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How to build a cool brand in an unexpected category

shampoos, luxury cars, tech gadgets and toilet paper?

RMIT Online
RMIT Online

It was probably inevitable that, as traditionally cool product markets became crowded—think shampoos, luxury cars, tech gadgets and designer perfumes—brand experts would turn their attention towards unexpected ones. The toothpaste market, the mattress market, the unexplored branding worlds of banking, insurance, dental floss and toilet paper.  

Not that companies hadn’t been making money from toothpaste and toilet paper for years, but that was mostly down to market share, not clever advertising. There weren’t many businesses trying to make insurance cool, so companies didn’t have to worry too much about lofty things like ‘brand identity’.  

Oh, how the times have changed.

“Rather than building a better version of what already exists, take the time to truly understand the problem"

                                                                                   - Matt Hodges, senior director of marketing at Intercom

 

Traditionally "un-sexy" products are now the wild west of brand strategy. Millennial audiences demand a top-shelf customer experience no matter what they’re buying, whether it’s a luxury or utility, and thanks to the visibility of social media, consumers can build their identity not just through the clothes they wear or the cars they drive, but through the toothpaste they use.  

Sounds far-fetched? Look at luxury toothpaste brand, Marvis, which leveraged social media to grab a slice of the $28 billion US oral care market. By positioning their product as a designer status symbol, rather than a boring nighttime ritual, Marvis can charge luxury prices for—essentially—toothpaste in a tube. It’s not even the product itself that matters, it’s the experience. This is something good marketers have known for decades.  

“Rather than building a better version of what already exists, take the time to truly understand the problem and then build a solution based on that,” says Matt Hodges, senior director of marketing at Intercom. “You have to unpack problem before you try to solve it. Really understanding the market and customer pain points first, will then help development and also market placement.” 

“Even with the name of our brand, we set up the expectation from the get-go that any interaction is going to have that kind of playful nature to it,”

                                                                                         -WGaC growth marketing manager, Tim Baxter

 

We’ve seen this with several canny brands in Australia. Who Gives A Crap (WGaC) looked at the market and saw that a) toilet paper branding was incredibly dull, and b) no-one was satisfying consumer demand for sustainable, ethical toilet paper. As far back as anyone can remember, toilet paper marketing has been all about utility (softness, firmness, value, price) rather than purpose or personality. Who Gives A Crap now sells about $15 million worth of toilet paper each year.  

“Even with the name of our brand, we set up the expectation from the get-go that any interaction is going to have that kind of playful nature to it,” says WGaC growth marketing manager, Tim Baxter. “We have access to at least 120,000% more puns than other businesses, right?” 

Koala is another Australian brand that’s decided to play in the traditionally ‘un-sexy’ space. In this case, the world of mattresses. Like WGaC, Koala noticed that the mattress market was primed for disruption, not just in terms of price (Koala mattresses retail from around $750, which undercuts pretty much every conventional mattress company) but also in terms of convenience. In their first year, Koala went from zero to $13 million in sales, largely by nailing their value proposition: a relatively cheap, good-quality, no-fuss mattress, that can be delivered to your door within four hours. By addressing common paint points—mattresses are traditionally bulky, expensive, heavy and uncool things—they took the entire industry by surprise. 

"This raises another interesting question, particularly in the age of COVID: what messages will we tolerate from what brands?"

You can find "un-cool" category branding examples practically everywhere. In 2018, Frank Health Insurance began talking like Frank Body, and pretty soon every insurance company was running some straight-shooting riff on, ‘Insurance is annoying and boring—we get it.’ Frank ditched the traditional insurance market proposition—we care about you and your loved ones—which, to be honest, was so transparently out of whack with how consumers actually felt about insurance that it’s amazing it endured as long as it did. By doing so, they pivoted an entire industry’s brand experience. 

This raises another interesting question, particularly in the age of COVID: what messages will we tolerate from what brands? When the pandemic struck, brands were forced to walk a tightrope between caring and cashing in. Our inboxes were flooded with “stay safe” messaging from some very odd products indeed. For instance, we’re willing to accept a supermarket saying “we’re here for you” during a pandemic, but we’re less willing to swallow that from a perfume company, or Toyota, or a bank.  

This is one area where usually "un-sexy" products might have a slight edge. Because they often work in utilitarian spaces that fill a specific need—like toilet paper or mattresses—and because they’re often accompanied by purpose-driven messaging, we’re more willing to accept their messages of comfort, or condolence. As always, it comes back to the product: what you sell matters, but so does how you choose to sell it.   

 

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