Thank you competition !

One concrete case where just a bit of product competition changed the life of millions of women.

I remember very well when, as a young “brand manager” in Procter & Gamble France I was tasked with the top priority project of the year: introducing the ‘Always”brand of sanitary pads in France. Not only was the brand totally unknown in France, but we had to face a very solid competition : the local leading brand,Vania, held about 40% of the market with a great consumers image and strong in store presence. The second brand, Nana, had also a very good position and tended to attract the younger women with a more ‘playful’ brand image and less ‘medical’ packagings.

After 15 years of test marketing Always in the South of France with average results, one of our top European executives of the time had decided that we had lost enough time hesitating. We would launch the new ‘Always’ range in France and the rest of Europe, even though we hadn’t discovered the perfect marketing mix in the test market yet. Let me mention to make the challenge a little bit ‘spicier’ that we had to launch with a significant price premium vs the market leader to ensure profitability. Also our target for year 1 was to capture 15% of the total market. This may sound relatively low for the tech people used to explosive growth, but in mature consumer markets it is an incredibly stretched goal.

I won’t go into all the details of how we managed to ,not only meet, but even exceed this target and achieve a 18% market share in Year 1. We had decided to win the challenge to innovate in the launch marketing mix as much as possible and, yes, we had an important budget to support our ambitious plan. We innovated in a lot of different ways, for instance we launched the first testimonial TV ad in this fairly ‘taboo” category, with for the first time ever a woman talking about her periods (and saying the word loud) in national prime time TV advertising.

All these marketing mix innovations were meant to serve our most important innovation : the product itself.

In line with Procter & Gamble all time belief that only a superior product will command premium pricing, the Always range of sanitary pads benefited from significant product upgrades versus the products sold so far in the French market . For the first time ever Always offered extra-thin but still highly absorbent pads, a great gain in comfort vs existing very thick pads from competition. (I know I am maybe giving too much information for some of the readers, but for the ones who are not familiar with using sanitary napkins, this is important to realize what it could mean for a woman to wear these products 3–5 days a month, every month of every year from about 12–13 years old to about 55). Always also proposed for the first time ever in the French market small ‘wings” on each side of the pads, which allowed the pads to better stick to the undergarments and better stay in place when you move. Last but not least we were very proud of the Always unique top-sheet, designed to leave a nice “clean” feeling on the skin.

How was this flood (pun non intended) of product innovation possible ?

Quite simply, via years of R&D to improve Always in the US and in Asia, as well as by leveraging same types of technological upgrades as P&G’s Pampers baby diapers. Baby diapers technology and product performance had strongly improved over the last years, with each competing manufacturer trying to launch every 6 months the ultimate new product upgrade. (for those who may remember it was the time of the “New Ultra Pampers” keeping babies drier-and happier- than “Ultra Pampers” launched 6 months before and keeping babies much drier-and much happier- than the Pampers products existing before the Ultra version).

What happened after the French launch of Always ?

Suddenly our local competitors, the leading brand and the number 2 brand of which we were so afraid also started to improve their product range. They launched ultra-thin products fro the first time. They added “wings” to some of their sanitary napkins. They improved the fabric used for their top sheet. In less than 6 months the women hygiene product performance and comfort ,which had not changed for years, suddenly improved by a 10X factor …and reached a similar technology level as the highly battled baby diapers market.

Why were the existing leading brands unable to improve the products before ?

Is this because only Procter & Gamble had access to the right technology ? This does not seem likely as the leading competitive local brand was produced by a company also operating in the US and the second brand belonged to a Swedish paper group also selling high performing baby diapers. The fact that both brands reacted so quickly tot eh launch of Always is another indication that the issue was probably not a lack of technological or product capabilities.

No, the sad reality is that both existing leading brands did not feel any need to upgrade their product before a better performing competitive product was introduced in the market.

In the 10 years before Always launch, nobody did the effort to improve such essential products for women, just because the women were not complaining as they had no idea that they could have a much better performance and comfort. When preparing the Always launch we had also uncovered the very interesting “consumer insight” that women , when they encountered a performance issue with their sanitary pad, tended to blame themselves and think they hadn’t used it properly instead of blaming the product.

Stepping back, I am proud to have participated to this launch which truly has enhanced the quality of life of millions of women, even though I am not naive enough to think it was the reason why we have decided to launch. This is an interesting case if someone needs the proof that competition is good for the consumers and ultimately for the business. It is also the illustration that you should not wait for your competitor to innovate, but strive for ensuring the best possible product performance for all your users, all the time. Putting all our efforts (and our pride) in ensuring a superior product, even in the less differentiated consumer goods market, is one of the lessons I have learned from my time with Procter & Gamble and that I try to never forget, even now that I work at Google on very different types of products. Offering a really amazing users experience is still crucial to success. You could say that the tech culture of launching products in beta goes in the same direction of trying to improve users experience as fast as possible and recognizing that it’s never 100% accomplished.

Always continues to innovate with the “like a girl” campaign…but that’s another story

PS : If you liked this story and want to read more on brands, marketing, psychology, women, literature, YouTube, internet, digital, cross cultural, teenagers, France, Europe, California heroic fantasy, super heroes, literature and other very interesting topics PLEASE PLEASE recommend this story and add your comments

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