Kleenex — achoo! — a story safari

I’m not going anywhere without a box of Kleenex this week. Spring cold? Bad allergies? Dunno. All I can say for certain is that I had work to do—serious work—and it’s not getting done. The good news is my brain doesn’t feel like it’s packed in cotton anymore. But I’m sleepy…so, so sleepy.

Still, there’s that writing streak to keep alive (day 394 when I’m done writing this on Wednesday). So I thought I’d explore the backstory of my new best friend.

Box of Kleenex
A box of Kleenex, photograph by Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain

Kleenex — a great idea, almost ignored

Every successful new product meets an unmet need. Introducing Kleenex in 1924, Kimberly-Clark aimed to give women an easier way to remove cold cream or makeup. Advertising focused on movie stars and Hollywood makeup artists, bringing some glamour to the lowly disposable tissue:

“the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars…”

Wikipedia tells us that a researcher at Kimberly-Clark suggested expanding the market by targeting people with colds and allergies. This would double the market size—men get colds, too—but the company rejected the idea.

Still, consumers told the company again and again that they used the product as a disposable handkerchief. Finally, after testing the concept in one market, 1930 Kimberly-Clark positioned Kleenex as a healthy alternative to handkerchiefs:

“Don’t Carry a Cold in Your Pocket”

And Kleenex—which I should mention, for the record, is a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Worldwide—was on its way to becoming a $3 billion-plus brand.

Reinventing the wheel, or the tissue

I’m surprised it took Kimberly-Clark six years to market the tissue to cold sufferers. Because it wasn’t a new application. One European who visited Japan in the 17th century—some 400 years before Kleenex—reported:

“They blow their noses in soft silky papers the size of a hand, which they never use twice, so that they throw them on the ground after usage, and they were delighted to see our people around them precipitate themselves to pick them up.”

“Delighted” to see people pick up used tissues? More like amused—laughing at rather than with the strange Europeans. The 17th century Japanese equivalent of SMDH.

How many other innovations have we missed—and perhaps continue to miss—because we’re unwilling to understand and adapt customs from other cultures?

That’s a subject that could spark a fascinating speech or op-ed. Another win for the Story Safari trophy wall.

And now, my Kleenex and I are going back to bed.


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