In the Thick of It

Ads in the paper products category used to be strictly about performance and price as giants in the industry like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark traded claims about absorbency, softness and value.

But over the past year or so, eco-consciousness has entered the picture as more consumers are asking, “How green is my toilet paper?”

While smaller brands like Seventh Generation have been touting their greenness for a while, this month a major player, Marcal, is linking the use of its products with deforestation. “Paper from paper, not from trees,” the headline beneath one print ad reads, referring to the fact that Marcal’s products are made from recycled materials. One TV spot breaking from the Ocean Group, New York, shows a bird flying into a tree to feed its young. “This tree was not created to become a paper towel. It has bigger jobs to do,” a voiceover says. The spot closes with a child running around the kitchen carrying a roll of paper towels, and the brand’s mantra: “A small, easy step to a greener Earth.”

With the $30 million effort, Marcal is testing consumers’ resolve. A counter trend in the industry is the growth of ultrasoft toilet tissue like Cottonelle Ultra, Quilted Northern Ultra Plush and Charmin Ultra Strong, the latter of which placed third on market research firm IRI’s New Product Pacesetters list, with $144 million in first-year sales, excluding Wal-Mart. Environmentalists take issue with the “ultra” products since they rely on standing trees rather than recycled materials to give it a plush feel. To address this, P&G rep Dewayne Guy said both Charmin and Bounty have undergone product upgrades to allow consumers to use less of either product. Seventh Generation, likewise, increased its toilet tissue softness by 20 percent this year without any negative environmental impact, said David Kimbell, svp of marketing.

Despite its latest round of ads, Marcal is far from being the greenest player. In a recent ranking by environmental nonprofit group Greenpeace, Marcal earned a “could do better” score in the toilet and facial tissue categories for using only 30 percent post-consumer content. Char-min and Scott, meanwhile, use no post-consumer or recycled content in toilet, towel and napkin segments, and so placed towards the bottom. Both brands also use chlorine compounds in the bleaching process, which, as Greenpeace points out, emits carcinogens.

While Marcal didn’t score as high as brands like Seventh Generation, it has been using recycled materials longer than most—since 1950. Nevertheless, the idea of touting its green roots just occurred to the company last year as the brand’s new owners, Highland Capital Management, did some market research. Previously, consumers primarily saw Marcal as a value product, said M.J. Jolda, a longtime buyer of the brand who now oversees marketing. But the modern-day mom has also expressed a willingness to buy green when three attributes are present: price, performance and sustainability, and Marcal has all of those, Jolda said.

“What we’re doing here with the new campaign is challenging the conventional wisdom of ‘the industry needs to cut down trees in order to make tissue products,’” she said.

While hardcore green consumers might question the brand’s eco cred, Marcal is go-ing after the “light green” consumer, the mom “who has, wants to and cares about the environment,” Jolda said, adding that’s also the fastest growing segment within the green category. A recent sustainability report from IRI showed that “respectful stewards” and “proud traditionalists”—consumers who are willing to pay more for green products and those who buy green to save money—upped their spending on eco-friendly products by 15.5 and 8.4 percent, respectively. (Eco-centrics, the greenest of the bunch, are holding back because they’ve already spent much on green products in the past and now money is tight, the report concludes.)

Susan Viamari, IRI Times & Trends editor, said Marcal may be evoking the green theme more aggressively because paper products are highly susceptible to private label, and sustainability is an added differentiator. “Consumers care a lot about saving money, but if they don’t see a difference that validates them to invest more in any particular product, they will go with the store brand,” she said.

Meanwhile, Michael Wise, a partner at A.T. Kearney who coordinates North American sustainability efforts, said Marcal’s move has the potential to be a game changer. Said Wise: “Walking down the aisle, if you see a Bounty here and Marcal there, you’ll at least give it a try.”