Most new products are the results of trying to solve a problem. But sometimes innovations come as a result of having too much of something and trying to find a purpose for it.
Kimberly-Clark had been making paper in Wisconsin since 1872. In 1914, they hired a paper technician named Ernst Mahler to develop new products. A recent graduate from technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, Mahler had studied cellulose chemistry. He set up a laboratory across the street from Kimberly-Clark headquarters and convinced company president J.C. Kimberly to accompany him to Germany to check out some new products that had been developed over there, including a fluffy paper wadding product that absorbed liquids better than cotton.
While Mahler and Kimberly were in Germany, World War I broke out. They cut their trip short and hurried back to the United States with enough samples and formulae to begin developing their own version of the wadding material. Mahler tested a variety of native wood pulps before deciding that spruce trees yielded the longest and most absorbent fibers.
As the war got going in full swing, a cotton shortage developed, giving Kimberly-Clark a ready market for their new product. “Cellucotton,” so called because it was like cotton but made from wood cellulose, was used as pads in bandages, filters in gas masks, and stuffing for emergency jackets. When America entered the war, Kimberly-Clark patriotically decided they’d sell Cellucotton to the War Department and Red Cross at no profit.
When the war ended abruptly, Kimberly-Clark had partially-filled orders for 750,000 pounds of Cellucotton for the war effort. Kimberly-Clark allowed the orders to be cancelled without penalty, leaving the company with a huge surplus. Worse, the Army also had a large surplus of Cellucotton – and began selling it to civilian hospitals for a ridiculously low price, killing the market. The company floundered around for new uses for the product until two good ones dropped in its lap.
One of Kimberly-Clark’s grateful nonprofit wartime customers had been the American Fund for the French Wounded. An official of the organization knew that Kimberly-Clark’s business had been hurt by canceled war orders and passed on some helpful information: During the war, French nurses had tried using Cellucotton during their periods and found that they made excellent sanitary pads in that they didn’t have to he washed but could be disposed of. Might American women be ready for a new product of this sort?
Up to that time, menstrual pads were made of felt and had to be washed after every use. they were never spoken of in public. Still, doing some extensive but very discreet market research, the company determined that women hated the felt pads and would very much welcome an alternative. So, early in 1920, Kimberly-Clark began marketing the first disposable sanitary napkin under the less-than-catchy name “Cellunaps.”
Menstrual products had never been commercially displayed or advertised. Cellunaps were too sensitive to be place in public display, and so stayed behind the druggists’ counter. Company marketers found that customers were embarrassed to ask their pharmacists for Cellunaps because of the “naps” part of the name (short for “napkins”). The company decided to change the name to one that was meaningless – that would not reveal anything in a crowded drugstore. They coined the word Kotex.
Even with the name change and unrevealing package, many retailers insisted that the company take the extra step of wrapping the box in unprinted brown paper so that even the Kotex name would be hidden.
While Kimberly-Clark could see the need for discreet marketing, officials at the company refused to wrap the product. They were spending millions of dollars for advertising in women’s magazines and felt that the product should be treated like any other consumer product. They encouraged retailer to take Kotex out from behind the counters and put it on display. It took a few years, but eventually most retailers got with the program.
Meanwhile, letters to the company poured in, mostly favorable. Some women, however, asked questions that showed a deep ignorance of their bodies and the menstrual process. Kimberly-Clark beefed up its Education Division and began mailing out information packs, including a pamphlet called “Marjorie May’s 12th Birthday,” which met with a torrent of criticism from religious leaders, self-styled moralists and others who believed that too much knowledge was a dangerous thing. Several states specifically banned “Marjorie May” and other similar mailings as being too sexually explicit. But women, unable to get the information elsewhere, continued ordering them, and eventually, the bans were lifted. Kimberly-Clark also worked with the Disney Company to create a color movie, The Story of Menstruation for schools, which has been seen by over 70 million kids.
By 1939, use of the reusable felt pads was down to 20%. During World War II, large numbers of women entered the labor pool. Kimberly-Clark, in the spirit of patriotism and good marketing, made it a highest priority – despite war shortages – that war plants were well-equipped with Kotex feminine napkins. By 1947, use of old washable felt pads was down to less than 1%.
Meanwhile, Kimberly-Clark decided to try manufacturing Cellucotton in thin sheets. Kleenex was the result. But they misjudged the market and almost had a flop.
Printed on the first boxes, each containing a hundred Cellucotton sheets, was “Kleenex Sanitary Cold Cream Remover.” Kimberly-Clark thought that it had found a niche market as a disposable cloth for removing makeup and cold cream. It hadn’t even occurred to them that the soft little sheets might have more universal uses as well.
One problem was the price: 65 cents per box – high at the time. Marketers then aimed for an upscale crowd, associating the Kleenex with wealth, glamour and the theatrical crowd. The company sent promotional samples to makeup artists in Hollywood and then tried to capitalize on the fact that the best Hollywood stylists used the new “scientific way to remove cold cream.” Company advertisements showed movie stars using the tissues after a long day of shooting movies. Despite the hype, the tissues achieved only lukewarm sales.
The Kimberly-Clark marketing people kept trying. They invented a way to make tissues pop up automatically by shuffling tow piles overlapping tissues together like a deck of cards. They introduced colors. But whatever they did, the marketplace yawned, and sales stayed flat.
In 1930, a desperate marketing department decided to go and see why Kleenex was not playing in Peoria. In fact, they literally went to Peoria, Illinois, with clipboards and a series of questions, asking people if they had any suggestions, comments, ideas, hints – anything. they were surprised to discover that nearly two-thirds of the people in Peoria who bought Kleenex used them as disposable handkerchiefs, not as make-up removers.
The marketers headed back to the main office and immediately changed their advertising to reflect this newly discovered use. “Don’t put a cold in your pocket!” said one ad. “During colds, smother sneezes with Kleenex Tissues! Use once, then destroy, germs and all.” The same ad also suggested using Kleenex tissues as a filter in the coffee maker. “Now my coffee’s clearer – my husband’s happier!” Within two years sales increased four-fold. Kleenex – appropriately considering all the tears and sniffling in the genre – became the sponsor of the first radio soap opera, The Story of Mary Marlin.
Although Kleenex was the first commercial tissue, they weren’t the first use of paper for noses. The 17th century Japanese used hanagam (“sneezing paper”), which was just regular paper that they crumpled repeatedly until soft. In 1637, an English visitor wrote, “They blow their noses with a certain soft and tough kind of paper which they carry about them in small pieces, which having been used, they fling away as a filthy thing.”