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Positioning Strategy Marketing: The Surprising History of Facial Tissue Innovation

Positioning Strategy Marketing: The Surprising History of Facial Tissue Innovation

Turning a Product Improvement into Price Premium, Value-Added Feature

Usually, when I send my husband to the store to buy a specific item, I am reminded of the wide selection of features available when he comes home with a “near miss,” like multi-grain or bite-sized Club crackers instead of Original.  I know this is a risk when sending the inexperienced into what has become a jungle of choices at the grocery store. Positioning strategy marketing has multiplied the minute differentiating factors in nearly every CPG category.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by his “near miss” this past week when he brought home Puffs tissues with Vicks Scent instead of the usual tissues when I was suffering from a cold.

The aroma of the Vicks menthol scent gently helped to clear my nose as I breathed in the mildly scented tissue before blowing my nose.  While using the Vicks rub might have been more effective, the convenience of the Vicks scent right in the tissue made me feel better without the mess and bother to others that the rub would have created.

Normally, when I think of value-added benefits, I think of new features that dazzle, like adding a camera to the smart phone, but facial tissues are a great example of how even simple products can be improved to increase their value to consumers.  In fact, in the almost 100 years since the introduction of Kleenex, manufacturers have changed the properties of the facial tissue quite a bit.  What is interesting about this positioning strategy marketing example is whether the changes were product improvements that became the new status quo or a new product benefit that commanded a price premium.

Positioning Strategy Marketing: The Surprising History of Facial Tissue Innovation

Positioning Strategy Marketing:
History of Facial Tissue

Today’s sustainably-sourced, 2-ply, coconut-oil-and-aloe-infused, germ-fighting disposable tissue for blowing one’s nose seems more like a distant cousin and not a direct descendant of the original cloth handkerchief. Let’s see how positioning strategy marketing has morphed this seemingly-simple product over the years.

The handkerchief is defined as a small, usually square (at least since the reign of Louis XVI) piece of fabric used to wipe one’s nose, face, etc. or to use for decorative purposes.   Wiping various body parts has predated the advent of spinning and weaving fabric, so nature must have provided the prototype-handkerchief, which resembled its modern descendent, the tissue, in that it was disposable.  

Like many functional objects, the handkerchief was also decorative and conveyed social status.   According to a 1923 Guardian article,

“it was the mark of the Oriental prince…and became a distinguishing mark of good society.” 

In the 16th century, Italian city-states regulated handkerchiefs under sumptuary laws that limited the size, color and fabric that each social class was allowed to use for them.  These handkerchiefs are the ancestors of those little square pieces of fabric that adorn the pockets of groomsmen and match the color of bridesmaids’ dresses.  Beyond decorative physical devices, handkerchiefs are useful literary devices as well. In Shakespeare’s Othello,  Desdemona’s handkerchief is the catalyst that moves the plot forward from loving marriage to uxoricide.  The decorative handkerchief is a powerful object, indeed.

Of less power, but more function, is the handkerchief’s more prosaic progeny, the disposable tissue.  From the 17th century comes one of the first recorded instances of disposable facial tissues.  A European participant in the voyages of Japanese ambassador, Hasekura Tsunenaga, observed the Japanese custom that:

“They blow their noses in soft silky papers the size of a hand, which they never use twice, so that they throw them on the ground after usage.”    

Like many good ideas, it took new technologies to make facial tissues available to everyone.   During WWI, the Cellucotton Company invented a crepe paper gas mask filter that was modified in 1924 into the disposable paper tissue named Kleenex. In 1928, the Charmin Paper Company was producing what would become the Puffs brand when purchased by P&G in 1958. These two brands still enjoy the top two positions in the US

Positioning Strategy Marketing: The Surprising History of Facial Tissue Innovation

Positioning Strategy Marketing:
Product Improvement or Value-Added Feature

Product improvement seems to be the guiding light of most consumer product manufacturers.  Improvements in taste, nutrition, sustainable sourcing and other important product characteristics are under the microscope to drive another “better than before” product. 

While consumers love to get something better, they are not always willing to pay for it.  So the goal of manufacturers is to find improvements or features that a sizeable number of consumers value enough to pay a premium for over the qualities of the standard product.  As a low elasticity of demand (quantity demanded is not greatly influenced by a change in price, within reason, of course) product, facial tissues are a “need it when you need it” product and not a “the more I have, the more I enjoy” product.  Despite the consumer demand profile for facial tissues, both Kleenex and Puffs have positioned price premium products over the years, by identifying consumer needs that consumers will pay more for in order to be met.

Consumer Need Addressed in Positioning Strategy MarketingKleenex BrandPuffs Brand
Disposable handkerchief1930s – switched from marketing the benefit as a “cold cream remover” to “the handkerchief that you can throw away”1928 to 1958 – Charmin facial tissues.  Bought by P&G and rebranded to Puffs in 1958/1960
Travel convenience1932 – Pocket Packs introducedIntroduced To-Go Packs (date unknown)
Improved softness1990 – Ultra Soft, first 3-ply tissueIntroduced Ultra Soft (date unknown)
Lotion-infused to reduce soreness of chronic nose blowing1990s – Soothing Lotion,  aloe, coconut oil, vitamin E, and gentle moisturizers infused tissues1987 – First brand to introduce lotion
Anti-viral2004 – Anti-Viral against Rhinoviruses Type 1A and 2 (Rhinoviruses are the leading cause of the common cold), Influenza A and Influenza B (causes of the flu), Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV — the leading cause of lower respiratory tract infection in children).No product yet
Temporary relief of coughNo product yet2007– Vicks Scent

Online price comparisons were done at in October 2023 and proved a bit tricky, given that sizes were not always “apples to apples.”  Still, price premiums were clearly evident.

 Kleenex BrandPuffs Brand
BasicTrusted Care 48 ct. $1.14 (converted from 160 ct. box)Simple Softness 48 ct. (converted from 3pk -180 ct.)  $1.37
Ultra SoftUltra Soft 60 ct. $3.19Ultra Soft  48 ct. $2.39
With LotionSoothing Lotion 60 ct. $3.19 Cooling Lotion 45 ct. $2.89Plus Lotion 48 ct. $1.89
Temporary Cough Relief Plus Lotion and Vicks Scent 48 ct. $2.19
Anti-ViralAnti-Viral 55 ct. $3.19 

Positioning Strategy Marketing:
Meeting Customer Needs with Value-Added Features

Both of the leading brands of facial tissues in the US have innovated around consumer needs that consumers are willing to pay to have met. Their positioning strategy marketing has resulted in four value-added products. Given the simplicity of the product, that’s impressive.  Now, if only they could manufacturer a tissue that would cure the common cold.

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