Not since Procter & Gamble Co. withdrew Rely tampons from the market in 1980 have market shares shifted as fast as the past year, thanks to the launch of Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s U by Kotex. Now, a high-stakes counteroffensive by P&G's Tampax touches on issues that date to that historic move three decades ago.
Raising the stakes for P&G is the fact that Tampax picked up the vast majority of market share surrendered by Rely -- 13.3 of 15.1 share points according to Nielsen data from 1980 and 1981. Those consumers were mostly young women and girls, since Rely then -- like upstart U by Kotex now -- was a new brand in a category where loyalty is fierce and women rarely change brands after their 20s. Now, 30 years later, many of those Rely-to-Tampax switchers are nearing menopause and leaving the category.
Winning new consumers can pay off big for decades. And in the past year, U by Kotex has grabbed nearly 6 points of market share in the $1 billion tampon category, mainly among young women and girls, according to K-C executives.
K-C has done so with a campaign from Ogilvy & Mather and Organic that mocks historical ads from the category, with all their blue fluid, hushed tones and happy menstruating women in white spandex frolicking on beaches and in meadows. U by Kotex also broke with the clinical-looking packaging of old with a rainbow palette of products ensconced in stylish black boxes.
In recent months, Tampax has been fighting back with ads from Leo Burnett for its premium-priced Pearl line, claiming better protection than U by Kotex. They show women or girls diving, doing the limbo at the beach or splits during aerial cheerleader routines with the tagline: "At a moment like this, I don't care if my tampon came in a little black box."
In recent weeks, Tampax has raised the volume further with TV advertising that appears heavier than it has in many years, after the brand shifted, along with sibling P&G brand Always, to magazines and digital ads that its marketers found more discrete and less embarrassing to its consumers.
The latest Pearl ads also sharpen the comparative message, promising Tampax Pearl has "30% better protection" than U by Kotex.
The aggressive claims raise questions about how far comparative ads can go in a category where absorbency has been tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the wake of the Rely withdrawal. A spike in cases of the sometimes fatal toxic shock syndrome followed the national launch of the high-absorbency P&G product in 1978, and medical research in 1980 linked most of those cases to use of Rely. Later that year, P&G withdrew Rely from the market, and while the company never acknowledged a link between Rely and toxic shock, the number of cases reported in the U.S. declined from 897 in 1987 to 492 in 1981. After the FDA in 1982 instituted strict tampon absorbency ranges and labeling standards, including recommendations that women use the lowest absorbency possible, reports of toxic shock syndrome declined to the single digits annually by 1997, the year P&G re-entered the category by acquiring Tampax.
Claiming superior protection has been tough in the category since the post-Rely FDA regulations went into effect. When P&G in 2002 began claiming its then-new Tampax Pearl products offered superior absorbency to Playtex, the latter successfully sued, winning a $3 million judgment upheld on appeal in 2005 on the grounds that the FDA regulations effectively prevented such claims. By 2009 P&G, after making further improvements to Pearl, got the injunction against such claims lifted.
P&G's current comparative ads against Kotex don't specify exactly how Tampax offers better protection. But it's technically impossible for one tampon to be 30% more absorbent than another similar class of product under FDA regulations, at least for the two highest absorbency ranges, and difficult to achieve in the other three.
A P&G spokesman said in an email that the "30% better protection" number came from consumer research among females ages 13 to 40 who use regular-absorbency tampons only, based on reports of leaks among U by Kotex and Tampax Pearl users. For its part, Kimberly-Clark declined to comment on the Tampax ads. "What we can say is consumers are obviously very pleased with our products as they continue to vote with their repeat purchases," he said.
But the Tampax ads may be taking a toll. Kotex's share of the U.S. tampon market was 14.8% in the four weeks ended July 5, according to Nielsen data from Sanford C. Bernstein, down 2 points from the prior month and 3 points since February. It's not clear, however, that they're helping Tampax much. Its share was 46.3% in the most recent period, down 0.3 points from the prior months and 0.6 since February. Much of it seems to have gone to Playtex (see chart).
How much of a role former Rely users play in those numbers isn't clear, but the P&G spokesman said the "aging out" factor isn't new for Tampax, which has long been a leading brand, and that it continues to win young consumers.