How Procter & Gamble brought the Diaper Revolution to China

Chinese split pants called ‘kaidangku’

My friend Esther, who lived in China for several years  when her children were tiny, once showed me a photograph taken inside the local train station near her home there.  I asked about the countless puddles of water dotting the station’s vast expanse of tile flooring.  “Oh, that’s not water. It’s pee!” she explained. It’s how I first learned about kaidangku — colourful little open-crotch pants that let Chinese children squat and relieve themselves in any open area, whenever the urge strikes.

So let’s imagine that you are Procter & Gamble, manufacturers of disposable diapers called Pampers, and you’d love to break into the lucrative potential diaper market in China.

When Procter & Gamble set out to sell Pampers in China more than a decade ago, it faced a daunting marketing challenge, according to a BNet Media report last month.

P&G didn’t just have to persuade parents that its disposable diapers were the best. It had to persuade many of them that they needed diapers at all. The diaper just wasn’t part of the cultural norm for many Chinese babies.

In China, potty training for little children often begins as early as six months of age.  In the meantime, babies may wear cloth diapers, but in many cases, no diaper at all. How could Procter & Gamble possibly convince all those Chinese mothers to start buying Pampers?  

And that question, says Bruce Brown, in charge of P&G’s $2 billion R&D budget, is why China presented — and still presents — such a huge marketing opportunity.

Today, after 10 years of exhaustive research and plenty of missteps, Pampers is now the No. 1-selling diaper in China, and the company, in many ways, is just getting started there. The diaper market stands at $1.4 billion – only one quarter the size of the North American market – but is projected to grow 40% over the next few years.

In fact, last October, P&G’s CEO Bob McDonald laid out a plan to add one billion customers over the next five years by promoting P&G brands throughout some of the poorest corners of the world. India, for example, represents their biggest marketing potential with current annual Pampers sales of just $43 million.

How will P&G go about building their overseas markets? To get a sense, just look at the way it cracked — and to a large degree created — the market for disposable diapers in China.

With the help of the Beijing Children’s Hospital’s Sleep Research Centre, P&G researchers conducted two studies between 2005 and 2006, involving more than 1,000 babies throughout eight cities in China. Instead of cloth, the research subjects were tucked into bed with Pampers. The results: P&G reported that the babies who wore the disposables fell asleep 30% faster and slept an extra 30 minutes every night.

The study even linked the extra sleep to improved cognitive development, a compelling point in a society obsessed with academic achievement.  Last year, P&G spent almost $70 million convincing Chinese parents of the brain advantages of Pampers (compared to just $12 million in Kimberly-Clark’s  advertising budget for its #2 selling disposable diaper, Huggies).

Read more about how disposable diapers can make your kid smarter in the full BNet Media report.


 NEWS UPDATE:  August 30, 2013: Here’s how the Chinese tradition of kaidangku, the open-crotch split pants for babies and toddlers, doesn’t translate well when immigrants move to Canadian cities: “Boy Urinates In Vancouver Mall’s Trash Bin, Anti-China Vitriol Flows.”


5 thoughts on “How Procter & Gamble brought the Diaper Revolution to China

  1. Pingback: Baby Guide

  2. Pingback: Asia Watch

  3. Interesting. This story shows how creative the businesses must become to sell their wares, farther et farther from home. Asia is goldmine for them! Glad you are sharing this story of what’s happening en China. I’m a new subscriber to you – good luck, keep going if you please.
    Jean Marc,
    Montpelier, France

  4. Pingback: Marketing Strategist

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