P&G’s Pampers completely reframed the diaper category in China, and in doing so created enormous growth for the category and for the brand. It is a good example of how focusing on category competition is a better route to growth than trying to win the “my brand is better than your brand” battle. The story is fascinating and informative, not only with respect to framing a category but to entering a new country with a different culture.

Pampers entered the China market in 1998 with a strategy of making a cheaper version of their Western product. The result was indeed cheap, and also was of inferior quality. The product was perceived as plastic and irritating, and it didn’t go anywhere. In 2006 a revised product, called the Pampers Cloth Like & Dry, was soft, effective and half the cost of U.S. versions. But still, sales lagged. The problem was that Chinese consumers were not motivated by dryness or convenience. They did not see a problem that would merit changing their existing habits. But a solution was on the horizon.

P&G was in the midst of in-depth research on consumers that revealed that the quality of a baby’s sleep and its impact on the future development of the baby was a real concern for many parents. This was coupled with the insight that a sleeping baby tended to stimulate a mother’s thoughts of the baby’s future. A study was then commissioned to the Beijing Children’s Hospital’s Sleep Research Center that revealed that baby’s wearing Pampers fell asleep 30% faster, slept an extra 30 minutes every night, and had 50% less disruption throughout the night.

In 2007, Pampers launched the “Golden Sleep” campaign, which included extensive advertising, mass carnivals and in-store campaigns in urban areas. The objective was to frame disposable diapers as aides to quality sleep and to communicate the research data from the Sleep Research Center. The cornerstone of the campaign was getting women post a picture of their baby sleeping on the Pampers website that would be incorporated into a huge photomontage. Can you imagine the appeal of a sleeping baby? The hook was their goal of beating the Guinness World Record for the largest photomontage in the world. They got over 200,000 responses and indeed used over 100,000 of them to break the Guinness World Record with a 7,000 square foot photomontage that was hung in a retail store in Shanghai.

Sales went up 55% but, more importantly, the category exploded. From 2006-2011 the baby disposable diapers market grew to nearly 3 billion, and it’s much larger today. And Pampers continues to be the market leader.

The key is their focus on category competition instead of brand preference competition. Look for a new benefit, application or segment to define a subcategory that will consist primarily of new customers. Make an effort to make sure your subcategory wins.

Competing at the category and subcategory level is the only real path to growth.