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Pretty in Pink: How to Sell Men’s Wellness in 2017

Hims, a new men’s health startup, offers solutions for baldness and erectile dysfunction—but with stylish packaging and marketing. Can a shiny box change the way we talk about men’s health?

Alycea Tinoyan

On the first of November, a chic new startup named Hims opened for business. And as news of it began to spread, it elicited a passionate response from the media. “I refuse to believe, even with $7M of Peter Thiel–backed Series A funding, that this company is for real,” Curbed editor in chief Kelsey Keith tweeted, alongside some screenshots of its website. “This has to be satire,” Vox cofounder Matthew Yglesias replied. “Whoa, a startup bro is literally marketing Rogaine and Propecia in millennial pink packaging as a new hair loss cure,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein. Racked dubbed it “Glossier for Dudes.” Fast Company called it “Goop for Men.”

My first scroll through the website was revelatory. The design staples — by startup-friendly creative agency Partners & Spade — were familiar: peachy color schemes, house plants, branded “merch,” and handsome models of every skin color. At first glance, the aesthetics of its bottled solutions were so alluringly vague that I found myself wanting to own them — before really knowing what they were for. Then I read the sans-serif fine print: Inside these cardboard boxes and pill bottles are products that have graced pharmacy displays, deli counters, and infomercials for ages. Alongside signature company-branded $14 scented candles, Hims sells solutions to baldness, erectile dysfunction, and soon, adult acne. But, like, in a cool way.

Studies show that most men of a certain age experience some form of hair loss or erectile dysfunction. These health issues are common, and so are products to treat or prevent them, like Rogaine, Propecia, Viagra, and Cialis. Hims’s erectile dysfunction pills and balding shampoos are simply generic forms of these drugs; the selling point of the company, and of startups like it, lies mostly in their presentation. Roman, a month-old erectile dysfunction startup that acts as a conduit between patients and doctors, ships the brand-name and generic forms of Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra, wrapped in well-designed blue-and-red pouches. Hims caters to a larger range of concerns in stylish cardboard. The innovation of these companies — and what will likely be a growing list of competitors, as the patents for drugs like Cialis reach their expiration date and telemedicine laws ease — is by no means in the substances they’re pushing. Rather, it’s in eliminating awkward in-person conversations about a man’s failing glands, and dressing up the medicine he’s buying to treat it as something he’d be proud to show off. “These topics are really difficult for guys to discuss,” Hims founder Andrew Dudum told me. “And as a result they either don’t get it fixed, and it’s all incredibly treatable, or they go online and try to self-diagnose based on what they see online.”

On one level, Hims and its competitors does for a new generation of aging men what Casper did for all those millennials who never bothered to learned how to shop for mattresses: It streamlines an exhausting, mundane adult responsibility and tries to make it fun. In place of a doctor’s visit (or more likely, a late-night Incognito tab search) sits a sleek website with reassuringly hip photographs, the promise of free shipping, and an “unboxing” experience. Hims offers a quick online prescription approval process from in-house doctors for erectile dysfunction and hair loss drugs — with the option to purchase fruity gummy bears that help the growth of hair and nails, to boot. It also promises that its products and all the medical-related articles on its lifestyle “journal,” Savoir Faire, are reviewed by a team of consulting physicians.

The company’s ads are designed expressly to comfort. More traditional grooming brands like Old Spice or Axe once peppered their commercials with pulsing biceps and promises that their products would get you laid; Hims’s messaging depicts a much more refined version of the male experience, one that idealizes creativity and encourages vulnerability. (For what it’s worth, a more sensitive approach appears to be part of an industry-wide trend; in January, Axe launched a body-positive campaign entitled “Find Your Magic,” accompanied by a video that opens with the question: “Who needs a six-pack?”) “Five or more years ago, every men’s product had wood, it had heritage, it had blue, really leaning into this woodsman kind of vibe,” GQ’s grooming director, Garrett Munce, told me. “People thought that in order to have a product that was targeted toward men, you had to up the ante when it comes to whatever we think of as masculine. Now we’re in this age of utility, unisex, technology, coupled with this kind of all-natural vibe.”

For years, Silicon Valley–backed companies like Thinx and Flex have been hard at work rebranding classic period products as cool and empowering, playing up the technical innovation of their goods while also preaching messages of acceptance, self-esteem, and, in some cases, faux feminism. Hims speaks to customers with a similar tone of acceptance in its ad copy: “We hope to enable a conversation that’s currently closeted,” reads the company’s “About Us” section. “Men aren’t supposed to care for themselves. We call bullshit. The people who depend on you and care about you want you to.” Though the company’s language might have a tinge of bro to it, the sentiment is the same: We’re not here to judge you, we’re here to help you. It’s an unexpected approach, given both the testosterone-drenched marketing of past male health products, and the idea that men, of all people, need a safe space to discuss beauty and reproductive health.

On top of Hims’s delicate approach to customer self-esteem, its multi-product lineup also signals the inevitable Goopification of the male health and grooming market. The global “wellness industry” — made up of everything from boutique exercise classes, to spa visits, to Gwyneth Paltrow–recommended jade vagina eggs — is worth an estimated $3.7 trillion, according to evaluations by the Global Wellness Institute. In addition to huge male market growth in areas like yoga, spas, exercise, and wellness retreats, grooming is “just explosive,” says Beth McGroarty, the director of research and PR at GWI. “Men used to just be associated with shaving and then maybe fragrance, but now it’s skin care, hair care, everything that we associate with women,” McGroarty told me.

Dudum said he didn’t know enough about Goop to offer an opinion on the comparison, and argued that his products were “based in science.” But when I asked him to define the company, he offered a very Paltrowesque ethos.

“Hims to me is in no way a grooming company,” he said. “It’s not an erectile dysfunction company. It’s not an online pharmacy, it’s not a direct-to-consumer telemedicine company. It is a men’s wellness brand. It’s a lifestyle brand that’s about taking care of yourself. It’s about being the best version of yourself.”

The day I visited Dudum at Hims’s makeshift office in San Francisco, being the best version of yourself meant turning our interview into a pedaconference — a mobile meeting style that’s said to be favored by the Jobs and Zuckerbergs of the Valley. “I haven’t moved around all day,” he told me. “We can walk around this cool little lake out here.”

Hims’s 15-person team leases space from venture “studio” Atomic, which Dudum cofounded in 2012. (The fund oversees more 12 companies, including one devoted to sleep tech and another to real-time voice analytics.) The building is located near the eastern entrance to the Presidio, a hilly park that boasts views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city’s majestic Palace of Fine Arts; Dudum grew up a 15-minute drive away in Ocean Beach and remembers attending an Exploratorium event at the palace in which he navigated a “crazy Chuck E. Cheese’s type thing” made up of ladders, foam, and ball pits in the dark. “Actually, as an adult it would probably be really cool,” he said. “You’d probably appreciate it more.”

Soon enough we were circling an idyllic body of water in the park just outside his office building. A silent, well-heeled PR flack strode alongside Dudum. Ducks swam, red-and-orange blotched trees rustled in the slight breeze, and it became clear to me that we were on this field trip for a reason. The company had existed for only two weeks, and demand for Hims had been so constant, said Dudum, that the company had already had to reorder another round of its products. I suspected that Dudum had not quite had time to establish a beige-colored headquarters to show off to journalists.

The 29-year-old venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur has a bright white smile and well-moisturized skin. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs ;  his grandparents immigrated from the West Bank and Syria “in the mid-1900s” and built businesses in the United States. Though Dudum claims to be a terrible surfer, he gives off the effortless vibe of a NorCal beach rat. When I told him I drove in from Pacifica, a nearby beach town, he declared it “rad.” We briefly lamented the spread of brunch spots and $7 affogatos where he grew up, as is the right of Bay Area natives.

Unlike the “we’ve all been there” style of Hims’s marketing, Dudum has not expressed any public relationship to the products he sells. He’s offered no public firsthand experiences of erectile dysfunction (“ED,” as he refers to it); he has a very full head of thick black hair. He credits his “very blunt” sisters for educating him about how to dress and what hair and skin products to buy, which he says eventually made him feel comfortable enough to helm a brand that addresses taboo men’s health topics like whether masturbation causes hair loss or how to treat porn-induced erectile dysfunction (“Many men have a negative opinion of therapy, but sometimes talking through your issues is the best way to resolve them,” reads an authorless Savoir Faire post).

“I just grew up with the: ‘Hey dude, why are you wearing brown socks with a black belt?’ ‘You look like an idiot,’” Dudum said. “In my late 20s it became more common on health issues: ‘Why are you not using this basic product that could make you feel better? Why are you not sleeping at night? Why are you ashy?’ It was just consistently that type of conversation. Most guys don’t have that. Eventually what happens is they get married, and their partner goes ‘Hey, hellooo, here’s some stuff for Christmas.’ My goal is to get guys doing that proactively in their early 20s as opposed to their early 30s.”

Still, most of Dudum’s product anecdotes come from the market research he began conducting two years ago, in what he calls the “original exploration of the brand.” Before he began sorting out the details of specific male medical problems, he fixated on the idea of helping men acknowledge their problems in the first place. “If you just brought up something like hair loss in a room of 10 guys, the room would go quiet,” he said. “First and foremost the intention of the brand was for us to get to a place with men where they can say, ‘OK, I’m going to take care of this issue.’ First we have to crack the uncomfortable ice.” If anything, Dudum errs on the side of relatable lifestyle guru more than patient zero. When I told him as much, he laughed uncomfortably.

“What do you think, Amy?” he said to our press chaperone, who demurred. “I hope not. Sounds like a lot of pressure. I’m just a normal dude trying to figure it out, too. I read a lot of our content online. I’m not the one writing it.”

Just minutes before, he had waxed poetic about the soap brand Aesop (“Its tone-on-tone minimalism makes me want to spend an outrageous amount of money on soap”), praised Glossier’s raw photography (“there’s pimples, there’s wrinkles, there’s birthmarks — that’s real people”), and recited the virtues of millennial pink (“a beautiful color that has subtleties between grey and peach and red”).

Dudum insists Hims is for all men, but its aesthetic, and Dudum’s references, suggest a more specific attention to market share. Kyle Bergman, who scouts new products for the male division of the grooming subscription box service Birchbox, says Hims fills a need his customers — educated men who live in urban areas and earn an average of $90,000 — frequently express on feedback surveys. “A large percentage of our guys express signs of aging concerns when it comes to either hard-to-manage hair, or thinning hair concerns,” Bergman told me. That the company has found a way to address issues like balding in a more creative way than the brands you might find at, say, CVS, fills a gap in Birchbox’s product lineup. “Hims is a brand that really epitomizes the style and packaging that we kind of strive for,” Bergman said. “Minimalist packaging, yet approachable, and easy to understand.”

Hims is not alone in honing that formula. In the course of reporting this article, I collected a list of trendy men’s wellness startups: There’s DTRT, a black-and-beige branded Korean skincare startup that’s sold at Sephora, and has held pop-up events in New York; Brooklyn-based Plant Apothecary, which also sells an aromatherapy line plastered with big blocky directives like “WAKE UP,” “GET IT ON,” and “BE WELL”; and Deciem, a Canadian unisex brand that plays up the chemical ingredients in its various lotions and potions, down to the brown-tinted glass bottles it uses to package its serums and shampoos. These companies, along with Hims and Roman, are united by the innuendo that their goods are clinically assembled for a no-frills, maximum effect.

A startup like Hims is emblematic of Silicon Valley’s preoccupation with science-based lifestyle decisions — a trend that began with exercise trackers, and has gone the way of DNA-based meal plans and anti-aging nutraceuticals. As the mind-and-body market has grown over the past decade, entrepreneurs have found a way to repackage classic dieting, beauty, and health products for a generation of laptop-toting millennials. More specifically, they have frequently borrowed from the world of female-focused commodities and rebranded them to be geared toward men. Before there was Soylent, there was SlimFast. Before there was Powerful Yogurt, there was Fage. The outsize attention surrounding Hims’s debut may be related to the fact that it co-opted the marketing strategy of female-focused health startups, rather than a product. Women-run companies like Thinx, though frequently problematic, had planted their flag in the concept of millennial pink-tinged empowerment. That one entrepreneur decided to use it to help men feel less shy talking about their penises feels significant.

I suggested to Dudum that we might now be living in a new world, one where men begin to covet the same high-end self-care that women always have. He questioned my theory with a tale about a friend he’d known for 15 years.

“If you just met him, you would be like, this is a really buff, fratty dude,” he said. “You know, you just like put him in a bucket. He probably uses this set of deodorant, he probably reads this type of stuff. Turns out he’s a vegan, he oil paints on the weekends by himself, he meditates — like, truly hours of meditation — and he reads exclusively philosophy novels. I actually think that’s more normal than not. When I talk to guys about this kind of stuff, they’re all interested in all aspects of these things. They’re excited about art and literature and whatever it might be. For whatever reason, these brands have put them in these very simplified buckets. I don’t think it’s like tremendously new, I think just going after them and saying ‘this is normal’ is new.”

Somehow, what began as a conversation about how to sell anti-balding shampoo and boner pills had moved to the realm of self-actualization and fine arts. Dudum, with years of female-focused marketing techniques to help him, is willing to go there. Judging from the overwhelming response to his product, men may have found a safe space after all.

This piece has been updated to reflect that Roman sells brand-name, as well as generic, forms of Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra.

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