Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper: A Product Strategy Case Study

Josh Korr, Former Product Strategy Director

Article Categories: #Strategy, #Product

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Who Gives a Crap's great brand wasn't enough to overcome my product frustrations and keep me from switching to Reel.

I've been using eco-friendly toilet paper for about a year, since my colleague Carolyn did a great presentation on making greener purchasing choices. And while I won’t go back to wasting-the-trees toilet paper, I have since switched eco-friendly brands because of some frustrations I experienced with the first product I tried.

The dynamic of that switch is an interesting product strategy case study. Who Gives a Crap, my entry into eco-friendly paper, leans heavily into brand as a differentiator. But in the end, their great brand wasn't enough to keep me from switching to another product, Reel.

In this post, I share my experience with these two companies through a product strategy lens.

A screenshot of Who Gives a Crap's website, showing two rolls of toilet paper and the marketing copy 'Good for the planet, good for your bum.' The color palette is bright (lavender and green), and the font is bulbous and playful, evoking comic book or cartoon lettering.
A screenshot of Reel's website, showing a spa-like tableau of toilet paper rolls, high-end soap, a succulent, lotion, and a toothbrush in a nice mug, with the marketing copy 'The future of paper is here. Premium-quality, tree-free paper products.' The color palette is midnight blue and white, and the font is modern sans serif.

Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper Core Strategy

Who Gives a Crap and Reel have similar core strategies. Both offer eco-friendly toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels for the same broad customer segment: people who want to reduce environmental impact (an “emotional” or “social” customer problem, in Jobs-to-Be-Done parlance) while using toilet paper and tissues for the things one needs those for (a “functional” customer problem). Both are certified B Corporations and donate a portion of revenue or profit to nonprofits.

A diagram showing a strategy comparison of Who Gives a Crap and Reel. For each of the companies, the diagram shows a subset of Business Model Canvas style sections. The Who Gives a Crap diagram shows a Customer Problems section, a Solutions section, and a Differentiators section. The Customer Problems section shows several elements denoting customer problems: The first problem is 'Reduce my environmental impact' and is denoted as an Emotional/Social problem. The second problem is depicted as a poop emoji, sneeze emoji, and sponge emoji, and is denoted as a Functional problem. The third problem is 'Buy from companies that align with my values (help the world) and is denoted as an Emotional/Social problem. The solutions section shows several elements of the product offering: Eco-friendly paper products, donate 50% of profits to sanitation and clean water nonprofits, and Certified B Corp. The Differentiators section shows one item: Witty, engaging brand. That covers the Who Gives a Crap diagram. The Reel diagram includes the same items in the Customer Problems section, and in the Solutions section shows: Eco-friendly paper products, donate $0.50 of every order to tree-planing nonprofit, and Certified B Corp.

Who Gives a Crap has one big differentiator: brand. And they have an amazing brand.

They write witty and engaging copy that infuses every point in the customer journey, from the marketing site to confirmation emails to product packaging. The brand and packaging design is vibrant, bright, fun, and polished. It makes me smile every time I look at it.

A screenshot of the hero section of Who Gives a Crap's homepage. The heading copy is 'Wipe that frown upside down.' The sub-heading copy is 'Bring cheer to your rear with Happy TP™️. The font is grape purple on a robin's egg blue background.
A screenshot of a Who Gives a Crap order confirmation email. The copy reads: 'You just did a really good thing. Your order will arrive within 2-7 business days, but we'll let you know as soon as it ships. In the meantime, give yourself a pat on the back for helping people access clean water and toilets. Yay you!'
An image showing a mosaic-like arrangement of Who Gives a Crap tissue boxes. The boxes show bright colors and abstract geometric patterns. Some of the boxes' perforated tops are shown, each of which has fun copy on it. One reads 'You have bold dance moves.' Another reads 'Hey, take the day off.' Another reads 'You smell like a fancy candle.' The last one reads 'Even cats think you're great.
A photo, taken by the article author, showing a Who Gives a Crap shipping box with fun copy on it. The copy reads, 'Is your cat / kid / neighbourhood ghost finished playing with the box? Recycle it!'

From Brand Promise to Product Frustrations

I started with Who Gives a Crap, trying their toilet paper and tissues. They passed my initial green-product-skepticism test: from a functional perspective, the products were adequate to good.

But then I found myself getting a little frustrated. Nothing major, just small things — but they kept happening. I even felt bad about feeling frustrated, because I liked the brand so much.

I broke the frustrations into two categories:

Functional Frustrations

Pilling Apart: Besides the normal uses of toilet paper, I also used it to wash my eyes upon waking up. And I found that when moistened, the paper would disintegrate a little and leave bits on my face.

Experience Frustrations

Can’t Tear a Square: The toilet paper never tore along its perforations. So every time I used it, I inevitably ended up with multiple ragged half-squares.

Dented Boxes: During more than a year as a customer, every single shipping box has been partially crushed. When I open the shipping box, the tissue boxes are also usually dented and a few boxes’ perforated tops have come loose. As best I can tell, the shipping box size is simply not the right size for the product packaging sizes.

A photo, taken by the article author, showing a Who Gives a Crap dented shipping box and several dented tissue boxes.

Funky Box Breakdown: Once I'm done with a tissue box, it’s surprisingly annoying to disassemble for recycling. The box doesn't come apart easily, through some combination of too-strong glue and odd folding. (Yes, this means the boxes are both too strong to break down and too weak to survive the delivery. Come on!)

The Funky Box Breakdown frustration in action.

From Frustration to Churn

Now, if Who Gives a Crap were the only eco-friendly option, I would deal with all of the above. It was good enough functionally, and my values would outweigh my desire for neat tearing and properly sized packaging.

But — record scratch! — there are other products in this space.

Shortly after realizing I was frustrated with Who Gives a Crap, I happened to hear a podcast ad for Reel. I'd never heard of them, and hadn’t been frustrated enough to pro-actively look at other options. But when I heard the ad, I decided to try it. (Sidenote: I guess some people do actually use podcast offer codes to get 10 percent off their first order. Who knew!)

Note that throughout my acquisition journey, I didn’t smile once. The brand is pedestrian and boring, though well-designed (if understated). They never made me laugh.

A screenshot from Reel's website showing shipping box and three rolls of toilet paper. The design is muted compared to Who Gives a Crap, with a brown and white palette. The toilet paper wrapper shows Reel's iconic letter R, which looks like a toilet paper roll.

But after my first use, I immediately decided to switch to Reel, because the product was better.

Functionally, the paper seems sturdier; it doesn't fall apart when I dab my eyes. Experience-wise, the tearing isn’t 100% perfect but tears accurately most of the time. The shipping box is never dented.

I have continued to use Who Gives a Crap for tissues, solely because Reel’s smallest order has too many boxes to store in my small space. But if Reel ever offers a smaller order size, I’ll definitely switch.

From a product strategy perspective, this illustrates that besides the core customer problems you’re solving, you also need to understand your customers’ additional decision criteria (a.k.a. Jobs-to-Be-Done’s “desired outcomes” or Business Model Canvas’s “pains and gains"). These criteria may not be top-of-mind or conscious; they may not be explicit criteria for a customer’s initial purchase decision.

A diagram showing an updated version of the Customer Problems sub-section from the previous strategy diagram. The diagram shows the customer problem item with the poop emoji, sneeze emoji, and sponge emoji from the previous diagram. This diagram adds a Decision Criteria section, with the items Strength, Tearability, Undented boxes, and Easy disassembly.

But once a competitive product enters the picture, those decision criteria — each of my small, it’s-not-a-big-deal frustrations — suddenly become a churn risk.

As for my relationship with Who Gives a Crap? Sorry, friends: You make me laugh, but it turns out I do give a crap — about product and packaging quality! (Zing?)

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