How Pull-Ups Ended Years of Sagging Sales

Brand Aims to Turn Internet From Rival Into Ally

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Credit: Kimberly-Clark Corp.
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Pull-Ups had been sagging mightily since the Great Recession, between birth rates declining and moms opting to save money by speeding up potty training or using diapers rather than more expensive training pants. But the brand has begun a turnaround by reinventing marketing for millennial moms, upgrading products and stepping up promotion, in part to enlist kids to lobby moms for training pants.

Pull-Ups cost about 50% more per unit than the largest size of Kimberly-Clark Corp. sibling Huggies diapers. Even with that disadvantage in a still-frugal market, Pull-Ups sales rose 2% to $621 million, with share up 0.3 points for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 23. For the most recent 12 weeks, sales rose nearly 6%, according to Nielsen data from Deutsche Bank.

This comes after six years of steady declines that saw Pull-Ups lose more than four points of market share. Brand sales fell 6% to 7% each of the prior two years amid category declines of 3% to 4%. Even so, training pants remain nearly a $1 billion category, as measured by Nielsen, and well over that when online, club and specialty channels are taken into account. And Pull-Ups still dominate with more than a 65% share.

When Melanie Huet came to Pull-Ups as brand director-child care in early 2014 from Huggies, she said, "We were stuck in kind of a 1950s mode behind TV and print, which was not resonating with our core consumers: millennial moms."

She cited research by Johnson & Johnson's Babycenter that found 63% of moms report using smartphones more after having babies, and 70% say they were more likely to skip TV ads.

Pull-Ups needed a better mobile presence, but that didn't just mean digital couponing and ads, she said. So the brand enlisted a child psychologist and Montessori educators to develop a potty-training curriculum for mobile.

The internet isn't just a medium for Pull-Ups. It's also a rival. Programs like the three-day method have encouraged quick training without Pull-Ups, but Ms. Huet said they also "confuse" moms.

The brand has pre-roll advertising in front of Babycenter's video on the three-day approach to promote its potty-training curriculum. And that's built around the idea that "every child learns differently." The brand hopes to reframe the process as a journey for mom and child-one that, of course, includes stops to buy Pull-Ups.

The "Pull-Ups Potty Partnership" starts with a nine-question quiz to help identify a toddler's "potty-training personality." Since mom is constantly multitasking, Ms. Huet said, "one of her behaviors is to check on potty-training tips when she's on the phone doing something else, so we're providing her with tips and tools along the way." To help keep toddlers likewise inspired, the program includes printable reward charts on Pinterest.

"We were too web-based, and mom always had to come to us in person," Ms. Huet said. "Before, we were pushing more of the branded message and coupons. Now we're meeting the needs of moms to provide tips and tools," including an individualized "mission control center" moms can use to select things they'd like to see and more user-generated content.

WPP's Ogilvy & Mather and Mindshare lead creative and media, with Edelman handling PR for Pull-Ups.

The digital makeover is only part of the turnaround. Two waves of product improvements since August have improved leakage protection while adding new designs to teach front and back, plus top Disney characters to improve kid appeal.

The latter also figured into what Ms. Huet described as a "kid-engagement strategy" at retail, with special packs urging toddlers to collect each of five Disney plush toys. That spurred double-digit sales growth while in-market last year.

And K-C has made share gains in e-commerce by targeting messages to improve the "hand-off" from buyers of larger-size Huggies to Pull-Ups and focusing more on the "digital shelf," which Ms. Huet said has evolved from package views and product descriptions "into a more interactive page" with user-generated content.

"We know once we get into a subscription model that loyalty increases significantly, so it's really important that we do well there," she said.