In 2008 a Swedish paper company called SCA, acquired the rights to sell Charmin toilet paper across Europe. Charmin’s parent company was consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble, who had built the brand up to 3rd place in the UK market thanks to brand awareness from millions in advertising spend, and a friendly cartoon bear on the package. There was just one catch. Within 3 years they had to change the name, and lose the cartoon bear.
At the time the brand was worth over $100 million, with 5.6 million customers customers, who were 50% more loyal than customers of Velvet, the number 2 in the market (pun intended). Millward Brown’s research predicted 26% brand awareness, and 20% fewer sales as the projected cost of losing the brand name, expecting it to take 3-4 years to recover the lost ground. That’s precisely what happened in Germany – a 21% drop in sales – where Charmin was folded into SCA’s existing brand Zewa.
In the UK market they actually went for the rebrand, so we had something of a natural experiment. Their initial concept to replace the bear, Baby MD, tested horribly in focus groups, so they commissioned some research using Semiotics, the study of symbolic communication. They studied the competitive set, analyzing packaging, advertising, branding. They found the usual key attributes of a toilet roll brand – softness, strength, absorbancy – but they also found something else.
UK culture was particularly uncomfortable discussing toilet-related topics, but special allowances were made for animals and children who aren’t expected to maintain as much decorum. This was the symbolism that made the Charmin bear work: it relaxed customers about a taboo topic. This is what Freud called an “anxiety displacement mechanism”. Once you realize you see it everywhere: near every UK toilet roll brand has a baby, toddler, or animal on the packaging. It also helped that it was an anthropomorphic cartoon bear – affable, round, not particularly intelligent – of the sort British people grew up with: Paddington, Winnie-the-Pooh, Baloo from Jungle Book. They also looked into the significance of the name. The soft “Ch” consonant cluster sounds French to British consumers, and therefore takes on an air of sophistication, femininity, and elegance. Importantly the name also avoided potential confusion by not colliding with local regional slang.
The rebrand was built on the basis of this research, finding a new set of ‘memes’ that were as close as possible to what consumers expected from Charmin, without raising the ire of P&G’s lawyers. They introduced the new brand “Cushelle” to the market with a cartoon Koala as the mascot. The name was linguistically similar to Charmin, and a Koala is technically not a bear (it’s a Marsupial), but it’s as close as you can get in consumer’s minds. They also have some other nice properties like being associated with being soft and cuddly (though in reality they’re actually quite aggressive), and already being familiar to a UK audience who travel regularly to Australia.
The results were: no loss in sales! The switch went off without a hitch, with none of the negative impact seen in Germany. In fact, Cushelle went on to become the number 2 brand (pun intended) in the UK by 2017. This was a victory for Semiotics which is very similar in practice to Memetics. In identifying key cultural insights and tagging the ‘signs’ or ‘memes’ that competitors used to tap into that culture, they were able to pull off a successful rebrand, and maximize the return on hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.
Rebranding Charmin: A case study in semiotics
Using Semiotics in Marketing: How to Achieve Consumer Insight for Brand Growth and Profits