How toilet paper weirdly tells a story of industrial disruption

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If you’ve been wondering recently why you use so much toilet paper. Why it seems every year you’re buying more rolls than ever before. Wonder no more. As a bonus you’ll also find out with a weird example how so many industrial companies sow the seeds of their own disruption.

The first every job I held with a big company after graduating was with Kimberly Clark. An American multinational paper goods manufacturer. A big brand of theirs is Kleenex. The market leading toilet paper which we now buy giant packs of up to 24 rolls. But it wasn’t always this way. When I started working there more than 20 years ago the best selling package size of toilet paper was a 4 pack. Did we all of a sudden start going to the toilet more frequently to require more toilet paper? If not, then how is it that most families could survive on a 4 or 6 roll pack from the weekly shop and now we need to purchase to a 24 roll pack?

Here’s how:

When I started working at Kimberly Clark most toilet rolls had between 300 and 500 sheets (paper squares) per roll. Some brands had up to 1000 sheets per roll. But what I discovered as a few years went by is that instead of raising the price, the company would simply remove 10 or 20 sheets per year. They did this as they believed that consumers are more sensitive about price than quantity. It’s a popular fast moving consumer goods ‘pricing‘ tactic to maintain profitability without changing the selling price. Kleenex Cottonelle is now down to 180 sheets per roll. In addition to this Kleenex Cottonelle is 1 ply, and the Kleenex brand it replaced was 2 ply. Some toilet papers are down to 100 sheets per roll. They even increase the size of the core of the roll to keep the same perceived roll width. So there is your answer. Each roll we buy these days has far less paper on it. Often by a factors of 4, 6 and even 10. This is why we need to buy packs which are 4x times the size. But the paper companies got what they wanted, they kept their prices per roll roughly the same.

But this goes deeper than a story of bathroom anthropology. It tells the story of how many large legacy companies are coming undone. It’s a story of their industrial mindset. And that mindset is as follows: They’d rather give their customers less for the same price than be transparent. In fact, it’s exactly what industrialists do, they want to get more for less, every single year. But in a strange kind of reversal, they end up costing themselves more and giving themselves less. Their cost per roll in distribution, and packaging goes up. And their cost per tonne of what they sell in retail margins increases. And it is of course a race to the bottom. A brand can only cut product delivery so far until the product is no longer. It also creates a worse product experience for the end consumer. I know I don’t want to carry home toilet paper packs four times the size in my trolly or buy it 4 times as frequently.

Above all of that, it shows where the focus is for these companies: On selling stuff they already sell, as cheaply as possible, using the machines they’ve already got, with a short term focus. At no point is the end user considered, or part of a strategy which doesn’t involve trickery. They have a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. On the flip side we have many startups and technology companies focused on giving more for less, and creating platforms for consumer creation and collaboration. It’s no wonder half of the the Fortune 500 lost their invitations to the party in the past 10 years.

New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now.