Kimberly-Clark Takes on Tough New Marketing Job: Selling Itself and Neenah, Wis.

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Credit: Kimberly-Clark Corp.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. is up against tech companies, investment banks and its own set of formidable direct competitors as it tries to woo millennials to marketing and other jobs in a place many of them have never heard of -- Neenah, Wis.

So now it's turning like never before to marketing to get the job done -- and filled -- essentially treating K-C like a brand aimed at the 4,000 to 5,000 people it needs to hire each year to replenish and expand its workforce of 43,000 plus. A new digital ad campaign -- backed by Relish, Atlanta, WPP media shop Mindshare and PR from McGrath Business Communications -- breaks today, with ads on Facebook and LinkedIn, followed by an influencer-marketing program.

The "Welcome Original Thinkers" effort focuses on an online quiz to help prospective employees learn what kind of thinkers they are, what kind of jobs they'd best fit, and in the process show that the 144-year-old paper and personal-care products company and its Neenah home base are "pretty cool."

Heading the effort is Global Marketing Director Frans Mahieu, a veteran of Ogilvy & Mather, Ralston-Purina, Novartis and K-C's own now-spun-off healthcare business. He's in his sixth year running K-C's employer brand. He said he applies essentially the same marketing formula used to successfully rescue the once-scuffling, now resurgent Kotex into U by Kotex.

Part of that is seeking out diversity on a dimension outside the typical realm of HR campaigns, aimed more at diversity of thought with the "Original Thinkers Quiz."

"You need different points of view," Mr. Mahieu said. "That's when you start building on each other's ideas. Hopefully you come away from that with the best idea. It's important you don't shy away from the debate."

While appealing to those thinkers means building the Kimberly-Clark brand, it also means building up Neenah, part of a Fox Cities region that includes Appleton and 20 other towns with a combined 500,000 people around Lake Winnebago. Mr. Mahieu, based in Atlanta, acknowledges it's a challenge, but that he's developed a growing fondness for the area himself in regular visits during his past six years on the job.

"Since we are competing for talent that works in some of the more urban areas, we felt we need to do a better job," Mr. Mahieu said. "What you sell with Neenah, Wis., is that you can have a balance of life that's probably more fulfilling than a lot of other places. "

Like a growing number of other consumer packaged goods companies with offices based in smaller Midwestern cities, such as SC Johnson (Racine, Wis.) and ConAgra Foods (Omaha, Neb.), K-C also has a marketing outpost in Chicago. But Mr. Mahieu said space there is limited, housing mainly digital marketers, while most K-C marketers remain in Neenah with the rest of the North American headquarters. Global headquarters are in Irving, Tex., near Dallas.

"K-C will always have a challenge selling Neenah as an attractive destination for top talent," said David Wiser, Cincinnati-based recruiter and P&G alum. He cites no major sports teams closer than the Packers in Green Bay an hour away, limited arts and cultural opportunities, and a two-hour drive to Milwaukee or four-hour-plus drive to Chicago.

Add to that, he said, "Big CPG" has fallen out of favor with top undergrads and MBAs, who are more likely to opt for tech or Wall Street jobs. And then it's also up against a host of competitors in bigger cities, including several in metro New York, Clorox Co. in Oakland, Calif., General Mills in Minneapolis and P&G in Cincinnati.

But realistically, K-C has been outperforming many of those peer companies -- Neenah or no -- on the top line in recent years, so it's been getting some talent.

And beyond the easy commute and communing with nature, Mr. Mahieu points to a burgeoning arts center in Appleton, a booming microbrewery industry and a progressive small-town ambiance he likens to "Vermont of the Midwest."

He also believes the company will get traction with a concept that would seemingly intimidate a generation raised on participation trophies and collaboration -- K-C's aggressive stance on weeding out low performers detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

That's accomplished with regular feedback as opposed to simply relying on annual reviews, and Mr. Mahieu believes it resonates with millennials. "We want to hire those people who want to perform," he said. "So sharing with them that we have a performance culture for the right talent is actually very effective."

He also believes that putting marketers into recruiting in an effort to build employer brands is the wave of the future, and is fast growing from rarity to standard practice.

When he came into his position as a marketer six years ago, he said, he was the only person at industry HR gatherings from a marketing background. Now, he said 30% to 50% of larger companies have people from marketing or communications working on employer branding.

"I expect that two years from now, probably close to 80% to 90% of major companies will have people with marketing backgrounds running their employer brands," he said, "because it's so important."

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