Executives make a lot of assumptions, and many of them are wrong. Take disposable diapers, for example. Diaperanswers.org says P&G invented the disposable diaper. MotherJones.com says it was Johnson and Johnson. P&G or J&J, take your pick. Marketers and product developers knew they had a breakthrough product and were sitting on a gold mine.
Disposable diapers were very expensive when they were new.
Packaged goods experts logically assumed that upper-middle class women were the obvious consumer target. The equally obvious places to sell these expensive products were higher-end stores in better neighborhoods where upper-middle class women lived and shopped. Predicting huge success, manufacturers filled the shelves and sat back and waited for the rush. Sales were awful. Executives waited and paced nervously. And waited and paced nervously some more. Sales were so bad the experts were left scratching their heads.
Researchers went into stores to observe firsthand who was actually buying the new products.
They observed the women who bought and the women who did not buy. They saw many things and discovered something quite remarkable: most buyers were low-income women, the exact opposite of what executives had predicted. Only after some serious thinking did all of this make sense.
In the 1960s, higher-income housewives stayed at home and were full-time caregivers with three options for diaper cleaning.
- Their homes were outfitted with modern washers and dryers, so they could wash the diapers themselves.
- The ones who had domestic help could have employees do it for them.
- The third choice, diaper services, were the most convenient of all. A routeman (yes, that’s what they were called) would come to your house, pick up your soiled diapers, and return them freshly laundered.
Lower income women had to work, leaving little time for doing laundry.
They didn’t have the alternatives higher income women did. They didn’t have washers and dryers in their apartments. They didn’t have maids, either, or enough money to afford door-to-door service. They had only one choice: lug the kids and heavy loads of laundry to the coin-ops in the heat and the cold and the rain. Disposable diapers saved them hours of hard work and much misery. They were a bargain to the women who needed them most.
So the target market assumed by executives wasn’t the target market after all and they learned about it only when researchers went and observed what was happening outside the boardrooms and executive suites – you know, where the customers are. Different ads were run in different media, distribution channels were expanded, and well, you know the rest.
Maybe not all the rest.
Sarah Laskow, writing in The Atlantic, tells us Marion Donovan was The Woman Who Invented Disposable Diapers. As Donovan told Barbara Walters, one simple question guided her work: “What do I think will help a lot of people and most certainly will help me?” But when Donavan tried to find a manufacturer for her idea, the men who controlled the industry brushed her off.