So, I was originally gonna write about something different today. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine blots out everything else I try to think about, so I’m gonna talk about Who Gives a Crap toilet paper instead. Because one response to hate and destruction is to remind ourselves of the power of creativity to make a better world.
If you like today’s #toneknob, consider donating to a charity helping Ukraine. (This Evening Standard piece has a good round-up of verified agencies, charities and NGOs.)
Who are they?
Who Gives a Crap started as a crowdfunded project in Australia a decade ago. They make sustainable toilet paper and give 50% of their profits to build toilets and fund clean sanitation projects around the world. And they do it with a distinctive playfulness that’s unlike any other loo roll company ever. As the founders say, it’s a brand borne of ‘a shared passion for humanitarian aid and toilet humour’.
Tell me about their voice…
It’s well worth watching their original IndieGoGo video. All the ingredients are there: a playfully absurd light touch. Loads of toilet-related punnage. And what I think is their defining tonal quality – the way they move from silliness to absolute seriousness without missing a beat. But we’ll come back to this. We should look at the humour first.
Now, toilet paper brands are always banging on about two things: softness and strength. And they’re always trying to find new ways to say that they’re softer or stronger-er than others, or than they were previously. The category is full of stuff like Feather-soft. Cushionelle; Supreme quiltedness; Gentle cushionified feather-soft supreme quilted sbllblbbb... It ends up being a sort of suffocating onomatopoeia of softness.
Not Who Gives a Crap. They’re way weirder:
I think about this line a lot. ‘Unicorn kisses’ aren’t even a thing. ‘1000 ponies’ is so brilliantly precise. (Ponies aren’t even renowned for being strong! So you need loads of them!) And of course it also brings alive the idea of softness much more vividly than all that cushiony-soft language we’ve become deaf to. Also, I like that while Andrex have puppies, Who Gives a Crap have unicorns. They make regular appearances. Here they are again:
Then there’s the toilet-related puns: HOLY SHEET! PLYING IT FORWARD! WE’RE COMPLETELY WIPED OUT! GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THINGS! This below from a blog post. (Their blog is called ‘Talking Crap’, natch.)
The punning is constant, yet handled with enough care that it never wears thin or sounds cheap. I also notice that whenever other people write about Who Gives A Crap – which is often, and usually at great length – they also throw themselves into the whole punning vibe. Which gives Who Gives a Crap a sort of viral tone of voice.
It’s interesting that no other bog roll brand has ever really gone big on toilet humour, isn’t it. They’re all trapped in a sort of euphemism parallel universe, unable to talk about toilets like normal people. Andrex, for example, say ‘clean is a feeling… what’s your feeling of clean?’ My what?
Which brings us to bum. Who Gives A Crap just love the word bum. BUM. BUM. BUM. BUM. BUM. It’s everywhere. Here it is on the delivery box:
Blimey, there’s still loads to say. Best crack on. We need to acknowledge how Who Gives a Crap swerve the whole ‘wackaging’ thing by using their toilet rolls as a genuinely useful ongoing FAQ. Here’s one answering ‘why do you wrap each toilet roll individually?’ Naked burrito. It’s the rules. Better than plastic. Lovely.
Then of course there’s the ‘Emergency Roll’. It’s a brilliant bit of naming something into existence. And a bit like Ronseal’s ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ slogan, I now can’t remember what I used to say before.
So, to recap: we’ve got unicorns-as-softness-barometer; we’ve got relentless toilet puns; we’ve got gleeful use of the word ‘bum’; we’ve got copy-led packaging and the genius ‘Emergency Roll’…
And let’s go back to what I said at the start: as well as all of the fun and playfulness, I think Who Gives a Crap’s superpower is their ability to seamlessly blend the fun and the serious messages together. Here’s their ‘about’ page:
From puppies and sunny days to children dying from diarrhoeal diseases and back again. The way they can say ‘we thought that was pretty crap’ and it come across as sincere, not flippant. If you check out their shop, you’ll notice – or perhaps you won’t, because they do it so smoothly – that every product page is 50% about the product, 50% about the sanitation projects.
Humour has long been used in this way – think Comic Relief. But there’s often a distinct tonal shift between the comedy and the ‘serious bits’. Not here. The upshot is that even after a couple of minutes on their website – or sitting on the loo reading a few rolls – you realise you’ve learned a surprising amount about global sanitation without even really noticing.
In fact, their commitment to always explaining the basics simply, never sermonising, and ‘checking in’ that their reader is still with them along the way reminds me of The Week Junior (for my money, one of the best-written magazines in the world). Some might argue it’s ‘dumbing down’. I’d say it’s exactly how to reach a mass audience.
Three things to love and learn from
The biggest lesson here is: Yes! you can create an ethical business that uses its brand and voice to create profits you can then use to make the world a better place. That’s a big ask though innit. So let’s pick some more copy-specific things:
🧻 Wipe out euphemisms. Take the time to check whether there’s a subject or set of words that your brand tends to avoid for some reason. What’s going on there? What’s your version of not saying ‘feel your clean’ and saying ‘wipe your bum’ instead? Be especially alert to things you think you can’t say because they sound ‘silly’. (In a very Who Gives A Crap way, bum-focused medical instruction leaflets now usually talk about ‘your poo’ instead of ‘your stools’. MUCH more helpful.)
🚻 Give your customers things to say. From the idea of ‘emergency roll’ to the whole toilet humour punning vibe, Who Gives A Crap have created a language world that people just naturally join in with. What might that look like for you?
🚽 Hold your tone. Resist the urge to shift tones just because you’re talking about different subjects. Now, this is easier said than done. But, well, try it. What have you got to lose by giving it a go behind the scenes? Testing it out on a few things?
That’s all! Forward this to someone who… likes the word bum?
Til next time.
PS: Donate, yeah?