What do Shower Curtain Rods, Fast Food and Incontinence Products Have in Common?

By Tom Wilson | March 9, 2017

Insight and innovation have fueled the course of the adult incontinence market.

The buzz word in every company is ‘innovation.’ Years ago it was ‘insight’ and before that there were hundreds of words that marketers used, but rarely fully understood or practiced successfully. 
Over the course of my career as a corporate executive, entrepreneur and now as a positioning and innovation ‘expert’ I’ve learned that innovation requires each of the following:
  • A good vision and imagination.
  • A strong understanding of what problems your customer faces.
  • Simplicity in the positioning of the new idea.
  • Flawless execution in the marketplace.
These tenets of innovation hold true for just about any category in which you compete, and to illustrate this point I’d like to share three examples.

Let’s begin with shower curtain rods.  Arguably, one of the most boring categories you can think of.

Over the years, shower curtain rods had been line extended to death with the introduction of a rainbow of colors, spring loaded and screw mount models, plastic versus stainless steel and more. This is the typical incrementalism that is sometimes masked as ‘innovation’ and ‘excellence,’ simply because somebody in the company decided that’s what they’d call it.

None of these incremental product improvements actually addressed the No. 1 consumer unmet problem which was that consumers didn’t want the shower curtain touching them, especially when they were away from home. 

But thankfully someone in the shower curtain rod category had some imagination. Or as David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising said, “There are no boring brands, only boring brand managers.” In 2006, Charles Barrese invented the curved shower curtain rod and the rest is history—they’re everywhere. He addressed the No. 1 unmet need. 

Vision is another tenet of innovation.  Many of you may have seen the movie The Founder with Michael Keaton in the role of Ray Kroc, the recognized founder of McDonalds. In the movie you quickly realize that their was nothing fast about fast food in the late 1950s. Food was served at a normal restaurant pace, just to your car, menus were too expansive and orders were frequently inaccurate.

For consumers, drive-in restaurants, were nothing more than driving-in, there was nothing special about the food or service. In The Founder we learn in a dramatic fashion how the McDonald brothers studied drive-in restaurant issues and designed a whole new process to make fast food, really fast - 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. They drew out the entire concept in chalk on a tennis court and rehearsed it like a ballet of time and motion study.  Very scientific.

The McDonald brothers lacked vision beyond their operational concept in their one restaurant. It took Ray Kroc to vision the future, and after a few false starts he got it right and a whole industry was born. My business partner spends a lot of time in China and frequently comments that McDonald’s is for many Chinese the first impression they have of America. It also is resulting in a lot of fat little Chinese kids!

All this is interesting, but you may be wondering how incontinence products, shower curtain rods and fast food is related?  Well they are…and they aren’t. Shower curtain rods and McDonalds both offered real innovation and changed the basis of competition in their respective categories.

What we have seen for nearly two decades in the incontinence category doesn’t come close to meeting these standards.  In fact, it is my opinion that we are in a ‘crisis of incrementalism’ and just at a time when the number of people who will need incontinence products will be at an all time high. So, I’ll offer some thoughts that might go towards stimulating some imagination and also unveil a new idea that we at CenterBrain Partners have had the privilege of being a part of.

I’m old enough to remember when television advertising for baby diapers focused on showing side by side stacks of diapers where ‘thicker was better.’ Johnson’s would compare themselves to the leading brand (Pampers) showing how much extra fluff they had. They also told parents (mom’s back then) on the package that no pins or plastic pants were needed!

That was in the early 1970s. In the latter part of the 1970s Kimberly-Clark, who is always searching for new bodily fluids to absorb, decided that they might try letting incontinence out of the closet like they did when they invented Kotex in the 1920s. Kotex was made using its latest invention at the time—cellucotton or wood pulp fiber rather than gauze. Kotex stood for ‘cotton texture’ or Ko + tex. 

Depend was first tested in Green Bay, WI, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The brand name was originally Conform. The reception wasn’t fantastic. AARP wouldn’t even accept advertising for the brand—they said it was too negative. Kimberly-Clark kept at it, added new products, changed the brand’s positioning and hired a well-known spokesperson and went on TV. The rest is history. Years went by with little real innovation until 1998 when pull-on underwear was introduced. That completely revolutionized the industry moving it from ‘adult diapers’ to a product which looked, fit and felt much more like “regular” underwear. I championed that innovation, against a lot of push back from senior leaders who were against funding the project. As they say, “good enough is almost always the enemy of great.”

Since the introduction in 1998 of Depend pull-on underwear, innovation has once again lagged. There have been new sizes added, names changed, new absorbencies added, many package graphic changes as new marketing people came and went, some new raw materials added and plenty of new advertising. The fundamental product, however, has mostly remained the same. It still doesn’t meet the No. 1 unmet consumer need which is enhancing dignity by providing normalcy. The normalcy comparison should always be made against 100% cotton underwear, but never is. Today’s products are nowhere close to regular underwear. For a category that is so large and growing, we should expect and demand more innovation. After all, the big companies are spending millions on R&D and expensive MBA talent. 

The Future - Thin is In
The concept of pulpless absorbent structures has been around for 20+ years.  While there have been some modest attempts to reduce or minimize the amount of pulp used, the issue of containing and controlling the SAP has been the major challenge. Moreover, all the manufacturers are tied to their expensive asset base which high cost unwinds and fiberizers on the front end of their machines.

I believe that in order to address the key consumer insight of dignity and normalcy, pulpless absorbents will be the next big thing, because they offer so many benefits. Here are just a few:
  • They greatly enhance dignity and normalcy because they can provide a fit and feel which is the closest thing to regular underwear you can buy.
  • They offer a cost which is the same or less to current products because they use fewer materials, which has an added benefit of helping meet the  Environmental Protection Agency’s  No. 1 objective - to reduce the amount of raw materials used to manufacture a product.
  • They significantly reduced logistics costs throughout the supply chain - less warehouse space for the manufacturer, less space and weight on trucks and less space where inventory is held (retailer warehouses). In 1993 when I was marketing director of the Huggies brand, we introduced Ultra Trim Huggies which were half as thick as existing Huggies and Pampers (.29” thickness vs. .54”). As a result of this change, Kimberly-Clark was able to cancel ordering 38 new semi trailers because of the reduced cube throughout their supply chain.
  • The smaller package footprint makes more efficient use of shelf space at brick and mortar retailers. 
  • For e-commerce retailers, where significant growth is taking place in incontinence and other personal care products, the lighter, smaller cube will allow much more efficient delivery direct to the home. This will help capitalize on the growing trend of regularly scheduled delivery such as Subscribe and Save by Amazon and Never Run Out offered by The CareGiver Partnership.
CenterBrain Partners, our 25-year-old positioning, innovation and go-to-market consultancy has been working with one of our partners for several years to bring such a product to market. When it was first revealed to us, we thought, “Wow, why didn’t we think of that? It’s so novel and simple - yet effective.” CenterBrain has done a significant amount of consumer research to develop the positioning and the go to market plan for this new product.  Consumer reaction has been the strongest of any product we’ve tested in 25 years.  The inventor and principals have really thought outside the box. 

Having lived through the introduction of Huggies UltraTrim, the most successful new disposable consumer product in history (according to IRI) and the introduction of Depend pull-on underwear which changed the basis of competition in the incontinence category, this new product in my opinion will do the same. A specific introductory date is still to be determined, but we are convinced this is the future.  We’re sure you will appreciate the imagination and vision and elegant simplicity of the idea. It’s right up there with the curved shower curtain rod and Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s, and something pretty exciting for a category that has been waiting to move beyond incrementalism to real innovation.

Tom Wilson is the former global president of Kimberly-Clark’s incontinence and feminine care business sectors, co-founder of The CareGiver Partnership, a national direct to consumer retailer of 450 incontinence products and since 2004, managing partner of CenterBrain Partners, Inc., a 25-year-old marketing consultancy specializing in the positioning of personal care products including incontinence, feminine and infant care products. He can be reached at twilson993@gmail.com or 920-205-1611.

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