BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Pampers' breakthrough new Dry Max diaper is 20% thinner and way more absorbent than its predecessor or the competition in tests, leading Procter & Gamble Co. executives to hail it as the iPod of baby care. But a vocal group of internet critics compares it to another marketing milestone: New Coke.
A small group of grumblers have turned what had been overwhelmingly positive reviews at Diapers.com highly negative, jammed Pampers.com with negative reviews and created by far the most active thread on forums at the PampersVillage.com site.
The noise threatens to undercut huge product-improvement news in the category -- P&G is billing it as the most significant innovation in 25 years for Pampers, P&G's largest global brand, with sales approaching $9 billion. It all comes a full two months before the launch of its largest-ever marketing campaign in support of Dry Max.
How that transpired can serve as a lesson for any major marketer that has to balance the intricacies of production and distribution with the timing of marketing, and serves as a reminder that the product conversation can be co-opted by the consumer well before a marketer has a chance to tell its side of the story.
The key to the Dry Max diaper is a revamped, more permeable "absorbent gel material," which P&G claims absorbs more fluid faster than an unnamed competitor, i.e. Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s Huggies. Using more of the petrochemical absorbent gel allowed P&G to do away with the mesh liner in Pampers and a considerable amount of wood-based fiber, said Kerri Hailey, section head of global baby care research and development at P&G, who has been testing the diapers with her own children since 2005. The net result was considerably less environmental impact; Ms. Hailey also cited substantial reductions in packaging, trucks needed to haul diapers and energy required to harvest and process wood pulp, among other things.
Engineering this manufacturing overhaul meant putting the new diapers into the old packaging and into stores starting last summer in parts of the country. But because the new diapers had only reached a fraction of the U.S. by fall, P&G wasn't ready to launch its campaign. Without marketing or communication, some consumers in early markets reacted strongly and spread the word virally to markets that did not yet have the diaper. The naysayers decried the removal of the mesh liner in the old version of Pampers Cruisers and complained that the new version feels stiff, papery and cheaper and causes more leaks and diaper rash.
"Similar to our experience in the past, when you change things, without articulating what the change is about, you will get consumers who complain," said Jodi Allen, VP-North American baby care at P&G. "All the data we have to date, in particular from our consumer 1-800 line, is that the complaints are well within what we were expecting and considerably lower than we've seen with some of our previous innovations."
That said, however, "one or two online consumers can still make a lot of noise," said Ms. Allen, "and there have been a couple in particular who have been very active." One particularly ardent critic, who goes by the handle AedansDad22908, has posted complaints on at least 75 sites according to a Google search, with more than 50 posts on PampersVillage alone.
Reviews on Diapers.com from a variety of posters are running more than five to one negative since October, and the dialog on Pampers.com is overwhelmingly negative too. At one point last month, Pampers.com took down all reviews on its own site as it switched to a new rating system, prompting accusations of a cover up by the critics, which P&G denies. When the reviews returned, they continued largely negative, and the site continued to show them.
But while the complaints can look numerous on review boards, they don't represent a groundswell considering the millions who've already tried the new diapers. A "Bring Back the Old Cruisers" fan page on Facebook had only 20 members as of last week – and some of them hadn't even tried the new diaper.
Rosana Shah of Baton Rouge, La., said she started the Facebook fan page because criticism of the new Cruisers on Pampers' Facebook page were drowned out by other content. She's heard arguments that the new diapers are the brand's biggest innovation in 25 years, but she's not buying them. "We could move on," she said. "We could just buy the Target [Up & Up] diaper [which she said is now better]. But the principle is that they've slipped this inferior diaper into the existing packaging without notifying the consumer."
Rick Rieman of Cincinnati joined the Facebook group but hasn't had a bad experience with the new diapers. He was just doing some research at PampersVillage, as he and his wife are expecting their second child in March, when he noticed the controversy. "We don't personally have any gripe," he said. "But in a year or two we may be there. As consumers, and as a stockholder of P&G since I was in diapers myself, I want to see what's best for P&G and babies." He said he also brought the issue to the attention of a friend who works at P&G baby care, who said she'd look into it, and a consumer reporter at a local TV station.
Joni Louise Martin, an Iowa mother of five, said in a Facebook message she'd also joined the group not because of any performance problems with the diapers (she uses Pampers Baby Dry and Swaddlers now) but because she felt P&G was being deceptive by making the change without announcing it.
Carlos De Jesus, marketing director for Pampers, said P&G is addressing consumers who've complained, particularly the most vocal, on an individual basis. The passion of critics doesn't surprise Mr. De Jesus, who noted that few other consumer products get used seven or eight times a day.
Ms. Allen believes the tone will change quickly once P&G turns on marketing support, which will include a first-ever, pre-launch buzz campaign starting this month.
Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi and Starcom MediaVest Group are handling creative and media buying, respectively, while Aegis Group's Carat is handling communications planning, and Strawberry Frog is handling digital in its first major work on the brand.
P&G is also confident enough in the new diaper that it will use its biggest sampling program ever, including three-diaper packs already being distributed via Walmart. "Our consumer research shows that if consumers try it, particularly overnight, they like it," Ms. Allen said.
Thinner has typically been perceived as better in diapers, Ms. Hailey said, noting how a 27-diaper pack of Cruisers now fully fits inside a diaper bag she showed while a similar pack of Huggies sticks out of it. Since 1971, Pampers diapers are half as thick, yet perform considerably better.
The new diapers do cost less for raw materials, packaging and shipping, but P&G isn't lowering the price. The company has, however, also made a substantial upfront investment in overhauling its production lines that will take time to pay back, Ms. Allen said, though she declined to say how much time.
Mr. De Jesus has lost no confidence in prospects for Dry Max because of the internet comments. Consumer research shows the benefits of Dry Max are strong enough to trade consumers up from lower-priced diapers, even in a recession, he said. That leads P&G to believe Dry Max could, like Baby Stages of Development launched eight years ago, add $2 billion to category sales globally.
Making the case for Dry MaxIf critics of Pampers Dry Max could have seen the marketing before they tried the diapers, at least some might have been impressed. Bill Clinton certainly was. The former president lauded Procter & Gamble and the diaper extensively during a talk at the Clinton Global Initiative last fall for its extensive reduction in environmental impact.
In a demonstration last week at P&G's baby-care complex, company executives made a compelling pitch for the new diaper, one that will no doubt find its way into TV, internet, print, in-store, mail and other ads in the weeks ahead. Helping their case is Leon, a mannequin based on a real baby, one of 900 in the database used by P&G to test Dry Max. Leon's diaper took a load of proverbial blue liquid slightly larger than an 8-ounce sippy cup over the course of less than a half hour, but didn't leak.
At the core of the new diaper is a revamped, more permeable "absorbent gel material" and both inside diapers and in test tubes, P&G's new gel does seem to absorb more fluid faster than rival Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s Huggies. A few minutes after soakings with similar amounts of fluid, there was no moisture left to be felt on the revamped Pampers, while there was still moisture to be felt on the Huggies product.
Ad Age obtained similar results in its own tests pouring four ounces of water (albeit with no blue coloring) on comparable Size 4 diapers. The new Dry Max diapers absorbed water faster than the thicker, fluffier Huggies. The Dry Max diapers also absorbed faster and better than Pampers Cruisers Premium Absorbency diapers, which still have the mesh liners and are sold only at Target (though those diapers too will lose the liner when the changeover is complete, a P&G spokesman said). Target is selling the "premium" product at around 35 cents per diaper, vs. 31 cents for the new Cruisers.
Road shows starring Leon and a variety of other impressive demos have helped convince retailers to drop their usual restraints on at-shelf signs to let P&G explain why the new diapers are thinner yet better.
Lessons learnedPEOPLE CARE ABOUT YOUR PRODUCT. Even something as unsexy as diapers take a big chunk of young parents' budgets, get used frequently and carry a high cost of failure.
A PRODUCT IMPROVEMENT WON'T NECESSARILY BE SEEN AS GOOD. In a population of millions, hundreds may have bad experiences that -- even if they aren't the product's fault -- will be blamed on it. Skeptics will suspect any change is merely a cost-cutting move. Pampers always banks on some complaints when it changes products, but those complaints used to be mainly private via 1-800 lines, not public in social media. The most- motivated critics of the new Pampers opened Twitter accounts and a Facebook page just to vent grievances.
A FEW ANGRY CONSUMERS CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE ONLINE. Consumers motivated to write bad reviews can quickly turn the tide of conversation, particularly on review boards where the latest comments come first. So it makes sense to devote management time to individually persuade early adopters – or early complainers -- who are unhappy.
COMMUNICATION PROBABLY CAN'T WAIT. While the benefits and marketing behind them may well win out for Pampers Dry Max, there would be less of a hurdle had consumers not been surprised about the change. A buzz-marketing effort while the switchover was made might have helped, or even something as simple as cards inside packages of new product to explain the change. While Pampers is starting such efforts two months in advance of broader marketing, starting it six months in advance might have been better still.