When Procter & Gamble Co. launched its Pampers Dry Max line last year, it billed the thinner diaper as the biggest category innovation in a quarter century. But the launch also unleashed a controversy as a small but vocal group of parents blamed the line for severe diaper rash.
Although Dry Max critics never numbered more than the low five figures on Facebook -- a tiny percentage compared to the 8 million babies age 2 or younger at any given time in the U.S. -- they generated outsize publicity that got national news coverage. For a time it seemed as if the uproar was hurting Pampers sales -- or at least not helping. Rival Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s blue jeans-style diapers for Huggies generated a bigger sales bump last spring and summer with a small cosmetic change vs. Pampers' vaunted reinvention of the diaper.
So a year later, what came of the stink over Dry Max? P&G contends it came out smelling like a rose.
Pampers' all-outlet market share in the U.S. reached its highest level in 10 years in the fiscal year ended June 30, up 2.1 points to 31.9%, according to the company, while shares for Huggies and private label both declined during the period, according to P&G. Those figures don't jibe with SymphonyIRI data showing Pampers trailing both value-priced sibling Luvs and Huggies for the four-, 12- and 52-week periods ended Aug. 7. But the SymphonyIRI data does not include Walmart, club or dollar stores.
Nor does it include e-commerce, where P&G has made a particularly hard push. Amazon is a top 10 Pampers account and diapers are one of the strongest packaged-goods categories. Pampers' average score in e-commerce reviews -- where it took a beating early on in the Dry Max rollout -- is now up to 4.5 on a 5 scale vs. 2.5 a year ago, the company says.
The Dry Max name disappeared recently from Pampers packages, part of a normal rotation in packaging and products as Pampers launched its "three-way-fit" improvement for Cruisers, spokesman Bryan McCleary said. The revamped diapers look a little thicker than the Dry Max version, but he said that owes to a new back sheet akin to those on the Swaddlers line for younger infants being added to Cruisers, not a change in the basic Dry Max design.
Even though the Consumer Product Safety Commission found no link between Dry Max and diaper rash last year, P&G regardless in June reached a $3 million settlement to end litigation surrounding the brand. It admitted no wrongdoing but provided funds mainly for the plaintiff's attorneys, while also agreeing to add more information about diaper rash to Pampers websites and fund medical education on the subject. The 59 parent litigants got $1,000 apiece, not enough to buy a year's worth of diapers. Their lawyers got $2.7 million. And P&G got some lessons from Dry Max.
For example, complaints about Pampers began to surface when P&G started rolling out significantly changed diapers in late 2009 without changing the packaging or otherwise alerting consumers. P&G made the move because it takes months to totally change production lines, and it didn't change packaging until the process is complete, even if that meant shipping new diapers in old packaging.
No longer: With the recent rollout of the "Three-Way Fit" improvement for Pampers Cruisers, P&G also put new diapers in old packages, but this time it included fliers to alert consumers to the changes.
It also honed its social-media approach. In fact, some of P&G's biggest changes came in social media, where Pampers actually came out on top in Altimeter's July 2010 ranking of consumer engagement for Facebook fan pages -- crisis or no.
One of the biggest surprises for P&G out of the Dry Max controversy, said Pampers brand manager Clarissa Niese in a June talk to Cincinnati ad agency Red 212, was that "people on Facebook actually believed we would do something to hurt babies." To be sure, public skepticism about corporate motives can be hard to fathom amid the purpose-driven-marketing drive at P&G, where folks inside the building get a daily dose of the company's "touch and improve more lives more often in more places" mantra.
So much of Pampers' "Miracles" campaign, an online, social media, TV and print campaign that started last year focused on Hispanic consumers and expanded this spring to the general market, focused on showing the world that the people behind the brand weren't so bad after all.
The TV and online ad as well as social-media campaign aim at putting a human face, tone and voice behind the brand. Included are a variety of "pay it forward" gifts to new parents, often identified from posts to the brand's Facebook wall, including care packages for parents of infants or nurse teams at neonatal intensive care units or "golden tickets" for a year of diapers and wipes in random sample packs of Swaddlers. When a mom opened one of those packs bought during pregnancy after the deal expired, Pampers made good on the year's supply anyway.
Posts on the brand's Facebook wall have included updates about the pregnancy and childbirth for the community manager and pictures of kids from others on the brand team. The brand assembled a Pampers Baby Board of mom bloggers to help spread word about the Pampers Little Miracle Missions, through which the brand also encourages others to do something nice for parents of newborns.
All that has helped turn around the negative buzz for Pampers. But the reality is that the category turns over quickly as parents move in and out of child rearing, so last year's product hit or yesterday's feel-good story won't necessarily have much impact in a year or two.