How it began

At the outbreak of WW1, there was a huge demand for surgical dressings. Kimberly-Clark, a company started by Civil War Veterans in Wisconsin USA, supplied an absorbent cellulose material made from cotton waste. They also came up with a thin cotton based tissue to use in gas masks as a filter. War ended in 1918 leaving Kimberly-Clark with a pile of redundant material and no obvious use.

Cold cream used to protect people’s skin travelling outside on coaches or in open top cars was removed using towels. Kimberly-Clark were correct thinking a disposable towel made from leftover gas mask filter material could be a hit.

Launching the iconic Kleenex tissues as a disposable towel for removing cold cream this changed later despite resistance from some quarters in the company becoming a disposable handkerchief.

Glamourous Hollywood stars recruited to endorse Kleenex included Jean Harlow, Gertrude Lawrence and Ronald Colman. By 1926, disposable tissues were still not catching on as fast as expected. Taking a new marketing direction, the product re-named Kleenex Absorbent Kerchiefs halved in price and given another push. However, a price reduction did not do it so attention turned to packaging. Coming up with a revolutionary pop-up box serving up one tissue at a time, this still did not meet expectations. 

Kimberly Clark had its roots in paper manufacturing and not the world of health and beauty. In the business world, focussed on delivering a high level of service and unused to a very fickle consumer market. With hindsight it is clear they did not really understand the product they were trying to sell referenced by the three name changes in less than six years.


Undeterred, next came a new marketing campaign using split advertising (I had not realised this technique was so old!) Now called Kleenex Cleansing Tissues. Two adverts were designed one for make-up removal and one for a disposable handkerchief. Both adverts were full page and identical in size and layout offering a free box of Kleenex. The difference was in the headlines. First advert said, “We pay to prove there is no way like Kleenex to remove cold cream.” The second advert said, “We pay to prove Kleenex is wonderful for handkerchiefs.” This test revealed over sixty percent of the respondents used Kleenex as disposable handkerchiefs.

At last, the company had the answer and knew what they were making. Changing marketing and advertising, they went hard at the healthcare market dominated by products for relieving colds and flu. Families learned through large advertisements that Kleenex tissues will stop the spread of germs, using headlines such as, “Don’t put a cold in your pocket.” This one headline alone doubled sales in one year!

Less than two decades after the launch of Kleenex it became an established brand changing the way we use handkerchiefs forever. From industrial paper supplier to multi-billion dollar consumer products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark prepared to fail more than once.

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