How Deutsch increased sales of Angel Soft with stories of single parents

Viewers flocked to inclusive, emotional spots, and sales of the toilet paper rose 6 percent.

Traditional consumer goods advertising focuses on practical benefits—lowest cost, most effective, easiest to use. For toilet paper brands, that usually means pitches like, "We’ll hurt your butt less than the other guy." But over the past two years, a series of online videos from Angel Soft has turned the category on its end by focusing more on drying tears than wiping rears.

The "Be Soft. Be Strong." campaign from Deutsch has showcased relationships that differ from the typical nuclear family, like single fathers and grandparents raising grandchildren, as well as timely topics like immigration. The ads have garnered millions of views online, and Angel Soft sales have increased by 6 percent. (With annual sales of $1.2 billion, that increase is upwards of $72 million.) The approach has worked so well, the Georgia-Pacific-owned brand is bringing the latest spots to television this week.

For the past year-and-a-half, Angel Soft's TV ads have revolved around kids making messes or life with triplets. That work is no longer running as of 2017, said Andrew Noble, senior brand director at Georgia-Pacific. Instead, those more functionally-focused spots are being replaced by three new spots about family relationships. In them, a single father deals with the challenges of raising a daughter alone, another dad coaxes his son through his first breakup and a pregnant mother handles an overactive bladder. Only the last one features a "traditional" use for the product, and that isn’t seen on screen.

"With toilet paper, everyone’s using it, everybody knows the function of it and the different products and the different attributes they stand for. You can get into lots of conversations around the functional use of the product," Noble said. "We thought there’s a better way for our brand to connect emotionally."

That realization grew out of a directive from Georgia-Pacific CMO Douwe Bergsma, who "challenged us all to think about storytelling as the way to best way engage with the consumer," Noble said, and a focus on storytelling naturally veers away from more practical appeals. While the brand isn’t abandoning product-focused TV advertising, it will play an even smaller role in the future. "Storytelling is the key to what we’re thinking about."

At the time of the campaign’s inception in 2015, growth in toilet paper sales was stalling, after a boom year in 2013. "Luxury" brands with scents, triple-ply or quilts were faring better than the standard products. Angel Soft is the second-best selling toilet paper brand in the U.S., but it’s still a distant second behind P&G’s Charmin. It needed to differentiate itself.

The "Be Soft. Be Strong." campaign debuted in June of 2015 with "Happy Father’s Day, Mom," a sweet bit of counterprogramming that had people raised by a single mother sending her Father’s Day greetings. It was a viral hit, racking up a million total views and 332 million online impressions.

Later that year, timed for Thanksgiving, Angel Soft released "Grander Parents," which featured a couple that had planned to retire speaking frankly about the joys and challenges of raising their granddaughter after her father had been sent to jail. "We wanted to celebrate something different that clearly occurs in society, but maybe people don’t talk about it that much," Noble said.

The following Valentine’s Day cemented the direction of the campaign. "Related by Love" brought together stepparents and their now-grown children to tell horror stories of their once fraught relationships, along with a tearful recounting of the moment they reconciled. Just one of those spots, "When Kelly Met Eric," received more Facebook Likes and shares than the two previous spots combined, and engagement on Facebook increased fivefold. The three "Related by Love" spots were watched to completion more than a million times across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

"’Happy Father’s Day, Mom’ was a great execution and really got us out of the gate," Noble said. But the team was left wondering how to follow it up. "With ‘Related by Love,’ we saw that same audience engagement and connection while focusing on something that was different than what we had done before, and that’s what really proved to us we can really continue to push in this area."

For the anniversary of the campaign, Angel Soft opted to take more risk and stepped into the political arena. Just weeks after Donald Trump secured enough delegates to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, "Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Rayos" featured a widowed immigrant who works three jobs to support his nine children, eight of whom still live in the Philippines. The spot included Father’s Day greetings in 22 languages.

"It was definitely a story that we felt was relevant and felt true for a lot of people," said Karen Costello, executive creative director at Deutsch. "It is the story of so many Americans in the country. It felt like a great story to tell. It felt true as a Soft/Strong story."

In November of 2016, "Lies We Tell Our Kids" took a more playful turn, letting parents share sneaky stories of how they tricked their kids into behaving. The series had more than a million completed views on Facebook and YouTube, due in part to the illustrator Deutsch had responding to social media comments in real-time, drawing the lies consumers shared.

With nearly two years of data demonstrating the appeal of their story-focused online spots, Georgia-Pacific finally made the decision to bring them to TV, in the hopes of duplicating their success on an even larger scale. Deutsch stuck to the creative process it used for the online spots, a throughline Costello said helps maintain authenticity.

"We take inspiration from how were we raised, what are the stories that we’d like to see?" she said. "In this recent campaign, one of the writers had been raised by her dad, and she had a lot of insightful memories and stories about what that must have meant for her dad, like when she had her period. You don’t always see those stories told, but they came very truthfully from her."

Whether TV viewers will respond as intensely to the work remains to be seen, especially when air time demands shorter cuts and quicker storytelling. The brand will have time to see if it works; new TV spots won’t be out until 2018, according to Noble. And Costello said she believes the new approach will resonate with a wider audience. "Using these small moments that don’t get seen in the media much, makes them feel so magical and powerful."

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