Skip to main content

Innovation Insights from Creator of Billion Dollar Brands – Jim Fay

Content Author:
Kevin Kimle

We were delighted to have Jim Fay join students in ECON 334/Entrepreneurship in Agriculture recently for a discussion on innovation, prototyping and new product development.

Jim Fay (’74 ISU Chemical Engineering) was recruited to Kimberly-Clark just as the company was transitioning from a “fast follower” to a “leading innovator” product strategy. As a “fast follower,” the company looked at what Procter & Gamble was doing with Pampers® disposable diapers, and then attempted to copy as much as they could with their Kimbies® brand. Unfortunately, that did not give customers much of a reason to buy Kimbies.

Fay had worked for three other companies (Monsanto making agricultural chemicals, P&G making toilet paper, and American Can making packaging materials) before joining Kimberly-Clark when he was 28 years old. Still, disposable diapers were new to him. When he got there, most of the company’s technical resources — hundreds of people — were focused on developing a new kind of disposable diaper that could compete more effectively with P&G’s Pampers.

Fay’s assignment was to look at what everyone else was doing, and do something different. Rather than look at design and technology ideas, he started with market research and an objective to better understand the people — mostly moms — who bought disposable diapers.

“Through many, many interviews with moms, we learned that moms bought Pampers in order to have more time to be better moms,” said Fay. “We had to find a higher purpose, and we did. We found that, even more important to moms was that they have healthier, happier babies. Once we understood that higher purpose, we focused design and technology on making healthier, happier babies. The result was a more form-fitting design, softer and dryer inner lining, elastic waist and legs, and super-absorbent instead of paper absorbent. We named that new product Huggies® disposable diapers, and it became the best-selling diaper in the world.”

“But,” says Fay, “The real game-changer was the next product — Huggies Pull-Ups® disposable training pants. The patents we got for that product were so good that they kept P&G out of the disposable training pants market for years.”

Fay was at Kimberly-Clark for seven years before leaving to start his own company. At that company, he developed, marketed, and sold another baby product called Diaper Genie®. That product became the #1 non-disposable baby product in the country. From idea to market was three years, and from market to selling the company to Playtex was another six years.

What is Fay’s insight for aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs from having created multiple multi-billion dollar brands? “Add market research, both qualitative and quantitative, to your skill set and do a lot of it so you get really good at it. Most inventors focus on design and technology — they lose sight of the customer who is going to buy. Focus on the customer.”

Fay also advises putting effort into developing prototypes as quickly as possible and getting them in the hands of customers. The objective, he says, is to make something that “delights” the customer so much that they do not want to give it back. From a marketing point of view, the product developer’s objective is to create a product that causes customers to say to other potential customers, “You have got to get a…” He says that having customers as your best sales people almost assures success and saves a ton of advertising money.

Last, Fay’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to work fast. “I always work on a one-week clock,” he says.” “What can I do, build, test, and accomplish in the next week that will move this project ahead?”

Jim Fay and Kevin Kimle interview