Bottoms Up: Pampers Takes on China


How to sell disposable diapers in a country that doesn’t see the need? Indeed, babies in China still mostly wear kaidangku, colorful, buttless baby pants that Chinese toddlers begin wearing at six months, for a squat-as-nature-calls regimen.

That was Procter & Gamble’s challenge in China. In fact, P&G’s ambitious strategy is to add 1 billion new customers by 2015. That’s 500,000 each day, assuming it can convince emerging markets in India and China to adopt disposables.

P&G introduced Pampers to China in 1998, facing the daunting challenge of a nation where parents typically pamper their state-sanctioned one child – a policy, by the way, that may be easing up.[more]

“We’ve been in China since 1988. We’re only in about 14 categories. We lead all of them but one,” Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald recently commented. “But the spending per capita in China is only $3 a year on Procter & Gamble products.”

McDonald compared that to the U.S., where P&G products lead in over 25 categories, with per capita spending of $100 annually.

Western consumer goods must be introduced very carefully in new markets such as China, where a behavioral change precedes a successful consumer market. Terms like “reverse innovation” or “glocalization” do not apply – actual reverse market engineering is required.

Enter the genius of the P&G marketing engine: “Golden Sleep,” a campaign Pampers launched in 2007 replete with carnivals and in-store displays on a massive scale in China’s major urban cities – with a viral invitation on a Chinese website. Parents were encouraged to submit photos of their babies asleep, and the resulting 200,000 were incorporated into a 660-meter billboard in a Shanghai mega-store.

And then came the “science” of a marketing message, as Chinese parents were told that wearing Pampers would yield results that benefit child and parents: “Baby Sleeps with 50% Less Disruption’ and ‘Baby Falls Asleep 30% Faster.'”

This pitch was based on research done at Beijing Children’s Hospital’s Sleep Research Centre. Karl Gerth, Oxford Ph.D., and versed in Chinese consumerism told, “You don’t want to come off as paternalistic. The idea that Pampers brings a scientific backing and gives children an edge in their environment — that’s a brilliant way to stand out from the competition.”

P&G also engaged in initiatives to help schools and orphanages, promoting social responsibility and opportunities for children at the grassroots level.

As a result, Pampers is now the number one best-selling disposable diaper in China — and kaidangku pants, it seems, a fading memory. Indeed, P&G’s overall performance in China is expected to boost its quarterly performance.

While China’s population is poised to take off as the one-child policy relaxes, there’s a growing opportunity for P&G and other marketers with child-centric brands.

That said, it also waves a red flag for environmental advocates, who will be watching to see the impact of all those disposable diapers in the world’s most heated economy for Western goods and customs.


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