"Can We Talk . . . About Vaginal Myths?" That's a headline that will catch one's attention. It certainly caught mine when it appeared recently in Ad Age .

The article is about the new marketing campaign from Kimberly-Clark's U by Kotex brand. "One might view this work as provocative," according to Melissa Sexton, integrated marketing planning director at K-C who was quoted in the article. "But it's provocative not for the sake of being provocative, but because that's the way the honest conversation needs to happen."

Conversation is what Kimberly –Clark hopes to achieve, and if history for this brand is a guide the strategy will pay off.

There is a wide-spread belief that word-of-mouth marketing works only in "exciting" categories, like technology, cars, restaurants, travel and movies. But the fact is that word of mouth can work for everyday products and brands in a whole host of categories -- even tampons, as U by Kotex has demonstrated since it launched the brand in 2010.

A Social Strategy Starts With Ideas Worth Sharing, Not Technology Platforms

As Brad Fay and I discovered when we profiled Kotex for The Face-to-Face Book , the phenomenally successful launch of the tampon brand U by Kotex teaches many of the most important lessons about social marketing. What is significant is that the lessons are not about how to design and execute a Facebook or Twitter strategy; it's not a technology-driven strategy, and the metrics that matter are not about the number of fans or followers. Rather, it's about a marketing strategy that starts with a powerful idea, one with which the target audience can get engaged and feel motivated to share.

Kimberly-Clark realized several years back that feminine hygiene products were a rather quiet category, both literally and figuratively. There had been little innovation in decades. Traditionally it's a category that women did not feel comfortable talking about. Advertising and marketing in the category was long based on breezy images of snowy, white purity and euphemistic language about "freshness" and "protection." Tina Fey joked in her book Bossypants, "I had noticed something was weird earlier in the day, but I knew from the commercials that one's menstrual period was a blue liquid you poured like laundry detergent into maxi pads to test their absorbency; this wasn't blue, so . . . I ignored it for a few hours."

Kimberly-Clark executives believed that society's unwillingness to talk honestly about vaginal health and menstruation was a serious matter with the potential to lead to bad health decisions and outcomes by teenagers unable to get the information they needed. The crucial idea behind U by Kotex was that feminine protection should not be a taboo subject. Not only should women feel comfortable talking about it, but the category could even become fashionable. U by Kotex's packaging and applicators were designed to be colorful, and its marketing would break the cycle of euphemistic advertising and communications about the category. Tampons – and vaginal health generally – would become acceptable topics for conversation. The launch of the campaign was designed to encourage honest conversation and to provide essential health and how-to-information to young women.

U by Kotex was launched in the US in March 2010, jumping from zero to a 5.5 percent share of the tampon market by the following spring, while also increasing the overall Kotex share by 2.5 points to a total of 18.2. This was a stunning success in a marketing that hadn't seen a serious product innovation since Tampax Pearl ten years earlier.

From a word of mouth perspective, my firm's research found that the Kotex family of brands increased their share of category conversations among females 13 – 44 from 20% in 2008 to 32% in the first half of 2011. The brand was succeeding in driving people to talk. The new campaign is the successor to this initial strategy and takes the conversation a step further.

The Commercial Idea

In writing the book, we had the opportunity to talk with company executives plus the agencies involved in the campaign. They talked about the importance of the "commercial idea" which is the starting point for new products at K-C. In effect, they want the innovation itself to be talkworthy—that is, unique and worthy of being recommended—rather than a slightly new product variation with "new and improved" stamped on it, or a clever television commercial. In their minds, the marketing then flows out of that new commercial idea. And so does the social sharing, both offline and online. "Right from the start, we believed it was about word of mouth," we were told by Kimberly-Clark's Jay Gottlieb, VP of adult and feminine care marketing, recalling the development of U by Kotex.

If Kimberly-Clark can achieve word-of-mouth success in the feminine hygiene category, no marketer can be excused from doing the work required to achieve the same in their own marketplace.

Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth." His new book, The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, was recently published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster. You can follow Ed Keller on Twitter, Facebook and Google+, or contact him directly at ekeller@kellerfay.com.

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