Turning Japanese? Growth In $9BN US Adult Diaper Market Explodes, Topping Baby Diapers

Looking for a way to hedge against the economic damage likely to be wrought by the looming 'demographic timebomb' (note: that's what economists and journalists call it)?

Here's one idea. 

According to one recent study, fully one-fifth of the world's population will be of retirement age by 2070. This phenomenon is largely due to trends in the developed world: as the costs of education, housing and survival skyrocket, many are choosing to have fewer babies, delay family formation, or simply skip that whole mess altogether.

We've been over the repercussions of an aging society particularly as it relates to the economy (more job openings, slower economic growth). For better or worse, the world already has a model for how these trends might impact us, at least in the early stages. And that model is Japan, a country that already has more citizen over the age of 80 than under the age of 10.

As demographic issues create new and unforeseen challenges, Reuters reported on an easily-overlooked issue: the revolution in the consumer-products space that will need to take place in the coming years. As the population of the elderly explodes, the need for hygiene products like adults diapers will likely see a commensurate surge (and many of the companies that make these products are publicly-traded consumer staples).

The market is already growing, and last year, it expanded by 9%, to hit $9 billion.

The time may not be far off when more adults need diapers than babies as the population grows older, potentially a huge opportunity for manufacturers of incontinence products - if they can lift the stigma that has long constrained sales.

The market for adult diapers, disposable underwear and absorbent pads is growing fast, up 9% last year to $9 billion, having doubled in the last decade, according to Euromonitor.

As more senior citizens grapple with their weak bladders, Reuters' sources said the battle for market share will likely be won and lost by the marketing department, as products that emphasize discretion and independence, as well as successfully rebranding them as essential "personal care" products, instead of "baby products."

Advertising campaigns will also need to be launched to help "normalize" the use of "diapers" by adults.

But manufacturers like market leaders Essity and Kimberly-Clark Corp reckon only half of the more than 400 million adults likely to be affected by weak bladders, are buying the right products, because they are too embarrassed.

Companies are trying various methods to change attitudes, including making products more discreet, avoiding terms like diapers or nappies, and placing items in the personal care aisle, next to deodorants and menstrual pads, rather than in the baby products section.

Resigning adult diapers so that they can be worn more discreetly will be critical (something that some US companies are already working on), as all of those hipster grandpas try to maneuver around in their tight pants and diapers.

In the U.S., market leader Kimberly-Clark has this year given its 35-year-old Depend brand a makeover, introducing thinner, softer and more fitted products that can be worn discreetly, in an effort to make them more acceptable.

The changes are just the latest in a decade-long attempt to win over consumers, which started with manufacturers dropping the ‘diaper’ label, to loosen the association older customers might have with a loss of control in their life.

Yet it is still difficult for companies to persuade people they should buy specially made incontinence products.

"People keep the fact that they have incontinence secret from their loved ones, from their husbands, brothers and sisters – this is a deep secret for many consumers and yet it’s just a fact of life, it’s a physiological reality," said Fiona Tomlin, who leads Kimberly-Clark’s adult and feminine care division.

Consumer products companies are also trying to "normalize" discussions on the subject via advertising. The market leader in Japan has resorted to clever catch-phrases to try and make problems like incontinence seem trivial.

In Japan, where adult incontinence products have outsold baby diaper sales since around 2013 due to a rapidly ageing population, market leader Unicharm Corp has adopted the phrase “choi more” in its advertising, which translates as "lil' dribble," to make light of the problem.

"What we are doing is trying to let people know that incontinence, even among young people, is normal," said Unicharm spokesman Hitoshi Watanabe.

Incontinence is one of those problems that people keep secret from their friends and loved ones out of shame. But it's also surprisingly common, even in relatively young adults. Many women who have more than one child struggle with it, creating another branding opportunity.

That is, so long as packaging designers follow a golden rule: Nothing should be associated with aging.

Sweden’s Essity, the global industry leader, is also trying to reach a younger audience with its TENA brand and a new line of black, low-rise disposable underwear called Silhouette Noir.

The advert’s tagline reads: 'secret’s out: 1 in 3 women have incontinence'.

Around 12% of all women and 5% of men experience some form of urinary incontinence, although conditions vary from mild and temporary to serious and chronic, according to the Global Forum on Incontinence, which is backed by Essity.

Essity said it tries to package and market its products in a way that avoids associations with ageing.

"Designing products and packaging it as feminine and discreet as possible for females and as masculine and discreet as possible for men helps," said Ulrika Kolsrud, president of Essity’s health and medical solutions.

Getting the message across to potential customers can sometimes be a tricky path to tread. A few years ago, SCA - from which Essity was spun off in 2017 - mailed samples of its products to Swedish men above 55, only to receive a barrage of complaints.

As the countdown continues, the demographic timebomb looks set to hit the West and Japan especially hard. But in the PROC, where a one-child policy kept births down for multiple consecutive generations, the numbers are simply staggering. It's a problem that's already starting to hit, as China's working age population shrinks for the first time  - and one that could have serious repercussions for the global  economy.