BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Diapers have gotten at least their share of technological attention in recent years, what with ergonomic designs to foster tots' movement and thinner "performance" models likened to iPods. But for all that, what may really be driving the category is fashion.
With the launch of a limited-edition denim-style version of Huggies Little Movers diapers in May, for example, Kimberly-Clark Corp. -- at least for a month or two -- has recouped just about all the market share it lost in prior months during the heavily supported launch of Pampers Dry Max, which rival Procter & Gamble Co. billed as its biggest diaper innovation in a quarter century.
For its part, P&G is countering with a limited-edition fashion offering of its own this month, a series of 11 diaper styles from designer Cynthia Rowley called "Pampers by Cynthia Rowley Collection," available exclusively at Target and Target .com.
For the four weeks ended June 13, Huggies picked up a full 2 share points from the prior month to 34% of the U.S. diaper market as measured by SymphonyIRI, according to data from Consumer Edge Research. That puts Kimberly-Clark at its highest point in the category since December, well before the formal March launch of Dry Max.
It's hard to draw too much of a conclusion from four weeks of data that doesn't include Walmart, club or dollar stores in a highly promotional category. But Huggies' rebound looks to have a lot more to do with denim than deals. Its average price per unit was up 3.1% from last year, according to Consumer Edge's IRI data, while P&G's average price for Pampers and Luvs combined was up 3.9% vs. a year ago. The biggest share gainer in the period was private label, but on a promotional price decline of 7.8% from last year.
Even so, Huggies' all-outlet share for the entire second quarter also bounced back quite nicely from a sharp decline in the first quarter, according to people familiar with the matter.
The faux-denim diapers are "doing fantastic," said Huggies brand manager Keegan Coulter. "Our Little Movers franchise is up 15% post [denim] vs. prior period. To the best of our estimates, the population of infants looking incredibly cute in our diapers is fast approaching 2 million."
Specifically, K-C already has sold more than 2 million packages of the diapers in North America. Not bad, considering there are probably no more than 12 million infants in diapers in the U.S. at any given time -- and the denim Little Movers diapers are only aimed at up to 8 million in the ambulatory set.
Denim first appeared with diapers years ago on packaging for rival P&G's Luvs from Cincinnati design shop Deskey, but not on the actual diapers themselves. That wasn't the inspiration for K-C, Mr. Coulter said, which instead was tapping into an idea first tried by the brand successfully in Israel. Diaper sales surged 17% there, with similar results in other markets such as Australia and now the U.S.
The designer efforts from both K-C and P&G build on a long heritage of licensed cartoon characters as points of competition in the diaper business.
The question is how much of this is about the kids rather than the parents. A study by researchers at Yale released earlier this year did show that children aged 4-6 thought the same fruit-inspired snacks tasted better when they had licensed cartoon characters on the packages than when they didn't. Does a similar effect take hold on the back end, as it were, and with younger kids?
Somewhat. With Pull-Ups, licensed characters are a big motivator, Mr. Coulter said, but less so among tots in Little Movers. Qualitative research does, however, show that moms often give their little ones a diaper to hold during changes to minimize squirming, and the characters do seem to help there.
With jeans diapers, "the simple insight is that moms simply love seeing their babies in jeans," he said. "Nearly 60% of moms purchase denim for their babies before they even reach 6 months of age."
You can't substitute fashion for functional performance, he said, but noted that the fashion adds an emotional element that helps build the brand, particularly in warmer months when diapers serve as "a replacement for clothing."
A humorous ad for the jeans diapers (tagline: "The coolest you'll look pooping your pants") from WPP's JWT, New York, has gotten mostly raves from folks in social media and more than a million views online, though many people mistakenly say it's for Pampers. But Mr. Coulter said the ad has scored well in K-C tests both for branding and making an emotional connection in an unusual way for the category.