Off-colour, beige sees healthy sales in away-from-home and perhaps beyond

Your average British consumer favours brown eggs over white, making the assumption that brown eggs are produced by free range hens, while white, more than likely, come from battery farmed hens. In reality however, brown eggs, or white for that matter, are the result of genetic chance, with brown eggs just as likely to come from a white hen reared indoors as white are to come from a brown hen kept outdoors.

Ian Bell - Global Head of Tissue and Hygiene Research, Euromonitor International

While consumers’ choice in eggs may be a little misguided, it does go to show that consumers makes weeping value judgements based on very elemental observations, colour in this example.

Applied to tissue products, colour is a key driver of consumer purchasing behaviour. White and its association with health and cleanliness continues to be the colour of choice for most, backed by a plethora of pastille colours and prints suitable for any bathroom décor or season. While the away-from-home market (AFH) has generally looked to recreate the sense of quality associated with retail brands, there are indications that things are changing, with perhaps some potential for cross-over.


Away-from-home channel showing good growth. The AFH market for tissue has always been seen asthe less glamorous and certainly the less progressive side of the tissue industry. This reputation is due to the fact that AFH tissue manufacturers do not need to promote in the traditional sense, nor do they have the advertising budgets of their retail cousins. Development has often been pushed purely in terms of value-for-money and functionality. This is opposed to the high-profile features and comfort which typify retail brand development. It would seem then that AFH and retail channels have little in common, with cross-pollination of trends and ideas from one to the other a rare occurrence.

AFH does, however, account for roughly a third of total tissue volume sales in developed markets, and value growth over the past five years was on average more than double that of the retail channel.

As AFH has developed along value-orientated lines, this is perhaps dovetailing with the austerity era now being experienced most notably in Western Europe. As such, the opportunity for AFH to develop its position as a guiding light for future retail tissue development may already be upon us, with the category already breaking down some of the taboos which have served to keep the retail and AFH arms of the industry apart.


Where beige is green. Whereas the retail tissue channel is dominated by highly bleached white tissue, punctuated by an array of pastille colours, AFH increasingly favours beige. This trend began in the early 1990s when green issues took hold, which meant producers could save on expensive bleaching and claim the environmental higher ground. McDonald’s swapped its white food bags for brown in 1991, a decision it thought risky at the time. In the years since, high street retailers have followed suit, most notably in napkins where brown paper has become broadly accepted, with the likes of Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, EAT and Pret A Manger all swapping white for beige. Given the current importance placed on corporate sustainability/responsibility (CSR), for cafés and restaurants wanting to look like they are doing their bit for the environment, brown napkins are a very visible statement of intent. Offering no loss in terms of performance, beige napkin simplicitly convey to consumers that the company cares about more than just profit, although this may not always be strictly true.


Innovation from the middle tier. While beige has made an impact in napkins and paper towels, toilet paper has been a more difficult prospect due to its connection with health and hygiene, which brilliant white is sometimes associated with. Canadian manufacturer Cascades introduced its Moka brand of beige AFH toilet paper in North America in 2012, and the company hopes to break down the barriers that have thus far kept low bleach products out of toilet cubicles. Although Cascades is a smaller player in a market typically dominated by a handful of major multinationals, it is the size of company that appears to be a key trend driver in the tissue industry as well as in fmcg (fast moving consumer goods) in general.

While availability is crucial, the key driverin AFH will ultimately be AFH buyers, who, as green awareness grows, will be under increasing pressure to adhere to growing corporate consensus on environmental standards, with CSR now all the rage. This is likely to continue to encourage low bleach (beige) products to expand into toilet paper, and, with time and effort, this will help normalise the format across AFH. These products certainly have the right environmental profile, and although there may be some resistance, this is ultimately the direction that the industry and society is heading in.


Buyers are key. While conventional wisdom would suggest that the barrier to beige products is a lack of consumer acceptance based on colour, the opposite may well be the case.

Not only is the format more environmentally friendly, it also looks like it is. As is evident from the up take of beige napkins and hand towels, AFH customers - comprising restaurants and hotels as well as offices, schools and healthcare - want to show their patrons that they have strong green credentials.The key issue is to what extent the added eco-friendly credentials of beige toilet paper will hold sway with North America’s restaurant owners; competitive price positioning will be key. As for consumers, it must be noted that they are unlikely to notice or particularly care about the colour in the AFH environment, but will care much more about the general state of the facilities they are in.


Retail potential? While beige tissue products are looking to establish them selves more broadly in AFH, there may well be opportunity to transfer trends developed in AFH into the retail environment. While consumerson the whole have continued to buy into premium toilet paper products in spite of the recession, this has not translated into much in the way of recycled tissue sales, which are still very much the reserve of Scandinavian countries and Japan. Consumers in general seem less interested in environmental issues in tissue products, although there have been some notable efforts by the likes of Kimberly-Clark, which has introduced bamboo material into its leading Andrex brand under the Eco moniker.

While consumers are still - at least in part -put off by recycled tissue due to pricing (in many markets) as well as a perceived lack of quality, there still remains little to set recycled apart. So could beige be an answer, at lower price and in a stand-out colour? The hitherto lack of success of recycled paper suggests not, but recycled has been a tough nut to crack in many markets. If beige products were promoted widely, with an accent on educating consumers about the benefits of low bleaching products beyond just a price point, as well as something of a reassurance on quality, then there may well be space for it in the retail market.

Interestingly, the AFH channel offers a ‘try before you buy’ opportunity for manufacturers and consumers, and perhaps a high-quality, eye-catching (in the context of being beige) AFH product could make the giant leap into retail. •

  • illustrations by Scarabottolo
  • illustrations by Scarabottolo
  • illustrations by Scarabottolo
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