Most every upstart brand hopes for a big breakthrough, that golden moment when its product gets picked up by a magazine, featured in a TV segment or appears on some celebrity’s social media account. There are many ways that a formerly obscure brand can suddenly gain the spotlight and, with it, the chance to go big.
Entrepreneur Samira Far thought that her own brand, which is called No. 2, would get its big break sooner or later. She did not think that break would come because of Covid-19.
“This is a weird one for sure,” Far told Adweek. “We weren’t banking on it.”
Founded last year, No. 2 is a toilet tissue made from bamboo—a fast-growing woody plant whose durable pulp eliminates the need to cut down forests. As such, it falls into a growing but still modestly sized category of sustainable products—household goods that cost a little more but get tossed into the shopping cart by consumers who are increasingly worried about the fate of the environment.
After her research revealed that whole forests get leveled to make toilet paper, whose rolls come wrapped in polyvinyl chloride, Far figured the segment was vulnerable to a challenger brand like hers.
“When the industry is dominated by one type of service or product, there’s always room for disruption,” she said. “I felt that the brands and the way they were packaged in bulky plastic was very, very outdated.”
But Far had her work cut out for her. Toilet paper is a very big business. It’s worth $9.7 billion in North America alone, according to data from Euromonitor International. But it’s a category ruled by habit—a family tends to choose a brand and stick with it—and dominated by the big boys. Nearly three quarters of the toilet tissue market falls under the control of a triumvirate of corporations: Procter & Gamble boasts a 29.4% share, Kimberly-Clark has 22.6% and Georgia-Pacific controls another 22.4%. These companies sit on marketing budgets worth literal billions.
Then Covid-19 appeared. As many a news story has documented, one of the first items stripped from store shelves was toilet paper. According to NPD, bathroom tissue sales in March and April were up by 58% over the same period last year. Put another way: Freaked-out consumers in full-on hoarding mode spent $1.6 billion on toilet paper.
And once shoppers could no longer find their usual brand on the shelves, they took desperately to the internet—where Far’s brand was waiting. No. 2 could be found on a handful of speciality sites like Goop, on the brand’s homepage and, fortunately, on Amazon. Far began seeing a dramatic sales rise on March 9, then a surge two days later. Within 10 days, every last roll had sold out.
“People were clearly going to Google and seeing where they could find toilet paper, because it was the first time people could think about toilet paper,” Far said. “It’s usually something they don’t think about.”
But now that most of the panic buying is over and Far’s stocks are replenished, the challenge is to make the most of the unexpected opportunity. Far will need to do that with the brand’s differentiation.
Visitors to No. 2’s site will learn, for example, that the world cuts down 27,000 trees every day to make the toilet tissue that does the world’s wiping. Bamboo is a far more renewable resource because a bamboo forest grows to full height in as few as four years, versus at least 20 (and perhaps even 50) years for a deciduous forest.
No. 2 also eliminates a problem that the company refers to as “butt crumble”—a condition (which Far has trademarked) that involves little bits of tissue sticking to … well, look it up.
Most noticeably, there’s the packaging. By wrapping each roll in paper featuring patterns from flowers to leopard spots, No. 2 does away with plastic, is easier to store than those humongous econo-packs and can be stacked out in the open as a design accent. “If it’s going to be wrapped in paper and if you can put it out, why not make it fun and stylize up your bathroom?” Far said.
Then there’s the price. Amazon sells No. 2 for $29 for a 24-pack (it comes to $1.62 per roll), a small premium over, say, Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle brand, which sells a 24-roll pack for $25.18.
But, Far concedes, now that Covid-19 has afforded her brand an unprecedented chance to reach thousands of new customers, the only thing that will hold onto them will be the integrity of the product itself. After all, No. 2 doesn’t exactly have the marketing might of Georgia-Pacific.
“Some people will want to continue to buy right away, and some will want to try other products and then maybe come back to us,” Far said. “It’ll be organic.”
Fortunately for Far, market trends are on her side. Sustainable products may still be a bit player, but their popularity is growing steadily. According to a study by the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, products that made sustainability claims visible on the packaging held a 16.6% market share in 2018, up from 14.3% five years earlier, and accounted for yearly sales of $114 billion. Moreover, Nielsen data shows that nearly half of consumers (48%) say they would “definitely or probably” be willing to buy sustainable products to lessen environmental impact.
And once they find out they can finally do away with butt crumble, that number might rise a little more.