Jennifer Westemeyer has spent the majority of her career working as a design strategist for brands in what some might consider “delicate” subject areas: adult incontinence, diapers, light bladder leakage and, most recently, feminine care--categories that aren’t necessarily regarded as hotbeds of design.

But when she joined Kimberly-Clark as brand design director in April 2008, Westemeyer began fashioning a design strategy for a line of Kotex tampons, pads and liners that would redefine the category, solve company business challenges and cause the broader world of packaged goods to sit up and take note.

U by Kotex debuted in 2010 with matte black cartons and a fresh, candid voice that stood out among decades-old category conventions-think pastel packaging, ad spots with women in white dresses twirling on the beach and obscure references to “that time of the month.”

Inspired by fashion and cosmetics, the brand’s colorfully accented packaging represented a paradigm shift in the category from period “management” to personal care. Coupled with a frank marketing tone-including the unheard of tactic of actual product demonstrations (through videos on the company’s website)-U by Kotex set out to break the stigma associated with periods and bring a dose of relevance to a category that, until now, had stood at odds with women’s contemporary lives.

“We were looking to really push the limits and step out on a limb,” says Westemeyer.

This summer, U by Kotex will extend into new territory with a tween line that caters to the smaller bodies and unique design preferences of pre-teens and a limited-edition U by Kotex series with styles that invite consumers to connect with the brand in a way that more closely matches their own.

“Over the last year, we’ve really realized that we can use design as a lever to pull to get us ahead,” Westemeyer says.

U by Kotex debuted in 2010 with matte black cartons and a fresh, candid voice that stood out among decades-old category conventions.

Clearly, her work on U by Kotex is a good study on the business impact of design. Kotex had invented the disposable feminine hygiene category back in 1920, but the brand had stagnated in recent years due to competitive pressures and perceptions that it was dated and dusty.

“When I joined Kimberly-Clark, the opportunity that I saw was the fact that Kotex was in trouble. The state of the business allowed us to take risks and not be afraid to fail,” says Westemeyer. “I wanted to be part of that. To me, design success is taking those sleeper brands and really making them shine.”

Prior to Kimberly-Clark, Jennifer worked for Cincinnati-based LPK as a senior design director on the Pampers and Kandoo accounts, and she owned a small brand design firm in Chicago catering to clients in technology, retail and manufacturing.

Having lived on the agency side of the business for most of her career, Westemeyer joined Kimberly-Clark to lead design strategy for Kotex, Poise and Depend. She says she looked forward to getting deeper into consumer knowledge and driving home “those personal experiences” through design.

“When you appeal to somebody’s senses, it’s like reaching in and grabbing their heart, mind and soul,” she explains.

But for design to deliver those types of encounters, Westemeyer says a brand needs to uncover “unexpected” insights. “Get out from behind the glass,” she suggests, a reference to the overuse of focus groups. Instead, she proposes tactics that are more observational in nature. “Give a consumer an iPhone, and let her track her life,” she says. “You start to notice things about the way she talks, the way she moves, the way she describes [things], but also what she’s not sharing with you vocally.”

Westemeyer says such “consumer-centric” research results in a rich assortment of behaviors, facial expressions and body language to consider when developing designs.

“It’s not just sticking packaging up on a wall and asking consumers to respond to it,” she says. “It’s those key nuggets, those bits of information that you can observe and apply through design that make [a brand] matter.”

Of course, learning about consumers is ever changing, but Westemeyer says it’s inspiring. And it’s key in helping Kimberly-Clark, like other companies, work through the challenges of adopting more strategic design-as evidenced by the U by Kotex project.

“We had spent a lot of money on research-finding out what we wanted to do, what Kotex wants to be when she grows up. And there were instances where our teams wanted to cut back because of costs,” says Westemeyer. “But from a design perspective, we had to kick loud and say, ‘Hey, we need to invest in this brand if we want to make this. We want this to be an experience that she will remember.’”

Holding their ground on the vision that detailed design would authentically convey the brand expression-and enjoying the success that followed-Westemeyer and her colleagues have established the U by Kotex launch as an internal benchmark of sorts.

“It was uncomfortable for a lot of people at times, but we were determined to make it work,” she says. “Now, other brands within [Kimberly-Clark] are saying, ‘I want to be that, I want to do what they’re doing over there’ and they’re creating excitement about design.”

And, not surprisingly, that excitement carries up through the organization to the top. In an April 2011 earnings call with analysts, Kimberly-Clark CEO Thomas Falk held up U by Kotex as a key company success, saying the company was getting “good returns” on its innovation and marketing investments in feminine care, where initiatives on U by Kotex (and Poise and Depend, Westemeyer’s other brands) “continue to deliver volume and share growth.”

“Being able to impact a business the way I have in U by Kotex, seeing the numbers come out and seeing that we [were] 70 percent share in the first month, that gets me excited,” says Westemeyer, “Because I know we’ve done something right by understanding our consumers.”