Quilted Northern Ads Try New Approach: Candor

The fact that Georgia-Pacific still refers to its Quilted Northern brand as “bath tissue” demonstrates the toilet paper segment’s fondness for euphemism, but a new campaign for one of its products aims for straight talk.

Ads for Quilted Northern Soft & Strong show women against a white backdrop speaking their mind. “It’s time to get real about what happens in the bathroom,” says one woman. “Stop all the cutesy stuff,” another adds. A third woman states, “Feeling clean is so important.”

Patrick Davis, senior marketing director on Quilted Northern, said the spots are revolutionary in the sense that they aim to change the tone of toilet paper advertising thus far. Campaigns for brands in this space often tout that a particular product is “soft” or “strong,” but those happen to be the basic “prices of entry” into the category, he said.

“Consumers have become bored with those conversations. [However] there is really an opportunity for us to focus on why people buy toilet paper—which is to get clean,” he said.

It’s a change in messaging for a brand that ran ads for most of this past decade showing cartoon “Quilters” talking about its products. Davis admitted that while those spots did a “good job of getting across some [product] attributes, it really wasn’t connecting with real people, especially when, in other categories, we’re starting to see much more frank conversations.”

In the last year, ads from consumer product companies like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark have opted for straight talk relating to topics like feminine hygiene and adult incontinence. (An ad for U by Kotex, K-C’s new, color-studded fem care line targeted at younger consumers, reads: “I tied a tampon to my key ring so my brother wouldn’t take my car. It worked.”)

The testimonials in the spots (which use actresses) all stem from actual conversations consumers were having about toilet paper, said Jorge de Castro, senior brand manager on Quilted Northern. The brand, though, did test the limits on how far it could go.

“We’re not just pushing the conversation; we’re setting the tone,” de Castro said.

Nevertheless, rivals in the category are also moving toward a more frank approach. Ads featuring a family of bears for P&G’s Charmin show what happens when toilet paper “leaves pieces behind.” And Kimberly-Clark is encouraging consumers to spread the word about the “freshness” one can achieve by using its Cottonelle Fresh Flushable Moist Wipes. That program, called “Get Fresh With a Friend,” offers consumers and their friends a free tub of Cottonelle plus a hanger to dispense of the product.

Michael Fanuele, chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG in New York, said the shift describes what happens when a brand gets real about its dual image in the marketplace. “Every brand has a dark side, a shadow side, the side people don’t want to talk about,” Fanuele said. “[But] when a brand embraces its shadows, it can become more powerful.”

In the case of Quilted Northern, the brand is tapping into the fact that consumers want advertising—and brands—that are real and authentic. But this still isn’t enough, Fanuele said.

“This [still] feels like old-fashioned packaged-goods advertising,” he said, noting the “perfectly cast, [smiling] women” and the white background. “It feels like a sanitized version of a very unsanitary conversation.”

Added Fanuele: “In a day and age of Family Guy, this isn’t an honest conversation about poop.”       

The campaign, by DDB, New York, is actually the first major push for Quilted Northern Soft & Strong—the company’s premium tier of bath tissue—in more than two years. It follows a period in which the paper products company had mainly been focused on advertising its three-ply Ultra Plush product.

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