Incontinence angst: How do you market a product which solves a problem no one wants to admit they have?

Incontinence angst: How do you market a product which solves a problem no one wants to admit they have?
Question: What do you get when you combine two guys with a passion for ski racing – one an urban planner with a PhD and the other an art photographer and fashion designer? The unlikely answer is a start-up company with a mission to develop sexy (and dry) underwear for the incontinence market – and a penchant for doing lots of research.

ConfiTEX is a company developing absorbent undies for the estimated 200 million people worldwide (mostly women over 40) with some form of incontinence. The company was launched last week on crowdsourcing funding platform Liftoff.co.nz, where it is looking to raise $15,000.

But it is so far spectacularly failing to rake in the dollars.

Mark Davey and Frantisek Riha-Scott

The launch is the latest stage in a two-year process which has seen founders Mark Davey (urban planner/academic) and Frantisek Riha-Scott (fashion designer/photographer) working with textile manufacturing experts in China to develop and produce a fabric which combines high absorbency, effective water-proofing, and good looks.

The main alternatives to the ConfiTEX products are disposable pads or nappies. However, as Davey says, these tend to be slow to biodegrade, and therefore bad for the environment, and they signal to everyone that the sufferer has a problem.

“We offer an innovative range of fashionable undergarments which are absorbent, fully-washable, and waterproof, as well as fully biodegradable.

“Independent product development tests and pilot studies showed the combination of innovative textiles and garment construction provided people experiencing incontinence a high level of freedom and confidence they did not experience with other incontinence products.”

ConfiTEX has already raised around $100,000 from the founders’ own funds and from four outside investors, including New Zealand Financial Planning founder Greg Moyle, and former Minister of Health and political historian Michael Bassett.

But the second funding step, raising another $30,000 via crowdfunding (the method was chosen so  Davey and Riha-Scott don’t need to give up more equity) is proving more problematic.

A Kickstarter funding campaign was pulled this week just a two days after launch without bringing in a cent. Davey says the company didn't manage to get its US bank accounts set up in time for the US launch and decided to focus instead on manufacturing and the New Zealand market. 

However, a week after launching on New Zealand crowdfunding platform Liftoff.co.nz, total funds raised on that site had only crept up to $110.

Davey says the company’s strategy is targeting potential users as funders (pledge $50 and get a free pair of undies post-launch, for example), but one of the company’s key challenges is combatting the cringe factor of buying incontinence products.

“People don’t like to admit they have a problem. Buying a product is them conceding they have a problem.

“We compare it to depression. Ten years ago no one was talking about it. Now it’s widely accepted. Incontinence is the same, and the number of sufferers is growing.”

Moreover, Davey says crowdfunding is still relatively new in New Zealand.

“While we are getting a large number of views, people appear to be confused about what to do. We are simplifying our message and options to make the process clearer and are working with Liftoff to lift the profile of crowdfunding.”

Still, Davey is confident about the market for the ConfiTEX range of female and male underwear.

He says the original idea came after they realised several family members were suffering some form of incontinence. But his experience doing a PhD brought a rigour to the testing and product development process, he says, including extensive market research, working with textile experts in China, pilots with 40 customers, and intellectual property protection.

And the market is huge, he says. US research company Frost & Sullivan estimates global sales of incontinence care products total $US5 billion a year, and are growing at 3.8% annually.

Up to 80% of sufferers are women, with the majority being women who have had at least one vaginal birth and who once they reach 40 or 50 suffer from “stress incontinence” – pelvic floor muscle leakage associated with physical exertion (anything from sneezing to running).

In New Zealand, Davey estimates up to a million people experience some sort of urinary incontinence, and the number is 4.8m in Australia and 115m in the US.

“The fastest growing demographic in the US is women aged 20-30, partly because obesity causes them to lose control of their pelvic floor. In New Zealand it’s also caused by women over-exercising  – pushing over-heavy weights.”