “When we first started talking to them they had 25 employees and now they have 165 so we’ve helped over 45,000 girls go back to school.” THINX is quick to claim AFRIpads’ success as their own, yet several companies have been helping to support them long before THINX was in existence — including Aisle, who has long offered period panties as a menstrual care option.
I’m honestly not sure where this leaves bloggers like myself, customers, or THINX.
I have been advocating for reusable menstrual products for years, and as exciting as it is to see safer, reusable menstruation products becoming more mainstream I can’t help but feel that we’ve all been betrayed… and I didn’t even use their program. I give props to THINX for their part in blowing the menstrual conversation up, but it’s disheartening to watch them build their company on the good faith of consumers and writers, and then turn them away because they were no longer needed. Commutations attempts have been ignored and trust has been broken.
When speaking to Kim and Lauren, the bloggers whose experiences sparked this, we weren’t even sure if this should be shared. I’m not into calling out people and stirring drama, but at the end of the day this is a community that I – we – care very much about and we feel that consumers have the right to know the ethics of the companies that they choose to support, especially when the company is so good at painting themselves in a good light.
I was the recipient of a few pairs of THINX, gifted to me by Kim, and they are a product that I found to work for me, but the brands I choose to support and share need to be more than a good product. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that THINX is not on my list.