Direct-to-consumer startups are so focused on optimizing all of our worldly wants — offering us mattresses, toothbrushes, tampons, and sweaters that are, if not necessarily better than the traditional versions, cheaper and more cleverly branded — that it seems like we should barely lift our eyes from our phones when multiple companies converge on the same idea at the same time. But some of us did, in the fall of 2017 and early days of 2018, when three young brands started catering to an overlapping set of men's health and grooming issues, namely hair loss and erectile dysfunction.
Roman prescribes and sells ED medication (sildenafil, the generic version of Viagra; tadalafil, or Cialis; and vardenafil, or Levitra). Keeps provides pills (finasteride, the generic of Propecia) and topical treatments (minoxidil, or Rogaine) to combat hair loss. Hims has both, plus medication for cold sores and a forthcoming skin care range.
In part, these brands received an early burst of attention because they speak openly about bodily issues that carry a heavy measure of stigma and shame despite their prevalence. Hims, Keeps, and Roman all want to normalize hair loss and ED and therefore encourage men to take care of themselves, while avoiding the signifiers of a macho culture that keeps many men from doing so.
They come prepared with statistics: 66 percent of men will start losing their hair by age 35, according to Keeps. Hims says that more than half of men experience erectile dysfunction in their lifetime.
But though these companies have similar goals, their tactics vary widely. That comes through loud and clear in their branding.
"Roman is a health care company, not a beauty or a lifestyle brand," says co-founder Saman Rahmanian. "We wanted to make sure our brand reflected that. The color palette, in pure white and strong red, is influenced by the medical world and by iconic brands like the Red Cross."
A former art director at Ogilvy, Rahmanian led Roman's visual design process. The company carefully walks the line between drawing on the aesthetics of existing medical institutions, which can be nauseatingly clinical at their worst, and communicating accessibility and approachability to customers.
While Roman's City MD-inflected visuals and rigorous onboarding process set a serious tone, the team has used its TV commercials to inject a dose of humor into the conversation. (In a revolt against overly chummy copywriting, however, Roman has an entire page in its style guide dedicated to names it won't call its customers: dude, homie, champ, hotshot, duke, chief, bro.)
Another tightrope: Rahmanian wanted Roman to be straightforward in its mass communications and discreet where individual customers are concerned. That manifests in bold typography and loud reds on Roman's homepage, and darker, more subtle packaging. The box customers receive is unbranded from the outside, and the credit card-size single-dose pill sachets it contains are navy with a circular red logo on them. The company may be trying to destigmatize ED, but it's not going to make its shoppers publicize their purchases either.
The team behind Hims belongs to a different school of thought: that creating a lifestyle brand around men's wellness is exactly the right way to sell solutions to ED and hair loss.
Hims is the most overwhelmingly aesthetic of the three startups, with a visual identity designed by the branding firms Gin Lane and Partners & Spade. It's a landscape of witty, conversational copy and peachy neutrals selected to highlight the real-guy models, who are captured in moments of seemingly unposed movement and laughter. If Goop (with its lowercase serif logo), Glossier (known for its close-up photography of unvarnished skin), and Thinx (practically a Pantone guide for warm, muted colors) had a baby boy, it might be Hims. In fact, while browsing the brand's website, you might wonder: Was all visual design of the past decade building to this very moment?
This level of sensory seduction may seem unnecessary in the sale of medical products, or even downright cynical about millennials' predilection for anything blush-hued, but Hims argues for its utility.
"Making it not feel medical at all was a fundamental part of how we thought about this brand," Hims CEO Andrew Dudum says. "Arguably, the biggest issue in medicine is that people don't take the proper medicine at the proper dosage, and that's for the most part because it's pretty shitty to take pills all day. Shampooing your hair with some medical shampoo that smells like chemicals doesn't spark a ton of endorphins or encourage you to use it. Adherence and consistency drives efficacy, so we wanted them to taste and smell great."
Indeed, roughly 50 percent of patients in developed countries don't take medications as prescribed, according to a 2003 World Health Organization study. Dudum says the appealing look of Hims's pink-and-white packaging, the smell of its hormone-blocker shampoo, and the taste of its biotin gummies are meant to encourage men to use them properly and therefore see results.
Beyond buying Hims products, you can get tattoo advice on its blog or deck yourself out in a Hims sweatshirt, which looks like a cousin of Glossier's Instagram-famous crewneck. There's no dearth of startups like this, ones that cocoon their goods in editorial content, podcasts, and merch, stretching the amount of time shoppers spend in their brand bubble. But just as Hims's aesthetic serves a medical purpose, the Hims lifestyle supports what, in Dudum's words, seems like a bigger, noble societal goal.
"Building a lifestyle brand is foundational because you can't succeed in breaking the stigma, in my opinion, by simply saying we're a service to get you ED drugs delivered to your door, or we're a service that will stop your hair loss from continuing," he says.
"I've primarily heard of Hims through podcast ads," says Evan, a man who is balding but not on the market for hair loss treatments, having accepted his hair as it is. "From the looks of it, these sites seem to aim for that Warby Parker/Dollar Shave Club/Everlane demo."
Hims and Roman both explicitly steer clear of "macho" visuals or language, which, beyond reinforcing unhealthy stereotypes about masculinity generally, would have been extremely inadvisable for a #MeToo-era launch. It also leaves the door open to expanding into women's products. Dudum describes the Hims aesthetic as "very gender-neutral," and given that ForHers.com is taken, one might suppose that a women's line is on the way too.
Keeps, a hair loss startup that launched January, comes across as less clinical than Roman and less trendy than Hims. The company's branding, designed by the firm Red Antler, favors forest green, white, and black, with little red accents. It's low-key: nothing to freak out over, no barrier to entry.
"We're not just building Keeps for a guy who cares about grooming and his looks," says co-founder Steven Gutentag. "For us to be successful, it's about making the brand and solution geared toward the average guy who has hair and doesn't want to lose it. When we think about design and messaging, we want it to be matter-of-fact."
During the design process, the Keeps team kept returning to a green color scheme for its approachability and simplicity. That focus on accessibility makes sense: Keeps wants to catch guys before they've lost too much hair, on the premise that it's easier to, yes, keep the hair you have than it is to regrow it. For this group, which may still need some convincing to buy hair loss products, a straightforward and unintimidating look could work.
The product packaging has an upscale medical vibe, all white with the company's red logo, a crown that doubles as a comb. Here, the Keeps team placed a premium on making something that would fit right in on someone's — anyone's — bathroom counter.
"I'm really proud of that we've done is that our brand resonates with a wide group of guys," says Gutentag. "It's not targeted to a specific part of the country or type of guy. We are for the average guy who wants to keep his hair and get back to his life."
And that's the thing. Despite their varied looks, Roman, Keeps, and Hims all purport to be for everybody.
"Hims is just a men's wellness brand that every guy — no matter whether they're straight, gay, young, old — they'll look at it and they'll say, 'I can buy that,'" says Dudum.
"It appeals to a wide range of ages," Rahmanian says of Roman. "We're definitely not skewing in any way too urban or too bicoastal. We've seen great traction around 20-year-olds and also among someone who's 65."
Considering how big the market is for ED and hair loss drugs, there are more than enough potential customers to go around. And if those shoppers did have a taste for one aesthetic over another, they've got options.