Craig Wanous, Bob Thibault and Deb Bauer, Huggies

Imagine walking into the office one day and finding out that (good news!) nearly everybody on the focus group you assembled was familiar with your brand. Now for the bad news: They also all thought it was best not to use it.

That branding nightmare is pretty much what Craig Wanous, senior brand manager for Huggies, faced two years ago. Wanous, 39, had convened a mommy focus group in the hopes of finding out how to improve Kimberly-Clark’s bestselling diaper. Instead, the mothers essentially told him that, sorry, their babies were happiest when they weren’t wearing diapers at all.

Rejection is never easy, except that Wanous did not see the findings as a rejection. In fact, where other marketers might have thought about burying the data, Wanous saw it as buried treasure. “When mothers took the diapers off,” he recalled, “the babies got up and ran around. They were so happy. That was our core insight: Could we make a diaper that was close to being literally naked while still offering protection?”

Such aspirations may not be akin to, say, putting a man on the moon, but that didn’t make R&D’s task easy. In the world of diaper engineering, protection means padding—and padding, in this case, ran contrary to the “naked” objective. Or, as Kimberly-Clark’s North American president for personal care Bob Thibault, 50, described it: The challenge was to come up with something that was lightweight and prevented the escape of what he referred to as “stuff.”

“If we fail in leakage protection, it doesn’t matter how comfortable the diaper is,” Wanous said. “Moms will drop it.”

The result was Huggies Supreme Natural Fit, a diaper that solved both the weight and “stuff” problems with its signature “shape” technology, which included a die-cut inner absorbing padding that contours to the baby. (The “internal surge layer,” in company parlance, is not new, but Kimberly-Clark perfected a way to make it thinner without sacrificing absorbancy.)

With that came a second problem, one that more directly confronted Wanous and his branding team: Educating mothers about what shape technology was. That, in turn, called for a marketing campaign. And what object did Kimberly-Clark’s marketers use to convey the gentle, sinuous, cradling effects of shape technology? A brick, of course.

The Real Bottom Line
“Brick Baby,” as the campaign came to be known, was based on a simple premise: Not all diapers are created equal. Or, in the case of Huggies Supreme Natural Fit, the expression might be better summed up as: Not all diapers are shaped (but ours are.)

What’s that got to do with a chunk of masonry? Well, think of what a regular diaper looks like clad to the bottom of a sitting baby. It’s heavy. It’s clunky. It’s not shaped. A 30-second ad created with the help of JWT, New York, showed two mothers out with their little ones in a playground. Baby No. 1, whose Huggies Supreme Natural Fit diaper features contours running along both leg openings and a special absorbent padding that’s 10% thinner compared to Huggies Supreme diapers, is light as a tissue. Baby No. 2, meanwhile, is not really a baby. Mom, you see, has brought a red brick to the playground.

The gag is clear when a hand model places the brick into the crotch of a traditional diaper, which, of course, fits it perfectly. (Voiceover: “If your baby happens to be a [sound of brick], other diapers are the perfect shape. New Huggies Natural Fit are shaped for babies of the human variety.”) Implied, but still fearfully present, was the brick’s suggestion of how a regular diaper would behave with a fresh load of “stuff.” Point taken.

“We used sophisticated humor to engage the Generation Y moms who are turned off to sweet, old-fashioned humor,” Thibault said. Huggies’ global brand development director Deb Bauer added that the unseemly combination of a diaper and a brick, while raising some eyebrows at Kimberly-Clark, is what caused the ads to resonate with mothers, as testing later proved. “Moms got it,” said Bauer, 48. “They appreciated the light-hearted humor and the more pragmatic and down-to-earth approach.”

For her part, Bauer said the spots were a refreshing break from what she referred to as “idealist baby advertising,” an eerily Marxist term for what would soon erupt into a cold war all its own. Claiming the ad was a direct attack on its Pampers and Luvs brands, rival Procter & Gamble sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against that ad in October 2007. When a judge denied the request, P&G tried again eight months later, only to be turned down a second time. The court ruled that K-C’s “natural fit” theme was consistent in all the ads, although it obviously rubbed its competitor the wrong way.

No matter. Sales for Huggies Supreme Natural Fit have so far hit $171 million, according to data from IRI (which does not include Wal-Mart sales) ending the week of July 13. Dollar sales for the 52-week period ending then rose 65% for that time period. Not bad for the $18 million Kimberly-Clark spent to advertise the brand (excluding online spending) in 2007, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

As a marketing theme, “Brick Baby” was, in terms of its impact, more like a brick thrown through a window. In addition to the TV spots, print ads ran in leading mommy-mag titles American Baby, Baby Talk and Child while Web ads appeared on sites like Cafémom and As part of its push to reach millennial moms, Kimberly-Clark added “Shape Matters” to its Web site, a game of skill that involved hunting for curved-shaped nursery objects. The cheekiest move might have come when Wanous’ team sent direct mail cutouts shaped like a diaper that recipients could unfold to find coupons. (Mercifully, Kimberly-Clark omitted the “stuff.”)

“We knew the product would be a winner in the market, but it was the marketing that had to bring the idea of ‘shape’ to life,” explained Bauer. “We had to do it in a visual way. Just talking about it wasn’t enough.”

Up from Behind
While it may seem as though Supreme Natural Fit has taken diaper technology about as far as it’s meant to go, Wanous, Thibault and Bauer are not finished. New creative will break later this year, promising to echo the humor of “Brick Baby.”

It’ll have to push a creative envelope that’s already been pushed pretty far. Making “Brick Baby” look tame by comparison was “Geyser,” a new ad via JWT, New York, that debuted in May. While the Huggies name appears briefly, the spot aims to reinforce the power of the brand by demonstrating its obviously superior leakage protection.

And aim, it does. The spot features a father who, each time he removes his infant son’s diaper, endures a stream of pee in places where you just don’t want such a thing: The pillow, the alarm clock and his face. Poor dad.

While some might consider scatological humor to be beneath the blue-chip reputation of Kimberly-Clark, the truth is that ejectamenta is no longer marketing taboo. Recent TV spots for Charmin Ultra, owned by K-C rival Procter & Gamble, used a family of animated bears to discuss the noisome problem of toilet tissue that “leaves pieces behind” after wiping. Paul Leinwand, a vp at the Chicago office of Booz & Co., applauds Huggies’ marketing team for its fearlessness as well as its creativity. “It’s bold,” he said of the “Brick Baby” spot. “They concretely link the overall brand proposition (moms, comfort) to a simple analogy (the brick) to demonstrate a meaningfully advantaged product. They’ve done well here.”

Huggies’ intends to keep doing well. Wanous said the experience has taught him never to underestimate the power of the diaper. “When I first came to the diaperland in 2005, I thought, ‘Huggies are so simple. It’s just a diaper. There’s not much to them.’ But when you see the innovation process required to bring something like Natural Fit to life, you’re blown away,” he said. Blown away, like the dad trying to change his power-bladder son in that TV spot? Hopefully not.

Photo by Jason Boyer