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Bear Bottom: Making Sense of Charmin

Before we jump into the heart of this post I’d like to say up front that it’s a bit of a coincidence that I’m writing two posts involving bears back-to-back. I assure you it wasn’t deliberate - I don’t even like bears that much - it just so happens that companies tend to use these furry beasts in their ad campaigns more often than is probably necessary. I mean, think about it: how frequently do you actually interact with bears in your daily life? Right?

The bear that is unbearable (…sorry) today is the dreaded Charmin bear. ”The Charmin Bear?” you ask, “What in the world is that?” This is precisely the point. Did you know that, since 2000, Charmin’s official mascot has been a bear? Me neither, and I’m in marketing.

Now, rest assured that I was well aware that Charmin’s commercials have featured bears. I have seen several, if not all, of the “Call of Nature” campaign spots - you know, the ones where there are animated bears dancing in the forest (because apparently bears dance in the forest when no one is around watching), the little one makes “#2,” and the older, presumable “Mama” bear laughs at the fact that the little one has toilet paper stuck to his bum. She offers him some Charmin and, in doing so, suggests the key marketing message of the entire commercial: if you use Charmin, you won’t get paper stuck to your butt.

Yep. That’s Charmin’s best selling point: use our toilet paper so you don’t have little pieces left on your butt when you’re finished. Now, not to get too personal with you, my faithful blog reader, but are little pieces of toilet paper getting stuck to your butt the biggest things you worry about when you’re making a poo? Don’t most of us manage to take care of that in the rare event that it does happen? Instead, what we should be more concerned about is that bears are wiping their butts in the forest. If they’re smart enough to do that, what else are they capable of doing? Lock your doors.

So Charmin gives us an irrelevant, unrecognizable, unmemorable mascot in the form of the Charmin bear and, on top of that, communicates a core competency that few, if any, of us probably consider the most pressing issue when we’re in the bathroom. This is not surprising from a company whose prior slogans have included, “Less is More!”, “Look for it in a color package!”, and “Enjoy the Go.” What does this even mean? Did the company outsource its slogan writing to a non-English-speaking country?

And back to this bear… it’s one thing to have a mascot. It’s another thing not to portray that mascot consistently in your campaign executions. Below you can see that the live Charmin bear bears (…sorry again) little resemblance to the animated versions. This may be part of the reason no one knows or recalls that Charmin’s main guy is, in fact, a bear. Oh, and the fact that another, far more famous bear has sort of dominated the “bear = soft” market, and that bear is the Snuggle bear. It’s worth pointing out that the Snuggle bear is always depicted as a *teddy bear,* you know, that soft, cuddly thing that children curl up with. The Charmin bear, on the other hand, is depicted as a more realistic bear, and real bears, though furry, are anything but cute and cuddly. Claws, teeth, and brute force come to mind…not exactly qualities I want in my toilet paper. If we have to have a bear, I’d much rather have a cute, cartoon bear.

So what is Charmin to do? Well, back in the day Charmin ran quite a successful campaign featuring a grocery store owner (by the name of “Mr. Whipple”) who would have to scold customers who came into his store and hugged toilet paper in the aisle. ”Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!” he’d request, but that toilet paper was just too darn soft for the customers to resist. What did we learn from this? Well, we learned that Mr. Whipple was a curmudgeon with a terrible (yet fitting) last name, and we learned that Charmin was soft (although telling people not to touch your product seems a little silly, doesn’t it?). The problem you face in a product category with indistinguishable products is that everyone’s products, by nature, are pretty similar. So simply bringing back this campaign and positioning Charmin as the “softest” toilet paper isn’t likely to differentiate it from Cottonelle, Scott, Kleenex, Angel Soft, or Quilted Northern.

So we know people want: 1) soft toilet paper, but not so soft that it doesn’t clean, 2) absorbent toilet paper, but not so absorbent that it falls apart (gross), and 3) sturdy toilet paper, but not so durable that it clogs your toilets. But if you look at the positioning of various toilet paper brands, it’s either soft or durable, absorbent or long-lasting, durable or flushable. Although middle-of-the-road strategies aren’t always the best, might it work in the realm of toilet paper?

This reminds me of a famous story - the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Remember how the bears always had things in sets of three - beds, bowls of porridge, chairs. The first was always too lumpy, too hot, or too small; the second was always not lumpy enough, too cold, or too big; and the middle option was always just right. Well, let’s just say that Charmin was stuck on keeping this bear mascot (their European counterpart, the rebranded Cushelle brand, also a kept a bear: a koala bear), then why not add a story to it that also tells the tale of their positioning. Charmin is not “too soft” and it’s not “too rough” - it’s just right. Charmin is not “too absorbent” or “not absorbent enough,” it’s just right. Thus, whereas all its competitors anchor themselves at one extreme or another on each of the variables important to toilet paper, Charmin finds that perfect happy medium, the “sweet spot,” the “Goldilocks spot” that everyone wants. If you think about this with respect to what people look for in good toilet paper it works. Why? Because what is “soft” in toilet paper world? What is hard? What is durable? What is absorbent? I imagine consumers have a difficult time articulating what they mean by this, so if they have such a hard time putting it into words why don’t we solve the problem for them by giving them the perfectly right toilet paper?

And about that “Please Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” slogan - let’s keep it, not as a slogan but for commercial purposes, and let’s add to it. ”Please Don’t Squeeze the Charmin…Give it a Bear Hug, Instead.” We go from torturing the product by squeezing it to making a loving gesture toward the product while also paying homage to the history of the brand, as well. Our mascot is no longer an indescribable bear, it’s a family of bears - the three bears - which immediately captures a well-known story and, in the case of the commercial, the brand’s new positioning. Furthermore, given that toilet paper is a family product, we’re brining to mind family in every spot. We’re also making the spots more kid-friendly, which may not seem to matter at first, but when you think about how difficult it is to potty train children or to get them to use the restroom, in general, then moms everywhere rejoice.

So there you have it. We’ve taken a misguided brand, tweaked content it already has (bears, a classic slogan), and repositioned it to stand out in the otherwise monotonous toilet paper market - Charmin, for that Just Right Clean Wipe Every Time (…talk about a memorable tagline!). The great news is that if any of Charmin’s competitors try to go for this middle-of-the-road positioning, they’re not facing a battle with *the* classic middle-of-the-road fairytale, so they would just be doing a service to the Charmin brand, which would always come out on top. I could see the fairytale campaign going places with the bears in the future - Prince Charmin’, sitting on your throne, you name it - but for now, we’ll stick to those three cuddly bears and their perfect toilet paper.

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