"Going back to the early 1990s, you say what more could you do to a diaper, right?" said Robert Thibault, president-childcare at K-C. "And each year-and I'll give P&G credit as well-we have continually found ways to make the product perform better and to make it more appealing."
There's a good reason why. One-upping rivals with a better diaper-and persuading consumers to trade up to it via marketing-has become the primary growth vehicle in a U.S. market where the population of babies is growing only about 1% annually and price increases are hard to come by.
K-C's innovation is improvements to Huggies Supreme, including a cottony Gentle Care lineup with better umbilical-cord cutouts for newborns and an hourglass-shaped, thinner, more-flexible Natural Fit lineup for older babies and toddlers. Improved printing technology gives the diapers a more underwear-like look similar to recent generations of training pants.
K-C isn't providing spending details on the rollout that starts next month, but total marketing is expected to weigh in at more than $50 million. K-C called the launch its biggest introduction since Huggies initiated the superpremium segment with the Supreme line in 1994.
P&G, meanwhile, is rolling out a more flexible "Caterpillar Flex" diaper for its base Pampers Baby Dry line. It also has improved absorbency for its superpremium Baby Stages of Development line that P&G Treasurer John Goodwin told investors this month represents more than half the brand's U.S. sales.
P&G is also improving leakage protection for value-priced Luvs, billed as more leak-proof than higher-priced Huggies products. P&G ads from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi break next month.
The stakes couldn't be higher as the battle seesaws for leadership in the estimated $5 billion diaper-and-training-pants category. K-C edged P&G by a 43% to 42% margin in the four weeks ended July 16, according to Information Resources Inc. data reported by Morgan Stanley, the fourth straight four-week period in which it has held a narrow lead after P&G led for much of the prior year. The data don't include Wal-Mart, club or dollar stores.
The improvements this time, as they usually have in the past, are coming without price increases. Consumers watch diaper prices closely, as do retailers, which generally sell diapers as a loss leader, despite the $60-$70 monthly cost to parents.
P&G and K-C both tried to raise prices last year to recoup rising raw-material costs, but both rolled back those price hikes this year, blaming private-label manufacturers that refused to follow suit.
Mr. Thibault is hoping the newly improved Supreme is good enough to get consumers to trade up from the base Huggies UltraTrim or, better still, from P&G's Pampers. Supreme sells at a 14% to 20% per-diaper premium on the base Huggies brand.
Marketing support for K-C's new Huggies Supreme lineup will be a swan song for WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, which is handling the effort as the account shifts to a new team at sibling JWT, Mr. Thibault said.
In addition to the usual TV, print, online and direct-mail support, the new Supreme line will be the first to benefit from an exclusive deal Huggies has reached with NBC Universal, iVillage and GE Healthcare for advertising on their in-hospital TV network-which reaches 82% of moms of newborns each year, Mr. Thibault said. The deal gives Kimberly-Clark a new weapon in reaching moms early in their diaper decision making. P&G long has dominated hospital sampling and sponsorship of Lamaze childbirth programs.