Dear Toilet Paper, Be My Valentine

A brief history of Toilet Paper and how love is a many splintered thing

What is it about some products we possess that make them more desirable than others? Some items, like toilet paper, for example, are utilitarian and practical. We don’t buy it because we love it or because it is critical to our daily survival, but…(comedic pause)…because it solves a problem in an inexpensive, convenient kind of way. For those of us who grew up with toilet paper, we do not give it much thought—until the roll is empty. However, there was a time in the recent past when toilet paper did not exist in the United States. It was first introduced as a commodity in the US in the late 1880s and took a number of years to be refined into the product we take for granted today. As late as 1930, the Northern Tissue Company’s main selling point stated their brand was “splinter-free.” Yikes.

Early in the product life cycle, TP was so expensive to produce, only the wealthy could afford the luxury. Even as the product became more available, it took a while to catch on. In fact, some of our older readers may have a fond recollection of the Sears & Roebuck catalog—and not just for the vast selection of items they carried. While it is still a nonessential item in some countries, in the United States, it is simply a given that it will be present in every restroom nationwide. 

So where are we going with this dissertation on toilet paper?

Smartphones & Toilet Paper: Two product designs we love for different reasons

The point is that very few people today come back from the restroom and exclaim “I simply love my toilet paper!” One would really question what transpired in there to elicit such a response from a co-worker. However, if we were to hear someone say, “I simply love my iPhone!”, very few people would even wonder why they said it. Why would we question it? We no longer are required to remember phone numbers, addresses, or important dates. And when we need to know who invented toilet paper, we have the whole internet at our thumb tips. In the US, smartphones have become so commonplace that they have almost crossed the line between pragmatic and gratuitous. There may be a point in the product life cycle where they become so widespread if someone were to proclaim their love for their phone, everyone would think they were mad—much like we would with toilet paper today.

Product life cycles are affected by many variables which dictate the lifespan of the design

If we were to consider the life cycles of both products, the curves might look like this:

Smartphone Lifecycle VS Toilet Paper Lifecycle.jpg

Apple hit a home run with the iPhone and changed the way we work and live. The introduction was huge, and the growth and maturity of the product plateaued quickly. Only recently are we seeing a decline in the market which has more to do with market saturation and slow product obsolescence-- smartphones are not a consumable product, and most people do not buy a new one every week. Even new and improved features are having only a slight effect on product sales. Toilet paper, on the other hand, had a slow start to market acceptance and while the product has obviously matured, sales are not declining. This is because as a consumable product that is perceived to be a “necessity”, sales will continue to be buoyed by population growth and wider acceptance in developing countries. The same variables will drive smartphone sales as well, but not on the same logarithmic scale.

For Joseph Gayetty, who is credited with first commercializing TP in the US, his product did, in fact, change the way we live—it just took longer to happen. You might say he was the Steve Jobs of bathroom tissue. For those of us that work in product design and development, designing a product which changes the world is nirvana. It is what we dream of. But most new products simply fill an everyday need and are just as important as those that become industry icons--and they occur much more frequently. As shown in the graphic above, during the product design and development stages, sales are zero and profits are actually negative because the predicted future profits are being invested in the product development.  The longer it takes to develop the product and begin production/distribution, the lower the profits will be over the lifetime of the product. Companies with solid product development strategies usually devote some of their budget to “product futuring” activities to search for the next big thing in their industries. These projects typically have more risk and longer development phases. This is why the majority of development resources are invested in product offerings that pay the bills and have more rapid development cycles. 

Catalyst shares the love for all product design and plastic development projects

Catalyst has been involved in many industry-changing projects for our clients--From creative plastic components and prototypes to complete turnkey designs resulting in recognizable products used by consumers worldwide. To us, it doesn’t matter if we are working on the next smartphone or better toilet paper, we are passionate about all projects. Check out our portfolio to see some of our past loves.