It seems every brand these days is trying to be about more than selling. Many marketers believe their advertising has to stand for something bigger – tying their promotional activities to causes and social issues. It’s not enough to sell granola bars or maxi pads; you have to sell women’s empowerment. Don’t just sell cereal; tie your product to conservation efforts.

But a sales boost at one brand shows how promoting a good cause can also be good for the bottom line. Kimberly-Clark consistently comes in second in what is essentially a two-horse race for the disposable diaper market in Canada: its Huggies brand and competitor Procter & Gamble Inc.’s Pampers together account for 99.4 per cent of the promotional investment in the category here. But in the past two years, Huggies has punched above its ad weight with a program tying it to a bigger cause: hospital care for newborns.

In May, 2015, Huggies launched a campaign called “No Baby Unhugged,” promoting the scientific benefits of touch for newborns, and providing support to volunteer hugging programs in hospitals for babies whose parents could not always be around to do the job. The campaign went hand-in-hand with Huggies business objectives: every mother who submitted a photo of her hugging her baby or her pregnant belly triggered a $5 donation to the initiative by the company, but also registered that mother in the company’s customer database for marketing purposes, and provided a free packet of diapers for her to try.

On Wednesday evening in Toronto, the campaign won the grand prix at the Cassies awards, which honours advertising that has a business impact.

“People are cautious when they see brands talking about issues,” said François Lacoursière, Cassies jury co-chair and executive vice-president of ad agency Sid Lee. “They react to brands that are actually doing something … but because of the ways people have to highlight things they don’t believe are authentic, it puts pressure on brands to stay honest.”

The idea of partnering with hospitals was to add “medical authority” to the brand to better compete with Pampers, according to the award submission. Because moms tend to be pretty brand-loyal once they find a diaper they like, the company estimates that the “lifetime value of one mom” can be as high as $2,600 a child. So encouraging them to make that choice for their newborns is important for long-term sales growth.

“It’s an inextricable link to what Huggies is about,” said Aviva Groll, group account director at Ogilvy & Mather Toronto, the ad agency that created the campaign. “… We love to do big ideas, but it is absolutely in service of creating strong brand equity, and selling. We can only continue to do this stuff if we continue to have great business results.”

The campaign goal was to increase sales of newborn diapers by 10 per cent. In its first year, Huggies sales overall, on a dollar basis, rose 19.2 per cent – a vast improvement compared to the same period one year before when sales were flat. (The category as a whole grows about 1 per cent a year.) Newborn diaper sales growth was double the growth for other Huggies diapers. And the company tripled the number of mothers listed in its customer database.

The results have pushed Kimberly-Clark to launch the program in the United States, and it is either running or in development in 11 other countries, including China, India, Australia and Argentina.

Launching such a program can be complicated, however: while companies frequently make donations to hospitals, a program that partners with a corporate brand takes many levels of approval, and involves sensitivities about the appearance of an endorsement by a health facility. To date, just three hospitals in Canada have partnered with Huggies. An agreement with a fourth hospital is in the works.

“Some hospitals won’t even go there,” said Doug Maynard, associate director at the Canadian Association of Paediatric Health Centres, which canvassed its members about the need for hugging programs, and helped to connect Kimberly-Clark with hospitals. “We worked with them to make sure the messaging was very clear, that Huggies was supporting these programs and not that the hospitals were endorsing Huggies.”

Many hospitals already have hugging programs in place. The donations have been used to produce training materials for volunteers, to buy uniforms to identify trained volunteers to staff in neonatal intensive care units, and to purchase recliners that make it more comfortable for parents and volunteers to sit with babies for a longer period of time.

“It’s a marketing story, but it’s worked out in a way that’s helped us to promote the science around the benefits to children of hugging and touch – telling parents about it as well,” Mr. Maynard said. “… They’ve got a whole marketing team, and resources that we would never have access to.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 10:00PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 5:19PM EST