During WWI there was tremendous demand for bandages and sterile dressings for Allied wounded on the Western Front. The US company, Kimberly-Clark, developed a new cotton-like material from wood-pulp. It was highly absorbent. They manufactured this in large quantities to supply gas-mask filters and field dressings. When the war ended in 1918 the company was left with large stocks of materials which the military no longer needed. A salesman at the company, Walter Luecke, did some lateral thinking and read through letters from nurses who had served in the front-line field hospitals to find out if they had put the dressings to any alternate uses. The nurses had reported that the gas-mask filter fibres were often used as face-wipes and disposable handkerchiefs. From this insight Kimberly-Clark went on to develop and market Kleenex tissues.
Furthermore, the female clinicians reported that the field dressings were really useful at the time of month when a woman had her period. Based on this intelligence, the company developed and marketed a new product, Kotex, as the first commercial sanitary towel. Before that innovation women throughout history had used rags and cloths during menstruation – often with unsatisfactory results. Many women just did not go out when they had periods.
In October 1919, the Woolworth’s department store in Chicago sold the first box of Kotex pads. The marketing executives at Kimberly-Clark realised that there was a huge potential market for their new product but they faced a problem. Because nothing like it had existed before they had to advertise it – but menstruation was a taboo subject. It might prove highly embarrassing for a woman to ask a store assistant (many of whom were men) for such a product. They advertised in women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping with the slogan ‘Kotex – Ask for it by Name.’ The adverts explained in generic terms the usefulness of ‘sanitary napkins.’
Even so, prudishness was a major obstacle to the promotion of the product. Many magazines hesitated to run adverts concerning something so unmentionable. Edward Bok, publisher of the highly influential Ladies Home Journal, banned the adverts from his range of magazines. Kimberly-Clark’s advertising agency was Lord and Thomas whose CEO was Albert Lasker, a legendary figure in the history of advertising. Lasker visited Edward Bok and tried to persuade him to change his mind, but Bok was adamant. Finally, Lasker took a gamble. He asked Bok to call in his secretary and ask her if she found anything offensive or embarrassing in the advert. Bok summoned his secretary – a rather prim and proper woman of about 60. She carefully read the copy and then turned to her boss and said, ‘This is wonderful. Women deserve to be told about it.’ Bok’s objections were overcome, and Kotex went on to become extremely successful. It is sold worldwide by Kimberly-Clark to this day.
Innovators should listen to customers to find new applications for their products. And they can sometimes overcome resistance by playing a game and taking a gamble.
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Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane