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.