The Toilet Paper Rule

We want to be the Apple of dishwasher tablets.
We want to be the Nike of accountancy software.
We want to be the Tesla of bathroom grout.
We want to be the Supreme of clingfilm.
We want to be the Netflix of medical waste disposal.

Recognise statements like these?

We all want to be the something of something, it’s perfectly natural – and actually often quite a helpful way of spelling out your ambition. Great brands often represent market positions that are too subtle to boil down to single words or statements; and so if you want to channel one of these positions, using a brand from another category as a shorthand is a great idea.

That being said, a category error is often made with this thinking – and I wonder if you can spot it in the statements above.

Clearly, each of the statements is somewhat ridiculous. It’s pretty hard to imagine the Apple of dishwasher tablets (although no doubt someone is trying to be it), so it looks dumb on the face of it. But why is it dumb exactly? Why could these things never in any meaningful sense exist?

The answer lies in the mismatch between the inherent interest levels of the categories.

Put simply Apple occupies a category that people are interested in, have as a hobby, and spend a lot of time thinking about — whereas nobody gives a damn about dishwasher tablets other than the people who make them. What this means is that brands in Apple’s category have the bandwidth to be interesting in a way dish rag brands do not. They have people’s attention; they have natural complexity; they have avenues through which to innovate; they have sex appeal.

This means that making an interesting technology brand, sportswear brand, car brand, fashion brand, media brand is easy because those categories are interesting by default – whilst most other categories aren’t.

A lot of the most interesting strategy (and subsequently brand work) these days exists in fashion in particular.  This is not a coincidence – it’s because fashion brands are vehicles people use to define themselves, and thus are uniquely capable of carrying complex narratives.  People love thinking about themselves, and so it stands to reason they most enjoy thinking about brands which are extensions of themselves.

I feel that people don’t pay enough attention to this idea of the inherent “interestingness” of categories, and this is a problem because it results in unrealistic expectations.  Pick up any business book, and you’ll be confronted with case studies of brands from these rich industries. The implication you’re given is that these brands are great because they did something great which you could copy. But this implication is false. They are largely great because they do things that are interesting already, even with weak strategy and execution – and if you don’t, then sorry, you’ve little hope to capture their magic.

(I always thought this in particular about the section in Blue Ocean Strategy on Cirque du Soleil.  I mean seriously, if you can’t carve out a blue ocean as a circus then there’s no hope for you)

In short, most people don’t care about most brands – not because the brands are somehow underperforming, but because they occupy categories that are fundamentally low interest, and always will be.

This means that rather than trying to channel Apple or Nike no matter who you are, you have to be respectful of consumers, and adapt your brand strategy to the boringness of your category:

  • Interesting categories can sustain rich, storied, high minded, and sophisticated brands, because people pay attention to them
  • Boring categories can’t, and instead reward direct, shallow, and distinctive brands

Here’s a highly scientific graph to make the point.

How To Own A Brand Territory

This leads us to what I call the toilet paper rule:

If people don’t care about your category, don’t try and make them.

If you want to learn how to own a brand territory, demand only the amount of thought from consumers which is consistent with the interestingness of your category.

The reason I call it the toilet paper rule is because a textbook example of a strong strategy by a boring brand is Andrex. Andrex makes toilet paper – the archetype of a low-interest category. In order to be successful here, you will notice that they don’t seek to offer any complex or high falutin’ value. Instead, they own one of the most basic territories you can imagine: softness.  Almost more a visceral sensation than anything people actually “think” about. Then, to communicate this in their brand, they respect consumers’ lack of interest by using the most direct – almost subliminal – icon they can think of to get the idea across: puppies.

Puppies = softness. I get it. And that’s about as much time as I’m prepared to spend thinking about toilet paper.

Now at this point, someone might reference Who Gives A Crap as a counterpoint. In case you’re not aware, they’re a more sophisticated and purposeful toilet paper brand focusing on eco-credentials.  Surely they show that you can elevate people’s interest even in a low-interest category?

I don’t think so. Who Gives A Crap are primarily noteworthy for their funny name and super stylish packaging, which looks great on display in your bathroom. These, like the Andrex puppy, are instant, lowest common denominator purchase signals – which don’t even directly speak to their ethical proposition.  In reality, they are basically the “fun” toilet paper – which it’s amazing nobody has really nailed before, given the natural humour of the category.  Sure, the eco stuff is a nice rational support element – and I’m sure is the priority of a small number of super-conscious consumers.  But let’s be real, it’s not why they’re famous.

Brands like these can put a whole bunch of beautiful copy on their websites, but ultimately they can’t escape the fact that in their category, purchases are made in a very shallow way. This means they need shallow strategies: anything more will be lost in the market’s overwhelming indifference.

I encourage you then to be honest with yourself about where your category sits in your consumers’ priorities. Is it something they love thinking about, talking about, researching, and spending money on? In which case you’re in luck – your scope for building an exciting and differentiated company is huge, and you probably have lots of options by which to do it.

But if it’s something dull, functional, and bought on zombie-like autopilot? Then yours is a different game. You need to be sharp, quick, clear, and then get the hell out of their way.

Nobody buys the mouthwash with the grandiose vision to change the world. They make fun of it.

So respect people’s priorities and time, and they’ll respect you.

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