Cora’s fearless Founder, Molly Hayward, on how being audacious attracts new audiences

Enraged by an industry rife with antiquated ideas, Cora offers a more modern expression of what it means to be female today: naturally powerful. In this interview, Molly shows how she uses her brand voice to wage a moral war with words—and feelings!—free from fear of alienating audiences and, instead, bonding through it.

By Karin Fyhrie

Savvy, opinionated, and down-to-earth, I liked Molly the moment I met her in early 2019. She and her team at Cora—a rising star in the $6B category of feminine care—had reached out to us at COLLINS to evolve their brand packaging as the company prepared to hit shelves at Target in a third wave of growth. In going mainstream, many companies instinctively generalize the brand as a strategic path to mass appeal. But Cora is not any ordinary company. And Molly is not any ordinary leader.

Photo credit: Kirby Stenger
Photo credit: Kirby Stenger

While Cora’s sales had been stellar—in fact, their brand equity was the highest in their surging category—Molly strongly believed that their packaging didn’t fully reflect the company’s promise to inspire every woman to realize her “natural power.” To her, the old packaging communicated half this promise. With its white, reductive design and organic messaging, the design had the “natural” part down pat. But in a market where organic-signaling has become commonplace, Cora knew it was imperative to tap into the more emotionally-potent half of the promise: revolutionizing women’s sense of self-worth. Yet, the sense of pride and power that comes with such self-confidence felt diluted, if not absent altogether in its packaging.

Defining, in design terms, the vernacular of feminine power—and how Cora could model it more meaningfully—was a compelling challenge and central to our partnership. Molly never strayed from this brief. Throughout our work together, she took risks that many brands shy away from; risks congruent with Cora’s values, beliefs, and strategic brand position as a powerful proponent for the modern woman.

Here, we dig into Molly’s unique perspective and how it has informed Cora’s path to success and brand decisions made along the way—from its visual embodiment, to its words, and actions.

Karin: When we began our partnership, you briefed us with a bold, no-holds-barred statement: “Cora exists because the feminine care industry is, frankly, fucked.” I want the world to hear why.

Molly: As I started to learn about this industry—its history, the cultural stigma around women’s bodies, the way that brands were talking to us—it incited a lot of strong emotions. Anger and disgust, overwhelmingly.

Huge corporations had the monopoly on dictating how women “should” think about and talk about their experiences. There was no choice. There were no other options. I began to really see the way in which certain stigmas were causing women to remain silent about their experiences. And that silence was allowing corporations to do whatever they wanted without any repercussions, including making products with really questionable ingredients for women’s health and the environment, as well as marketing these products in a way that was incredibly demeaning, outdated, and juvenile, in my eyes.

It is fucked. There’s no other way to say it.

“So this is a moment to respond with force, with power, and with a degree of indignation that will, I think, also help to really drive home for women that this is unacceptable.”

Karin: Cora has always lived by one of the COLLINS tenets: Whatever you are, be ‘very.’ By that, we mean that every brand should unapologetically express their point of view as a way to truly connect with customers. Such bravery, in itself, is often uniquely differentiating in a world where companies try to be everything to everyone.

Your confidence and candor in how you express yourself is something we admire and, I think, many founders and brands aspire to. In your opinion, why might it be hard for brands to fully be themselves?

Molly: It almost feels irrational to try to be unique; to know that you might alienate people. I think it really comes back to that human, primal fear of not being loved. And when you’re not loved, you’re not part of a protected circle. Your survival is in question.

And yet, when you look at examples of individuals and artists who do just that, those are the ones that we’re so attracted to. It’s like when you listen to someone singing a piece of music and they are giving it everything they have. As a listener, you’re so drawn to it because, on some level, I think we all wish we had the courage to do it. It’s so gutsy and so admirable to be so free—free of that fear of not being loved if I really show up so fully as who I am.

Karin: I always think about David Bowie, going all in on his alien-ness.

Molly: Yes. Flying that freak flag high and proud.

And so coming back to brands, I think … God, when you’re in it, it can be so scary because you are being held to certain expectations of what a successful business is. There are a lot of examples of taking the very rational path toward success, because it’s much easier to measure and define.

“And yet, I think the brands that people love the most are the ones that live out on that edge where they know they’re going to piss some people off.”

But the people who get it become so diehard that it completely negates whoever doesn’t want to come along for the ride. The challenge for brands is really overcoming that fear of being too much, of being very.

Karin: How did you, yourself, overcome that fear?

Molly: I think it’s a process of getting really comfortable with the idea that some people are not going to like or resonate with you. It’s a willingness to be so yourself that it doesn’t matter to you either way. My sister-in-law came to stay with us recently—she’s a totally gutsy, outspoken woman—and she was reading a book called “The Courage to Be Disliked.” And I just thought, “God, that is so it.”

I’ve also been able to overcome that fear as a founder because I know how I feel when I encounter a brand that has a strong perspective and is clearly willing to stand behind that and live into it. Also, it’s just so boring to do anything else, right?

Karin: Talk to us about a time where you confronted your fear and took a big risk? What did you learn from that experience?

Molly: When the abortion bans in the South were all over the news, Cora joined a group of female-led, female-focused brands that pooled their money to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times and state our pro-choice position on the issue, stating “As women, and business leaders, we support the right to choose today and every day.”

It was incredibly scary, even though we’re a women’s wellness company. I definitely worried: Are we going to seriously regret this? Are we going to lose 50% of our customer base? Yet we sincerely believe that abortion is not a political issue; rather, it’s a human issue.

In the end, we got the reaction you would expect. Half of the people who saw it were even more dedicated to our brand and the other half were like, “This doesn’t align with what I believe. I’m not going to support your company any more.”

Regardless, Cora didn’t die.

Photo Credit: Erica Chidi Cohen / @ericachidicohen
Photo Credit: Erica Chidi Cohen / @ericachidicohen

As a company, we’re really not interested in being overtly political. But we’re also not interested in staying silent on issues that we feel are really important. For better or worse, businesses are very entrenched in political influence and decision-making at the highest levels. And if you don’t stand up for the things you believe in, you’re just neutral. I don’t think most consumers want the brands that they support to be apolitical. So I think that you put yourself at greater risk by saying nothing.

It showed me that language is a really powerful tool. And some brands do not use it. Now, when I read something or I write something, if it doesn’t make me feel something, it hasn’t gone far enough.

“There’s nothing more powerful than provoking a feeling—that’s where a connection happens.”

So that’s always the mandate for our creative team: How can we be more provocative? Provocative doesn’t have to be ultra edgy or radical. It just has to hold a position, have real clarity, and make people feel something.

Karin: I love the title of Cora’s editorial platform: Blood & Milk This is a great example of how you’ve used language to interrogate norms. Let’s talk about the taboos inherent to this simple name.

Molly: In our society, there’s this weird comfort with blood in the context of violence and war. Yet there’s an extreme discomfort with blood in the context of women’s bodies and as life-giving power.

And then milk is this soft, feminine substance. Again, life giving but also very stigmatized. Only recently has breastfeeding in public become acceptable, despite it being a totally natural phenomenon.

So you have these two very elemental substances that are so tied to the powerful, life-giving force of the female body. Using the name Blood & Milk for our platform was really a reclamation of those two words—taking language that is incredibly jarring, but elevating it through new depth of meaning. It’s not provocation for provocation’s sake. It’s very much tied to our ultimate goal of elevating the consciousness of women.

Karin: You can see we’re excited by the potential of an editorial platform with the launch of IDEAS. Why did you launch one? Why is storytelling important to building your brand?

Molly: The beginnings of Blood & Milk is actually another story of frustration and rage and of wanting to make an offering to help quell that or satisfy that.

When I attended the first Women’s March in Washington, D.C. in 2016, I felt this incredible power: the force of a million people gathering to protest a person; an ideology; a set of values that felt incredibly divergent from their own. And, perhaps, even the principles that this country was built on.

It struck me that, here we were, out in the streets, protesting and shouting for the rights to our bodies; and yet, so many of us are woefully uneducated and disconnected from the experience of our bodies throughout our lifetimes.

When I started to think about it, there was not a single dedicated platform online that was solely focused on the experience of life in a female body: from your first period all the way to your last period and beyond. Women really deserve a lot more. And it felt like Cora was positioned to hopefully be a brand that could really represent that experience in a unique and provocative way.

“We want to talk about the things that are not topics of polite conversation. Nothing is off limits—because if it’s happening to you, then there’s nothing unnatural about it.”

The cool thing about it all has been the way Blood & Milk has evolved. We’re not sitting in a room making this shit up. This is real. We have an open door and people come to us with stuff that they are experiencing. Stories that they want to talk about and need to talk about.

Karin: Cora embodies a simple idea: the belief that women are “Naturally Powerful.” When you came to us to evolve the packaging for your next wave of growth, you felt that your original design wasn’t expressing the “powerful” piece. What aspects of the new design resonated with you as representative of modern, female power?

Molly: As a brand, we’re anti-empowerment because we don’t believe that power is something that you can transfer to someone else. There’s a lot of ego in that. We believe power is innate, and we try to model it in a way that hopefully inspires others to see it in themselves.

I remember in one of our early meetings I said something like, “Cora may not be the loudest person at the dinner party, but everyone wants to know what she has to say.” It’s a quiet confidence. It’s being totally comfortable with yourself. It doesn’t overpower people. It’s thoughtfulness, intelligence, and strong consideration.

“Power is being very clear on what you believe and saying exactly what you mean.”

I think that the brands who do it well are ultimately rewarded by the consumer. That is a point of differentiation, again, because so many people are afraid to do it. So you immediately stand out just by being willing to really put yourself out there.

COLLINS put that out there by introducing a manifesto on the front of the packaging. That’s a tall order for us to keep living into … to be the David Bowie on the Target shelves.

Karin: We’ve been talking pretty openly about the role of emotions, which, I find, rarely comes up in business dialogue … despite it being present in everything we do. How does the emotional layer of life play into your perspective as a leader?

Molly: Business has been so traditionally dominated by male values, typically male attributes or historically, conventionally male attributes. And that’s a purely rational approach. That’s one piece of the puzzle, but it doesn’t explain the entire thing. I think it’s just not like that on the feminine side as much. And at the end of the day, I think consumer choices are far more emotional than they are rational.

“If all you’re doing is hammering your features and benefits and the rational reasons someone should buy your product, you’re not going to win.”

You’re not going to pull an emotional heart string that says to someone, “You know what? This is where I actually want to put my hard-earned dollars.”

Another thing that I’ve come to believe is that building a brand is building a relationship with a customer. Emotional provocation is a foundation to building that relationship—maybe the conventional world of business would disagree with that. But that’s my perspective.

To me, when you look at the elements of building that relationship, it breaks down into three parts.

  1. Attraction: In the context of a brand, that’s great design, that’s something thoughtful and eye-catching and beautiful.

  2. Values: We relate to people who share our values, and you have to convey those values in order for somebody to know what they are.

  3. Trust: Trust is something you build over time—doing what you say you’re going to do, keeping your promises, and owning your mistakes. The mantra that I come back to over and over again is, “How you do something is how you do everything.”

Karin: We try to impress that last point a lot with companies: You can’t just sound trustworthy, you have to be trustworthy. How have you seen that kind of trust enable meaningful emotional connections with your customers?

Molly: I would get emails from women saying, “I used to absolutely loathe my period. I hated my body. I felt resentful every month. Cora has changed the way I think about myself as a human being—you’ve created an experience that makes me actually look forward to having my period.”

And it was like, okay, that’s revolutionary. If the next generation of women could have that positive experience of their bodies—instead of having to take 10 or 15 years, maybe never, to get to that place of acceptance, of self love, of recognizing the power of their biology—that would be huge. That would, I think, start to heal so much of the wounding that is present for most of us.

Karin: Yes! Stop cloaking femininity in decoration. Start revering it for its awesome abilities.

Molly: That kind of dramatic impact may be a lofty goal for a lot of brands. Not all brands are in a space that may be as emotionally charged or have as much history of stigma or cultural shame as we do. I encourage people to find that seed of what’s really driving somebody—that’s the most powerful thing you can communicate.

Karin: You’ve turned a source of shame into a point of pride. In essence, transforming the problem into the solution—one of my favorite design moves for developing meaningful business. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom, Molly. Indeed, we needed to hear what you had to say.

Want to see more on our collaboration? Visit the Cora case study for a deep dive into the evolved brand and packaging system.

Karin Soukup is the Managing Partner of COLLINS SF.

Molly Hayward is the Founder and Chief Brand Officer at Cora.

Cover image courtesy of Three D Scans.

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