As many as 25 million Americans suffer from it, but most are too embarrassed even to mention its name. Incontinence. Preparing for the needs of millions of aging baby boomers, Kimberly-Clark Corp. of Irving, Texas, has redesigned its Depend line of adult underwear for more comfort and protection and launched a comprehensive marketing campaign to break down the stigma. "There's a great opportunity here," said Mark Cammarota, Depend's brand director. "Boomers are demanding products that will let them lead normal lives as they age, and they're more open than previous generations about discussing their needs." Since practically the day they appeared on store shelves in 1984 and replaced a hodgepodge of impractical and ineffective homemade creations, Depends have been both a subject of awkward humor and a lifesaver for those who use them. Sometimes derisively called "adult diapers," absorbent underwear is big money. Urinary incontinence now represents a $1.2 billion-a-year retail business in North America, and Kimberly-Clark's products account for about 55 percent of that market. With its latest generation of Depends, the company has replaced its unisex underwear with male and female designs tailored for each gender's anatomy. The new versions fit each gender more snugly and provide better protection where most needed.
"Besides the practical improvements, we've also tried to address our customers' emotional concerns," Cammarota said. "Some women didn't think our unisex Depends were feminine enough, and many men didn't think they were masculine enough." There's now a pink waistband for women and a blue one for men. "I'm amazed at how long it's taken the industry to recognize that men and women are different, but I applaud Kimberly-Clark for taking the lead," said Nancy Muller, executive director of the National Association for Continence, an advocacy group. Shortly after Kimberly-Clark's announcement, a major competitor, SCA Personal Care, said it, too, would begin selling gender-specific underwear in North America. Once known as Serenity, SCA's products now carry the Tena brand name. Multiple Causes Incontinence isn't a normal part of aging, though the risk of it rises as someone gets older, Muller said. The loss of bladder or bowel control may be a symptom of some other condition, such as Parkinson's disease, a stroke or urinary tract infections. Incontinence may also be a result of pregnancy or childbirth, which partially explains why as many as 80 percent of those suffering from incontinence are women, according to the association for continence.
For men, incontinence sometimes occurs after surgery for prostate cancer. As embarrassing as the condition may be, its consequences can be nothing short of terrifying for seniors who had planned to grow old at home. Molly Shomer, a Dallas social worker who helps families arrange for the care of frail individuals, says incontinence is often the reason an elderly parent must pack up and move into an assisted-living community or skilled nursing facility. "Almost more than anything else, it's the one thing that causes older adults to lose their independence," she said. Treatments for incontinence range from pelvic muscle exercises to medications to surgery, Muller said. But wearing protective undergarments, like Depends, often becomes part of the daily regimen for people trying to control it. Muller hopes the marketing campaigns for the new, gender-specific underwear will increase the public's understanding of incontinence and encourage sufferers to talk more openly about the practical problems they face. Kimberly-Clark executives say they appreciate how difficult a frank conversation can be. "We know that shopping for Depends can be stressful," said Greg Fries, senior brand manager. "People don't want to be seen in the aisle with the incontinence products. Some customers will even go outside their neighborhood to avoid running into a friend."
So, besides redesigning its product, Kimberly-Clark has simplified the packaging to make it easier for shoppers to spot the gender and size they need. That way, Fries said, customers can quickly toss their Depends in the shopping cart and be gone. New Ad Campaign To introduce this next generation of protective underwear, the company is also rolling out an advertising campaign that's a far cry from the long-running commercials that featured movie actress June Allyson talking about the practical benefits of wearing Depends. The new TV commercials have ordinary boomer men and women engaged in some unscripted banter about the differences between the two sexes, such as whether men or women make better drivers and which sex actually rules the world. "We wanted to show real people in our TV spots and remind customers that incontinence doesn't need to slow them down," Fries said. "They don't have to feel embarrassed. They don't have to hide. There are others out there in the world just like them." The commercials were directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris and bear a striking resemblance to a short film he created for a recent Oscars telecast in which people talk off the cuff about why they like movies.
Chuck Nyren, a Seattle advertising consultant and author of Advertising to Baby Boomers, says the TV spots are carefully crafted to appeal to boomers who, if they don't use Depends themselves, may be caregivers for parents who do.
"Morris got the right people and took the right approach," he said. "Now, if only other advertisers would hire boomers to pitch refrigerators, soap and other products."
Complementing the TV commercial's broad-brush approach, Kimberly-Clark has overhauled its Depend Web site (www.depend.com) to give consumers detailed information about incontinence and the company's products.
The Web site's discussion groups have proved especially popular, Fries said.
"Consumers like to go online and talk with others with the same condition," he said. "The Internet is the perfect medium for that conversation, since it offers anonymity. People can get both answers and emotional support."
Kimberly-Clark sees tremendous potential for growth in the incontinence business, not just because there are 78 million aging boomers but also because they'll have more wealth than previous generations of older adults.
"Our pitch to consumers is that they don't have to give up on life -- they can do the things they want," Cammarota said. "That message will resonate with anyone who wants to stay engaged."