Updated: Jan 16, 2019
I've been spending a lot of time in the diaper aisle lately.
My boss makes me go.
Don't let the cute grin fool you. He's a very demanding boss, and one of his big demands is diapers. Lots and lots of diapers. And, as a new dad, I want my son to have the very best. Or at least the pretty darn good.
Which brings me to Pampers. I shop often at Sam's and Costco, and while they produce their own Member's Choice and Kirkland's store brands (in survival-bunker quantity packaging), I want my little guy to have name-brand diapers. I want the good stuff. I want Pampers.
Some people are Huggies people, some are Pampers. Either way, since I was little I've known the Pampers brand. It's a very strong brand name, with decades of brand equity.
Now, are Pampers really functionally better than Huggies or Kirkland or Member's Choice diapers? It doesn't matter, because I believe that they are. And that's what matters when the consumer selects a product and makes a purchasing decision.
In fact, the word Pampers is almost synonymous with diapers in my mind. Al Ries would be proud.
But recently something happened that made me question the quality of the Pampers brand. And who made me question it? Pampers itself.
It happened on a trip to Wal Mart. After patiently waiting a mini-eternity for another father to finally make a decision and clear out of the diaper aisle, I stepped up and took my turn staring at the Great Wall of Diapers. Lots and lots of choices. No wonder the other guy took forever. But I was confident of a quick trip because I knew exactly what I wanted... Pampers.
And then I saw it.
Pampers Pure Protection.
My first reaction was "Is something wrong with regular Pampers?"
I thought Pampers were the good ones. I thought I was doing the right thing in getting Pampers instead of the store brand. Pampers already felt like the upgrade.
But, in an instant, Pampers Pure Protection actually made me feel bad about regular Pampers, like maybe I wasn't doing the right thing by buying them. As in, maybe regular Pampers are OK but if you really love your kid and want the best you'll upgrade to Pampers Pure Protection.
Instead of my quick in-and-out diaper mission for Pampers, I now had my own bewildered look, just like the other dumb son-of-a-gun who wouldn't make a decision and get out of the damned diaper aisle so I could get in. After weeks of no more than three hours sleep at a time, my fuzzy brain was stumped on what to do.
Pampers Pure claims "0% Chlorine Bleaching." Am I bleaching my poor kid's bum with regular Pampers?
Pampers Pure claims to be "hypoallergenic." Am I the one causing skin irritation to my kid?
Is my child suffering diaper rash because I am too cheap to buy good diapers? Is that why he cries?
I thought I was buying good diapers!
What's wrong with Pampers?
That's probably not the reaction the marketing consultants were hoping for when they pitched their plan, but that's the one they got.
After a few minutes of mental anguish over how much I love my kid vs. newly adjusted perceptions of diaper quality, I bought the regular Pampers just like I had planned. And literally felt bad about it... like I had done something wrong.
Now, I'm sure that sales of Pampers Pure Protection looked great at first. After all, going from zero sales before they were launched to some decent number afterward looks fantastic on a percentage basis early on.
But where do the sales of Pampers Pure Protection actually come from? From Huggies? From Kirkland's? Maybe some, but more than likely, the majority come directly from people who were already buying regular Pampers anyway.
Did sales for ALL Pampers product lines go up meaningfully?
Did Pampers take meaningful new market share overall?
And at what cost? How many hundreds of millions were spent on marketing?
And how long will it take for the Huggies crew to come up with Huggies Ultra Perfect Deluxe Platinum or some such brand name once they see Pampers Pure? A millisecond?
If there was no established category leader for high-end diapers, then there was room for a higher end brand to become the category leader in the luxury end of the diaper market. What the Pampers crew should have done is create a new luxury brand name and product to capture that market segment. But by milking the brand equity of the regular Pampers brand name to launch Pampers Pure Protection, they hurt the brand image of regular Pampers and wasted fortunes on marketing that will not meaningfully increase sales or market share overall.
In fact, because Pampers was already firmly established as the diaper brand leader in my mind, the Pure Protection line did the one thing that no amount of advertising from Huggies could ever have done - made me question the quality of Pampers. And they did it to themselves.