Following last week’s news that the North Korean government has launched 310 new slogans, I wrote a comment piece for The Guardian on what makes an effective slogan, including my top five best and worst examples – both political and commercial. I could easily have picked different lists on any given day. You can read the whole piece here.
Andrex, the toilet paper manufacturer, has recently updated its packaging and branding to incorporate its new, trademarked ‘Andrex Clean Routine’: a five-step guide for doing the one thing in life for which we all previously hoped we didn’t need a five-step guide.
On the plus side, this marks a step away from the ‘Scrunch or Fold’ campaign that saw Andrex attempting to start a national conversation around the vexed question of whether you are a ‘scruncher’ or a ‘folder’ when it comes to the one activity in life that we all previously hoped would never become the subject of a national conversation.
It’s still hard to believe the Scrunch or Fold campaign really happened, but it did. This was one of the TV ads.
It even inspired the first and only Asbury & Asbury Vine: an art house creation that I think showed promise.
Andrex has become a great case study in modern marketing, because it represents the logical outcome of two dominant trends: the mission escalation trend and the conversation trend. Both are waves of brand thinking that have swept all before them in recent years, and it’s not exactly Andrex’s fault that they have been caught up in it. It’s just that the nature of their business means stretching both trends to breaking point.
First, there’s the mission escalation trend. This is the homeopathy of marketing. It involves taking the functional purpose of any given product, diluting it to a slightly more abstract level, then diluting it again and repeating the process until you reach a level of abstraction so remote that any sense of specific purpose has been lost entirely. So if your product is a bar of chocolate, it’s not about giving people something chocolatey to eat, it’s about giving them a tasty treat. And it’s not about giving them a tasty treat, it’s about giving them a treat in a wider sense. And it’s not about the treat as such, but the enjoyment you get from that treat. And it’s not about the physical enjoyment, but the emotional enjoyment. And it’s not about the emotional enjoyment, but joy itself. And it’s not about experiencing joy, it’s about believing in joy. And now your brand purpose is more closely aligned to Buddhism than it is to chocolate.
There’s an obvious appeal in this for marketers and creatives, because it gives everyone a bigger field to play on. With a rationale like that, Cadbury’s can move away from talking about milk and cocoa and show drumming gorillas instead, because it’s all about joy. But that was a decade ago and the trend has had diminishing returns ever since. It’s the reason Burger King has ended up with ‘Be Your Way’ as a strapline: an idea so abstract that language itself no longer makes sense.
In the case of Andrex, you can see they have consciously gone through the same process – we’re not about toilet paper, we’re about Clean. We are answering one of the fundamental needs of human existence. Our mission should be to own ‘Clean’ in the same way that Google owns ‘Search’. (I’ve been in meetings like this and Google always comes up.)
That’s what leads to this on Andrex’s website:
As an incidental point, I really wish they hadn’t put ‘bottoms’ and ‘openly’ so closely together in a sentence.
But the key part of that sentence is the word ‘so’ and what comes after it. Having established this higher purpose, we are now going to have a conversation about it.
The word ‘so’ implies some kind of causal link, but there’s no real connection. We’re going to have a conversation because that’s what brands do. Alongside mission escalation, the second big trend is Conversation.
Brands have been talking about having conversations for years, mainly since social media came along and made such a two-way exchange theoretically possible. No longer would marketing be about shouting to the masses through 48-sheets and big TV spots. Now it would be about hosting a conversation, with everyone passionately acting as your brand advocate through the simple process of joining and sharing the conversation.
Of course, nowhere on the planet has this happened. For a taste of true brand conversations, look at the Twitter feed of any major service brand – a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing.
But it doesn’t stop brands trying to start a conversation, and this has clearly been the thinking at Andrex. At some point early on, someone must have said “Look, I know it’s all about conversations these days, but do we really want to have a conversation about, you know… what we do?” And after a while came the reply: “Absolutely! It’s time to do away with the embarrassment around this subject and tackle it head on! So what if it’s a bit icky? All the more reason to have the conversation! This is an opportunity not a problem!”
Except it really isn’t, for two reasons. First of all, even if you’re going to talk about it, it’s a seriously limited conversation topic. OK, it’s important to wipe properly and be clean. That’s a single message at best, not a conversation. The most gifted conversationalists of all time would struggle to make an evening out of it. Peter Ustinov would get to 30 seconds before gently steering things towards the weather.
But even if there was more to be said, it really doesn’t have to be said. Every human instinct tells us this is an unenjoyable subject to discuss. The original marketers of Andrex took this as a self-evident truth. Andrex didn’t build itself into the biggest toilet paper brand in the UK by initiating a conversation about wiping brown stains from between your cheeks. (I’m really sorry about this post.) It showed us puppies. It told charming stories that emphasised the product benefits of softness, strength and length. There was no need to go into the details of why strength was important, because we all know why strength matters in toilet tissue. No need to spell it out. Look at the nice puppy.
It’s that kind of proper, big, traditional advertising that built Andrex to the point where its marketing people can afford to sit around in meeting rooms talking about starting conversations. Strangely, you could even argue that the traditional advertising approach sparked something much closer to a genuine conversation. People still talk about the puppy today, whereas no one is having a conversation about scrunching or folding. That campaign has been and gone, remembered only in the way you can’t shake off a bad dream.
But this post isn’t really meant to be criticising Andrex. As I said earlier, they’re just following the same trends that have swept up countless other brands in recent years. Mission escalation and conversation. (You could add a third, which is infantilisation, given the way the campaign encourages us all to be more child-like in discussing these delicate matters, and adopts the voice of a boring parent trying to engage us in an awkward conversation while we wince and edge away.)
The real point of this post is that, in following these trends, Andrex usefully takes them to their logical conclusion and shows up their inherent absurdities. When a certain way of thinking about brands leads you inexorably towards Scrunch or Fold or a five-step arse-wiping programme, there is something wrong with that way of thinking about brands.
It’s a great case study in modern marketing, and one worth having a conversation about.
Our year peaked early with a New Year’s Day interview in the New York Times about the Perpetual Disappointments Diary. It’s based on a phone interview and the way it’s been transcribed includes a few inadvertent Americanisms – I’m sure I didn’t say ‘I’m from Manchester and New Order is from there’.