How it began

Imagine you have to plan a campaign for a retail consumer product half the population needs but you cannot advertise in mainstream press. Most wholesalers and retailers refuse to stock it and the ones that do cannot display it keeping it in their stock room.

Your prospective customers are too embarrassed to ask for it. For the purpose of this scenario, imagine you had limited access to direct marketing and no internet. This is your challenge and to find out how to achieve it read on!

At the onset of WW1, a call went out for large quantities of surgical dressing. A new innovative product called Cellucotton, made using wood pulp by US Company Kimberly Clark was offered to help the war effort. With an absorbency, five times greater than cotton, resistant to infection at a cost half as much as cotton dressings. By the end of the war Kimberly Clark were running two dedicated new mills producing huge quantities of Cellucotton. During WW1, nurses in France used Cellucotton as a convenient form of sanitary towel. This disposable method of dealing with menstruation caught on quickly. The American Fund for the French Wounded, who worked closely with Kimberly Clark, suggested the company market Cellucotton commercially as sanitary towels.

Sanitary towels, pads, disposable napkins became available in the late nineteenth century from the Hartmann Company in Germany, and Johnson & Johnson in the United States. With a huge amount of Cellucotton available at the end of the war, by 1920 Kimberly Clark produced their first sanitary towel product, unaware of the uphill struggles ahead.

Surrounded by myths menstruation rarely became a topic for conversation. Victorian values still prevailed making this very subject taboo. Many women did not talk about “it” with their own daughters who must have been shocked when they experienced their first period. In the 1920’s dealing with menstruation was very basic by modern day standards in the affluent West. Women reused felt or linen cloths, which they washed out as best they could and used month after month. This gave rise to the expression “Don’t wash your dirty linen in public.” Clearly, a huge latent market existed however, no company had commercialised sanitary towels before.

Whilst Kimberly Clark were committed to producing this new range of consumer products. Due to the sensitivity surrounding the marketing of sanitary towels, they decided to keep their distance by forming a new company called International Cellucotton Corporation as their consumer products division. Branded Cellunap a name that did not reflect its purpose. Ironically, women everywhere wanted this product but no one would talk about “it” including the company selling “it.”

Appointing an advertising agency who immediately recommended changing the brand name to Kotex, which stands for cotton textile. A small number of specialist journals accepted advertising with strong headlines such as “To Save Men’s Lives Science Discovered Kotex (Cotton Textile) A Wonderful, Sanitary Absorbent” targeting hospitals and nurses who accepted the concept of disposable towels. Nowhere did the adverts explain Kotex’s purpose. Marketing to the medical profession, doctors, nurses, administrators was expensive and a relatively small audience. No one had advertised sanitary towels in women’s consumer magazines considered the better option. Since publishers were reticent to carry the adverts, they had to invent them as a type of news story. In the 20’s women’s magazines were as powerful as TV Soaps are today. They provided advice and guidance an ideal place to launch Kotex. The advertising agency recommended eight pages in top selling magazine Home Journal to kick-start the campaign. Unfortunately, the publishers refused to accept the advertising.

Adverts published by other magazines were equally vague; tiptoeing around the fact they were selling sanitary towels. Unsurprisingly these were just as ineffective as earlier promotions. One particular campaign describe two nurses each side of a man in a wheelchair. A woman, presumably wife or sweetheart, is standing close by. The main strapline read, “At stores and shops that cater to women,” A paragraph stressed Kotex’s war service, yet did not mention the medical connection to nurses. In small type at the bottom of the advert, they offered twelve sanitary towels post-paid for sixty-five cents and a list of shops that sold Kotex.

The advertising was a disaster adding nothing to help women overcome their embarrassment asking for Kotex in stores where it was on sale. Few pharmacists would stock the item and those that did kept it out of sight. A Woolworths store placed Kotex in their shop window then quickly removed the display following protests by a men’s organisation in San Francisco.


Kimberly-Clark was trying to change customer habits. Magazines would not advertise this taboo product, retailers would not stock it and women, the natural target market, refused to talk about “it.”

Direct mail was restricted to those women who responded to advertisements receiving a sample of Kotex. With the choice of media unsuitable for the product, virtually no pharmacies or stores willing to promote the brand it come as no surprise they were feeling the heat in the sales department. One understated internal memo described, “Sales were discouragingly slow.” Threatened with failure Kimberly Clark reviewed the strategy. Not yet ready to call it a day they badly needed a success.

It was apparent their advertising was not working and a new agency with specialist knowledge of the medical sector recruited. In the new team are Lasker and Hopkins, two men with experience selling medicines.

Recognising Kotex as a hygiene, healthcare product was the key component selling sanitary towels. Lasker and Hopkins proposed a healthcare intermediary could knock down barriers surrounding menstruation revealing the true purpose of Kotex.

With past success, Hopkins helped change the image of Palmolive soap from hand-wash to a beauty product. This is what they did for Kotex.

A fictitious character (see footnote) called Nurse Ellen Buckland became the all-important intermediary. She acted as the conduit channelling women’s problems, increasing their awareness of disposable sanitary towels such as Kotex. New advertising described issues related to menstruation. Ellen J. Buckland, Registered Nurse, always appeared at the end of each feature. For women whom rarely had any chance to discuss their periods, Nurse Buckland provided the reassuring professional voice. Doctors and Nurses had the gravitas and authority the public respected. Women readers were able to consult Nurse Buckland, their letters answered sympathetically by Kimberly Clark staff. Replies sent in Nurse Buckland’s name included booklets signed by her.

Here at last was genuine help for women who did not have access to even the most basic information. Having made contact with Nurse Buckland readers had new confidence to confide in real nurses during routine visits to their clinics and hospitals, asking them for advice. Kimberly-Clark made sure nurses were aware of Kotex, by sending samples and literature to the medical profession. Nurse Buckland was a masterstroke. Women who were previously too shy to seek information or to request a sample of Kotex felt able to do so.

The next phase of the campaign was to make it very quick and easy for women to purchase the product in chemists and drug stores. Kotex was produced in unmarked packages and retailers encouraged to display these in such a way all the customer had to do was deposit fifty cents in a box take a packet and leave the store. Specialist pharmacies that did home deliveries were encouraged to stock Kotex and vending machines produced for women’s toilets.

The final accolade came in 1926 when mail order company Montgomery Ward featured Kotex in their mail order catalogue. After five years of expensive failed marketing campaigns by a company with no experience of brands in consumer markets they hit the jackpot. Women were buying sanitary towels in their millions able to choose from a huge range of new brands. In 1928, Nurse Buckland was retired from the campaigns and replaced by fashionable images of well dressed women.

This story is probably as extreme as it gets for most new product launches but just goes to show that by perseverance and choosing the right partners early on it is possible to overcome the most challenging obstacles you can imagine.

Foot Note: I now learn that a real nurse did exist called Ellen Buckland. In 1920, she worked as a nurse at a Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Then later on crops up again in 1930 aged about 50 years old, living in Wisconsin and working for a paper mill. Kimberly Clark’s paper mills were of course located in Wisconsin!

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