Positioning for posteriority

I came across a job advert the other day. 

The hirer, a chief product officer, took what I thought was an interesting approach to screening candidates and I went along for the ride. 

One of the questions he posed in the ad was this:

“How would you position toilet paper made from recycled materials?”

It was an intriguing question for me because it never occurred to me to think about how the circular economy extends to something that’s so close to our back…yard. 

I recall Al Ries and Jack Trout’s seminal book – Positioning: The battle for your mind

That’s when I realized not only was this a battle for our posterior but(t) it was also one for posterity.

I researched the market. Super competitive. 

I looked into the dimensions and elements of value consumers wanted, how they think about them, how existing market players were positioning themselves. All in search of the elusive unoccupied position.

After half an hour, I realized 2 things. 

The first is that I was getting way too excited over an arbitrary exercise.

The second was it’ll take me much longer to get to a positioning strategy I’m proud to hang up on my wall. And so I decided to satisfice and work with whatever I had on hand.

Here’s my answer to the question, in these exact words: 

People look out for color and softness in toilet paper. 

1. They want white rolls –  the color is a result of bleaching, which contains chemicals

2. They want it soft – the dominant approach for softness is to add or use virgin pulp.

Recycled materials are generally more expensive to make, and may even use more dye so they can be white. 

The first thing is to reposition color itself, not the product. 

Consumers are already conditioned to see brown napkins as recycled materials. So instead of trying to mask its color and bleach the toilet paper white, we can embrace its natural color and make that our distinguishing factor for the product – brownish toilet paper. Brown, therefore is seen as material that is safe and natural, free of bleach, harmful chemicals. 

As for the softness, toilet paper is often sold as 2 or 3 ply so they became firm enough to be used. I’d position recycled material toilet paper as being strong and firm. In fact, I’d also be repositioning the softness of virgin pulp toilet paper to be artificially enhanced. Leading to the message that virgin pulp toilet paper is both taxing yourself (use of bleaching chemicals, artificial) as well as the environment.

I’ll be the first to admit the strategy could be more robust. I didn’t even talk about customer segmentation. But even so, there were a few not-so-obvious points in there worth unpacking 

Answering the question behind the question

As you’re reading this you might be wondering…isn’t the question about positioning recycled material toilet rolls vs non-recycled ones?

That’s one interpretation, but not meaningful.

To me at least.  


Because anyone who googles “recycled toilet paper brands” would find a ridiculous number of competitors. 

Legions of sustainability enthusiasts came before me to answer this question. So I don’t think I’ll be covering any new ground. 

What’s a meaningful challenge instead is to create a strategy to position against existing recycled materials toilet paper brands.

Positioning takes resources…and courage

You notice that my suggestion: the market space for “naturally colored” toilet rolls as they are i.e browner or simply not white, or that “firm is real” and “soft is fake” has always been available. 

Did I find this unoccupied space because I’m a brilliant marketer? 

I’d love to think so, but I’m not naive enough to believe it. 

First, I’m sure someone else has thought of this. And in fact, I suspect they’ve also tried to bring it to market…and failed. 

Look, I made a career switch from computer engineering to marketing – even before I graduated – on the back of one book on the idea of positioning. 

If there’s anyone who’s excited about the power of ideas and narrative to change the world,  that’s me. 

But finding the position is only the beginning. People’s minds, and behavior, take time to change. 

That means getting the word out there by all ways and means.

That means money. Over an indefinite amount of time.

Beyond the money, it takes organizational force of will to stick to your guns, especially if that repositioning requires you to reorient your company structure to produce, communicate and sell the product the way you envision it to be.

It takes courage. It takes faith. 

Faith that the market will come round to it and follow. We can talk more about faith and my fervor for startups who create new markets, but that’ll be another post. 

I suspect my Zero waste advocate friend would have a lot more to say on getting people to change their behavior. (And she did, about using bidets but that’s another story for another day) 

End of the day, it takes courage, and it takes work.

Positioning via the ecosystem

Repositioning the concept of color and material in the minds of the customer doesn’t ONLY advantage the company. It is a rising tide for any and all boats in the sea of brands marketing recycled material toilet rolls. 

Sure, you can claim to be the first brown toilet rolls or innovate through making firm but smooth recycled material rolls, but the point is if you’re going to rise the tide, why not find others who are also in the sea to do it together?

This is why a startup that wants to do this would also be well served by tapping into the ecosystem, finding partners, sharing resources, to make this happen. 

Everyone (especially marketers) can contribute, to use our powers of positioning to move towards the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible (thanks Charles Eisenstein). And we can make that move with more certainty, and more conviction, when we act with greater intention and awareness. 

We’re positioning for posterity, not posteriors.

Lessons from 2020

Ray Dalio says that pain + reflection = progress.

2020 has felt like I’ve gone through a growth spurt. This is my documentation of some of the top lessons for the year.

  1. Your body is not separate from your mind (and heart). 

In the words of an esteemed coach, we tend to think of our mind and heart as the control centers, and the body is simply there for the ride. I’ve learned that my body constantly gives me data to work with, often much more clearly than my emotions (which I’m trying to get better at discerning). The implication is that things like drinking, while it is a social lubricant, is indeed abusing the body. You are your body so go walk, exercise, hike.

  1. The belief generates the system. but the system also generates the belief. 

This one came from Charles Eisenstein. That’s the argument for why we have to go beyond changing beliefs. I’ve always believed marketers underestimate the power they’ve been handed. In the words of a legendary non-marketer (self-professed) Bill Matassoni: Marketing is about creating new systems that house new markets that explore new dimensions that create new value. That’s why I’m going beyond my current container for marketing to strategy, in order to create new markets and systems for change.

  1. Pleasure is not a bad word

There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking pleasure. Somebody said that if its not pleasurable, you won’t do it for long. It’s ok to want something. Sometimes we tell ourselves we can’t do this, or we shouldn’t do something because it’s too indulgent. I think it’s better to do it, and then see if your thirst is indeed quenched. If it’s not, you learn something about the nature of that desire. And if it does, that’s something too. That’s an example of a “pure” signal. You don’t have any confusion about what it’s like when you do or have it. I think of it like the second mountain (David Brook) effect. You have people who go really hard at what they want. They get to the top of the mountain and then they have absolute clarity. That’s how you have people make such complete transformations because they have no illusions about what that mountain top looks like. 

  1. And neither is anger

Anger is a secondary emotion that comes up when you feel like you can’t handle the challenge. It musters and focuses your energy to help you breakthrough that challenge. Like our other emotions, they are data points helping me understand who I am. A friend recommended the book Honor your anger to understand the different styles of anger. 6seconds.org also does amazing work in this domain. 

  1. How you respond to someone tells you more about yourself than the other person

I don’t mean this in a “you’re a bigger/superior person” kind of way. Rather your response gives you a window into your mental models, what you think, feel, believe. I just read an article about the concept of intentional learning. In the new world, people have to learn how to learn better. More simply (and crudely) put, to squeeze more juice out of each of the lemons AND oranges we get. Personal development has always emphasized an examination of our actions in order to make the unconscious conscious. In other words, never waste an opportunity to introspect when you feel strong emotions, whether it be intense pleasure, or anger, etc

  1. Relationships can be built, but the most powerful ones are created

Possibly one of my biggest breakthroughs for the year. We tend to think of relationships as being built layer by layer, becoming ever stronger. It’s not wrong. However, I realize that doesn’t explain how the nature of relationships can change in an instant with one single interaction – especially when you least expect it. That illustrates the risk inherent in relationships, and indeed, life. You can “destroy” friendships with one insensitive remark, or the lack of response to one. And yet it’s exactly because of this risk, that there is the opportunity to create the relationships we want. I love the slogan of Human Systems Dynamics Institute: Nothing is intractable.

  1. Help is a complex social dynamic

In 2018, I organized an event to help position a not-for-profit group I was part of. The event met with heavy resistance. Efforts to sabotage it ranged from outright verbal abuse to clandestine character assassination. I was bewildered by how in my opinion, I was backstabbed by the very people I was trying to help. My faith in people has never been lower. In 2019, I shelved that experience, but I have yet to learn the lesson it was trying to teach me. In 2020, it came. Thanks to Edgar Schein’s teachings, I realized the process of helping is fraught with pitfalls eg. the helper is perceived as superior (and hence the helped is inferior), when a group is involved, who exactly is requesting help? I realized I was complicit in enabling their behavior. No one asked for my help. Who said they needed help? Discerning my own intentions, and understanding the dynamics of helping improved my relationship skills, but that context applies equally to consulting relationships and the process of change management. We must see others as equals, not as victims to not hinder the process of creating change

  1. Understanding is not an experience of the listener

“Understanding is a feeling another person has about being listened to and of being seen, heard and felt.”. With that I’ve modified the serenity prayer (I’m not Christian btw) for my purposes: 

God grant me the serenity to listen to things unsaid, 

The strength to say the things that need saying,

And the wisdom to know when to do which.

  1. Allow space to create

John O’Donohue says a great conversation is “…when you overhear yourself saying things you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that found places within you that you thought you had lost (…)”. Life is creation, and creation needs space. If you hold on too tightly – to your preconceived notions about what you want to happen, then there is no space to “overhear” yourself, or whatever else that may emerge. To create, is to allow space. 

When doing the right thing is the wrong thing

I never imagined my first post on this site would be related to politics.

When LHL announced Pritam Singh as the leader of the opposition, my first thought was, – why bother announcing it? As part of my voter research, I’d stumbled upon the term earlier in Wikipedia, with LKY as the first-ever leader of the opposition. It never occurred to me that the role would have access to resources tagged to it.

The point about resources is why i think this is worth thinking about.

Like many other things I think about, they stem more from curiosity than passion in the subject. Therefore, I’m not so much interested in politics, as I am in trying to figure out how politics contributes to Singapore’s growth as a nation.

Without speculating the intentions of the announcement (since I’m not much of a mind reader despite what I like to think), I’m going to instead focus on what that statement from the ruling party means from the lens of corporate growth strategy – with Singapore as the organization, and growth referring to the general well-being of the nation.

Every business has core lines of business that deliver growth. No matter what that core is, its growth will eventually decline and then stop. Singapore, as an organization, is no different. The PAP is like the division heading the core business, responsible for the growth of the organization. The PAP has its own culture, idiosyncrasies, metrics for success etc. Through the years, it’s been finely tuned to efficiently deliver the outcome it strives for, whatever the outcome may have been determined to be.

And yet the day must come when an organization’s core business stops growing.

It could happen for a myriad of reasons, with disruption being one of them. When that happens, most such organizations never recover because they’ve never made the effort to seek out additional engines of growth.

The solution then is to be actively seeking out new opportunities. New possibilities for the next engines of growth for the organization.

Organizations have tried to do this by establishing new teams within the existing structure tasked to do so. But when it comes time for resourcing, the desire for growth ends up allocating resources to the core division and starving out the new teams. In the case of Singapore, the teams are exploring new ideas, policies that improve the well-being of Singaporeans.

I’ve been dipping into complexity and leadership of late. With a question as complex as what should Singapore do next, coming up with a compelling response is in equal parts figuring out WHAT to do and HOW it is done. And the opposition presents opportunities to up-level our capacity for both.

My hypothesis: LHL’s recognition of the leader of the opposition is an attempt to seek out new engines of growth for the nation. The announcement sends the following messages:

  1. It’s time to explore new engines of growth
  2. it’s going to take a team who thinks differently from the core business division
  3. It’s going to take resources to experiment so take it with my blessings

I feel, for LHL to make that statement, speaks to the level of maturity of our political climate.

My analogy so far is that PAP is a division of a company. But their status as the ruling party also means they actually wear 2 hats. Meaning, they are not just executives, but also board members. Their concern isn’t restricted to winning votes or a strong mandate, but also to make sure the organization stays true to its mission – the well-being of Singaporeans over the long term.

I’ve heard comments that if LKY looked at the results of the election, he’d shake from his grave. I don’t think so. I think he’ll be elated with how the situation is unfolding.

During my short stint as a civil servant, I remember a particular training session on policy drafting. The trainer shared that if you took a knife and opened up his heart, you would not see a PAP flag, nor will you see an opposition flag.

You will, instead, see a Singaporean flag.

LHL’s decision to recognize and give resources to the leader of the opposition isn’t an easy one because resources don’t exist in a vacuum. Recognizing the leader of the opposition means they have to take away resources from the core business to explore future opportunities. I’m way oversimplifying it, but it looks like PAP is ceding control in the short, medium-term for the long-term good of Singapore.

Tasked with the long term prospects of Singapore, we are in essence facing the innovator’s dilemma – a theory by Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation where.

Doing the right thing is the wrong thing

This dilemma is at the heart of the ruling party’s relationship with the opposition.

WP has proven itself as a team with the quality of candidates, as well as their connection with voters. This has made LHL’s decision easier to make.

Yet WP’s resonance on the ground also means, collectively, we Singaporeans have reached a level of political sophistication. You can only sell a solution to a problem the customer is aware of. Therefore, in an ironic twist, the ruling party’s decision to sell this solution – of recognizing the leader of the opposition – actually reflects a vote of confidence that Singaporeans will be discerning of not just of the work the opposition is capable of doing, but also that of the ruling party to grow and develop the nation.