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Have you ever wondered how Pampers Preemies came about? Researcher Susan Ludwig led the way in innovating for the tiniest babies, and she explains her inspiration…

When she's not visiting NICUs around the world, researcher Susan Ludwig spends most of her time in the incubator room in the Winton Hill technical centre in Cincinnati. It was here that, compelled by a personal experience, she led a team of passionate engineers to design the Pampers Preemies collection, which launched in 2002.

Her inspiration came while she was on maternity leave. “During the birth of my third child at Bethesda North Hospital in Cincinnati in 1996, I was placed in a room with another mother,” Susan recalls. “Immediately I felt the room turn. I sensed deep grief in her. It filled the room. I've never felt, to this day, so much emotion.”

Susan had just delivered her son, and she assumed her roommate's baby was in the nursery. But the woman kept her back turned to Susan. She was grief stricken, and Susan realized something had gone terribly wrong.

“She had a preemie,” a nurse later explained. “The way she said it, it was as if it was akin to losing the baby,” Susan says. The nurse went on to explain that the nappies that they had for premature babies were terrible. Embarrassed, Susan knew what she needed to do, thinking to herself: ‘I have the power to change this'.

Making a difference

Susan had felt overcome with guilt that the woman had to face an excruciating trial, while she held her full-term baby in her arms, but once she returned from maternity leave, she was determined to help the tiny babies who needed nappies designed exclusively for them. “I presented the data to my team, inspired by the woman who shared my room. I said, ‘Why are we just catering to full-term babies? That seems so unfair,'” Susan says.

“After my presentation, I was given three months to create a prototype. It wasn't going to be a high-volume line, but we all knew that we were doing the right thing. Who else has all this access to these amazing people in a company that listens? So, I got to work,” says Susan.

However, the landscape at the turn of the millennium was very different. “I kind of laugh because it was all men at the time - my managers, the brilliant process engineers and raw materials experts,” remembers Susan. But that didn't stand in her way.

“There's no better feeling than when you're standing on that line, and they're bringing up the product for the first time, with the engineers beside you,” Susan says. “A big passion of mine is to get a deep understanding of what every single feature on the product is delivering to the consumer. I love that.”

But it's not all plain sailing. “There are different ways we can ‘fail',” says Susan. “We can fail by not understanding the consumer. Because innovation is all about solving what issues consumers are having with today's products, you need to know the consumer. And sometimes it's not just solving a technical issue like a softer fastening; we need to think, “How can I make the experience better?”

All in the details

Every detail is pored over and analysed. From function to aesthetics, there is a reason for each detail, even down to the planning that goes into the graphics on the nappies. The ‘I Love you' message was inspired by a colleague who described the feeling of being a parent of a baby in a NICU, and how at night you need to leave your baby behind when you go home. The “I love you” wording is an expression of love that a parent can leave with the baby when they can't be with them.

Pampers was the first major brand to make a nappy so small. As medical research and technology evolved and the infant survival rate improved, Susan and her team launched an even smaller nappy in 2017, the P3, to fit babies weighing only 400-900g.

As part of delivering exactly what customers want, Susan's job involves a lot of travelling and that has helped her to hone the product. “Every culture is different,” Susan says. “In Japan, babies are handled differently to how they are in the US. They keep the preemies on their stomach with their legs tucked under, like in utero.”

“I observed how they would turn the baby over to change them, then flip them back over, causing excessive handling. I asked, ‘Why don't you just put the diaper on backwards, so you don't need to flip the baby over?' The nurse replied, ‘Would you wear your pants backwards?' She was showing the baby respect by putting his diaper on ‘properly'. This inspired the new flex fasteners feature used in Japanese NICUs that allow the diaper to be worn on either side.”

Even after 31 years, Susan clearly still adores her job. In fact, she says she'd continue to do it even if she were to win the lottery! “I love that P&G lets me be both a mum and a product researcher and this is how these two things combined can be incredibly powerful,” she says. “Working for P&G, I took full advantage of the maternity benefits. All of my kids are 21 months apart, so there was a time where I was on and off maternity leave. I was able to enjoy being a devoted mother, and still am.

After all these prototypes, iterations, lines of product, airline miles, and years, Susan still thinks of that woman in the other hospital bed, aware that her pregnancy could have taken a similar turn. “I did it all for her,” she says. “I believe we were meant to share that room for a few hours.”

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