Even though emergency contraception (EC) in the form of levonorgestrel (aka the “morning-after pill”) has been available over the counter since 2006 and without an age limit since 2013, the dark cloud hovering over it hasn’t budged. For years, people have reported feeling shame and embarrassment when purchasing it, averting their gaze from cashiers or even pharmacists in places where the pill is inappropriately kept behind a pharmacy counter. Now, as its very availability is called into question by claims wrongfully associating it with “early abortion,” there’s never been a more important time to banish its stigma—which is exactly what Julie, a new EC pill brand, aims to do.
Consisting of the same active ingredient as many morning-after pills already on the market (1.5mg of levonorgestrel, an FDA-approved synthetic progestin), Julie launched in September 2022 in 4,500 Walmart stores, as well as on walmart.com and juliecare.co for $42. Its price point makes it more expensive than generic options, which start as low as $11, but cheaper than most brand-name competitors, which clock in around $50. Its true innovation, though, is in its packaging, both literally and in terms of the work that the brand is doing to destigmatize shopping for emergency contraception in the first place.
“So many people are buying emergency contraception every day, and they’re experiencing this terrible customer journey,” says Amanda Johnson, the co-creator of Mented Cosmetics who co-founded Julie with Julie Schott and Brian Bordainick, co-founders of skin-care brand Starface. “You wake up, you realize that you need it, so you Google it and try to cobble together the information you find, or you go immediately to the drugstore, and then there’s this walk of shame. It’s like, ‘Everybody knows that my plans failed, and the pharmacist is judging me and the cashier is judging me, and I can't wait to get to the car and take this pill already.’”
To hear more about Julie from Johnson herself, listen to this episode of The Well+Good Podcast:
How the process of buying Julie was designed to remove shame and confusion
“We really thought about the customer journey and asked ourselves, ‘What are the places we can make it easier?’” says Johnson of Julie's intention to soften the often high-stress pathway to purchasing emergency contraception. “Our internal motto is, 'We can’t make EC fun, but we can make it suck less.'”
“We set out to give you a package that’s as beautiful as anything else in personal care to help remove the shame you might feel in picking up something that looks so clinical.” —Amanda Johnson, Julie co-founder
To do just that, the Julie co-founders first reimagined the look and feel of the product on the shelf. “We set out to give you a package that’s as beautiful as anything else in personal care that you might pick up—a package that will help remove the shame you might feel in picking up something that looks so clinical,” says Johnson. “We thought, ‘What if it actually looked friendly?’ Because what you really need at that moment is a friend.”
Even the name of the product was chosen to capture that low-stakes, friendly ethos. Rather than reminding you that you’ve been forced to turn to a plan B, for example, the name “Julie” is meant to be reminiscent of a “big sister or a cool aunt,” says Johnson. “Maybe she went to medical school, maybe she's a nurse, maybe she's just been around the block. In any case, she’s someone who just gets it and is really approachable.”
To that end, Johnson is also working to free Julie contraception from plastic lockboxes and pharmacy counters in as many Walmart locations as possible, though she caveats that certain stores may still put guardrails around it largely because “it’s a high-theft product,” she says. To be clear, however, you do not need a prescription, ID, or to be of a certain age to purchase Julie (or any emergency contraception) in any of the 50 states, no matter how it’s sold.
Once in hand, Julie is designed to shorten the time it takes you to make an informed decision about whether to buy it. A QR code on the package links to its website, which was built with an in-store customer in mind, says Johnson. It clearly lists answers to key questions about the product (e.g., what it does, who should take it, and when) that you might need to know while standing in the aisle.
How Julie is working to strip emergency contraception of its stigma beyond the aisle
In addition to improving the in-store experience, providing education around EC is core to Julie's brand intention. Largely, that's because misinformation surrounding EC is rampant, and the stigma of taking it can keep people from seeking out correct information in the first place. For these reasons, Julie has tapped its medical board of woman-identifying physicians to help create content that demystifies the pill, both on its site and across social media, so that it’s freely accessible and most likely to reach anyone who may need it.
“What emergency contraception does is help prevent pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex,” says Johnson. (Specifically, the pill stops or delays ovulation and therefore does not and cannot interfere with any existing pregnancy.) “We’re focused on telling that simple narrative in all of the ways that people are going to process and hear it,” she says.
“We have to be there digitally for the generations that we're serving in a way that is palatable, shareable, and creates a real sense of edu-tainment.” —Johnson
With most Julie consumers being millennials or members of Generation Z who interact with social media, that content will include TikTok campaigns about EC helmed by influencers and celebrities. “We have to be there digitally for the generations that we're serving in a way that is palatable, shareable, and creates a real sense of edu-tainment,” says Johnson. “It’s not just education, but how do we make it interesting? How do we make you sit through the full Reel or TikTok, so you actually walk away with the information you need? That’s the goal.”
While social media is certainly not the only appropriate domain for sexual-health advice, the reality is, it's a destination where people are either looking for it or willing to take it in. And this kind of approachable content around such a historically shame-shrouded topic as contraception can democratize access to information that people need in order to make informed choices for their bodies.
Understanding that many people who come across this information on social media and are in need of contraception may not be able to afford or access Julie, the brand has also launched a one-for-one donation initiative (one box sold equates to one box donated)—and just announced the first batch donation of 200,000 boxes, reflecting both sales since launch in the fall of 2022 and additional donations from Julie investors. These will be shipped directly to Julie's 20+ partners, which include mobile clinics, domestic-violence shelters, and other community organizations nationwide, many of which operate in contraceptive deserts.
The reason why has as much to do with the product as it does the moment we’re living through. “Especially in certain states, right now, EC is the last line of defense before you might have to make a very difficult decision,” says Johnson, “and if we can help it, we’d rather people not have to do that.”
To learn more about the inspiration behind Julie and the role that the company aims to play within the reproductive-health landscape, listen to the full podcast episode here.
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