BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- On a cold night in downtown Chicago, seven middle-age women discuss what they like least about men ("lacking compassion") and 20-something women ("ungrateful" for their elders' sacrifices).
The conversation ambles along until the group -- assembled in a living-room-style conversation pit -- gets comfy enough, and a 50-something woman furtively brings up the "the secret." "What secret?" someone asks. "Leakage," the woman answers.
It's a revelation that would make many flinch. But it's music to the ears of the Kimberly-Clark marketers watching this focus group behind a two-way mirror. The team that markets Poise incontinence products is way past squeamishness, much like the Trojan team at Church & Dwight, the Charmin brand manager at Procter & Gamble Co. and the man behind Mr. Mucus at Reckitt Benckiser. They all do what appear to be marketing's dirtiest jobs.
Yet many stay in their jobs longer than industry norms and feel they're solving problems that make a real difference in people's lives. Along the way, they're finding that the mores of social media are helping break down barriers that once kept consumers from speaking freely on sensitive topics and that, increasingly, direct approaches can work in advertising.
Riches of embarassment
Perhaps no company has more brands that do things many people would just as soon not hear about as K-C, marketer of Depend and Poise incontinence products, Kotex feminine products, Huggies diapers, and Goodnites, for kids who wet the bed.
Clearly much of what was happening in the fifth of six two-hour focus groups in two days was familiar territory. A neophyte might blush hearing a woman who could be a grandmother note how a bulky incontinence pad might spoil the mood when things got hot and heavy with her boyfriend. But this nonplussed crowd kept multitasking on e-mail or checking out blogs during the focus groups.
"Just being at Kimberly-Clark, you get used to hearing all sorts of stuff," said Anne Jones, marketing director for Poise and a 20-year veteran of K-C on such brands as Huggies, Kotex and Depend. "At first it's a little awkward ... but I think when you get into the consumer groups and you see how meaningful it is for the consumer, it kind of takes it away."
Poise is what she calls a "heroic brand," because "these women really, really need it," she said. And even the research itself seems to do good for participants sometimes.
For example, the woman who broached the incontinence topic in Chicago had never talked to any friends about it, yet by the end of the group, she said, "This gathering now is making me think I should share."
Indeed, much of what Kimberly-Clark markets is freedom from shame. And that in turn has started to change conversations, easing the guilt for kids and parents about bedwetting, for example. "Before [Goodnites], the parents felt they were accountable too," said June DeValk, director of personal-care market research and analytics. "Both the product and the education that Kimberly-Clark has put behind it ... says it's normal for some children."
Getting honest answers
Andy VanOfferen, senior manager-baby and child-care market research at K-C, has to limit slots for marketers to attend ethnographies or home visits even on the most sensitive subjects. "Pretty much everybody wants to attend," he said. "We've got to limit who attends, especially given the sensitivity of the topic and the need for smaller groups."
Barry Goldbatt, market-research director for Trojan at Church & Dwight Co., said he wasn't sure he was ready for the subject matter when he started the job six-and-a-half years ago. "The first thing I remember thinking was, 'Wow, I've got to go listen to people talk about sex and condoms,'" he said. After watching his first few focus groups with men in their early 20s, "I walked out of the back room shaking my head thinking, 'I was born too soon. Look what I've missed out on.'"
Not as much as he might have thought, he ultimately figured out. One thing he's learned after many years is that people lie about sex in more ways than one. "You do hear people say things where you just know they're not telling the truth," Mr. Goldblatt said. "Some of the things you hear would make your hair stand on end."
Despite (or maybe because of) that, job tenures among marketers on Trojan are considerably longer than what Mr. Goldblatt has seen in less-sensitive categories in past stops at P&G and Johnson & Johnson. He believes that's mainly because marketers need more experience to get at the truth from consumers but also because the work is rewarding. "There's this whole societal benefit, where we're really doing something only a condom can do," he said. "Birth-control pills can stop a [conception], but they can't do anything about sexually transmitted disease."
In one way, condoms aren't so different from dental floss, said Jim Daniels, who's been marketing director for Trojan more than five years after a stop in oral care. "People understood the importance of flossing," he said. "They claimed to floss a lot. But clearly the category wasn't nearly as big as people claimed their usage rates were." Same with condoms, which would be a way bigger business if men actually used condoms as often as they say they do in Church & Dwight's surveys.
It's not easy to know exactly how much they're lying, though. "Unlike laundry, where you can actually sit and watch people do their laundry, we can't sit and watch them use our product," Mr. Daniels said.
Rather than relying on conventional moderators or researchers for focus groups, one-on-ones, triads or ethnographies, Trojan increasingly uses clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and cultural anthropologists to get at the truth. "You've got to be a very special person to discuss the subject matter and not pass judgment," Mr. Goldblatt said.
Yet, you'd be surprised what people are comfortable talking about these days. Like small pieces of toilet paper left behind after use -- which became fodder for an ad campaign for Charmin last year.
Jacques Hagopian, Charmin brand manager, wouldn't say exactly how P&G got consumers to open up on the consumer insight behind the subject but said it's not as hard as you might think. "While a category like bath tissue isn't top of mind, trust me, it's very near and dear to the heart, especially when it's not there," he said.
Getting people to talk about using toilet paper isn't really that different from getting them to talk about paper towels, which he's also worked on. "Consumers generally, when they understand you want them to express their opinions, they're very willing to share."
And there's often no point for marketers to hold back, either. Just ask Matt Leung, who got America to open up about mucus. He's one of the minds behind Mucinex's Mr. Mucus.
Mr. Leung, who has Mr. and Mrs. Mucus figures in his office and no concern about folks at Reckitt Benckiser sometimes referring to him by that name, helped develop the character at agency Torre Lazur McCann in 2004 before joining Adams Respiratory, and ultimately Reckitt through acquisition. Mr. Mucus has helped quadruple Mucinex sales in less than five years.
"Back in 2004," Mr. Leung said, "it was initially a subject [consumers] weren't comfortable talking about. But once you sort of broke the ice, then they were fine with it. ... They would talk about the consistency, the color, where they felt it in the chest."
In feminine care, K-C has found that consumers themselves often do best at getting the truth. The company has started using "friendship circles," in which it recruits a woman and in turn has her recruit friends for research talks. Rather than inhibiting responses, the strategy does the opposite, Ms. DeValk said. "They'll hold each other to the truth," she said. "They'll say, 'That's not really true. That's not what you do.'"
Particularly with girls and young women, things are different now than they were 10 or even five years ago, she said, adding that the growing frankness of social media, or media generally, probably plays a role. "There's much more willingness to share," she said. "You really have to go in and prepare yourself not to be shocked."