How to build loyalty when you sell… toilet paper

Over 10 years ago, the three co-founders of Who Gives A Crap had the audacity to take on the dominant and well-established players in the toilet paper category. They did this from a tiny office in Melbourne that also served as the first warehouse, and they raised the $50,000 they needed for their first production run through a crowdfunding campaign. 

Who Gives A Crap co-founder, Jehan Ratnatunga

Their pioneering difference? They weren’t just selling toilet paper. Rather, they were launching a social enterprise that would give 50 percent of its profits to charity to support a mission aimed at ensuring everyone has access to clean water and a toilet within our lifetime. The crowdfunding campaign was also differentiated by co-founder and CEO Simon Griffiths’ promise to sit on a toilet until the $50,000 financial goal was reached. He stayed on the seat for 50 hours. 

Another key difference for Who Gives A Crap was the company’s distinct product packaging, a far more eco-friendly product than the major brands, offering 100% recycled or bamboo toilet paper, and introducing a novel online subscription-based approach to a product most people get from the grocery store. 

Who Gives a Crap launched via a Shopify store in 2013, delivering its first product in March of that year. Despite the significant growth and change the company has experienced – with warehouses now dotted all over the country – its website continues to leverage the Shopify platform. 

“That first online store from 2012 is still the core store that we use today,” co-founder Jehan Ratnatunga tells Forbes. “Not many pieces of software have been with us for the full ten years, but the Shopify platform is still there.

“Initially, it was built from an out-of-the-box template. Over time, we have started to customise it more, working with different landing pages and emphasising different aspects of the product.” 

The Australian Retail Report 2023, a study Shopify Plus commissioned with research firm YouGov, found that Australians were split on whether they preferred shopping online or in-store. A third (31%) of consumers prefer to shop online , while 38 percent prefer shopping in physical stores, and a further 31 percent sit on the fence. For the respondents who prefer spending online, shipping and loyalty are key expectations they have of retailers. Who Gives A Crap has both focus areas covered, offering multiple shipping options, and targeting much of its marketing around loyalty, brand connections and a link to their overarching purpose, and in encouraging repeat business through subscriptions. Who Gives A Crap found a way to bring fun and ease to an essential and relatively boring product like toilet paper, while helping people to do good.

Online orders are pivotal to the brand’s offering, but the idea of getting your toilet paper from a website was pretty unique when the company first launched. Another way Who Gives A Crap set itself apart from other brands from the outset was through its visuals and approach, while ultimately supporting brand loyalty  – the name, particularly, stands out. The branding, tone of voice and colourful wrappers are distinct, as are its eco-friendly products and plastic-free packaging. 

Over a decade on from Who Gives A Crap’s initial launch, its co-founders say they still really love toilet paper – and not just because of the way the brand has made toilet paper fun, and even exciting, to receive. Rather, because customers know and repeatedly learn about the difference their toilet paper purchasing choices can make and the overarching mission to support the 2 billion people globally who still don’t have access to a toilet – around 40 per cent of the global population. 

So far, Who Gives A Crap has donated AU$11,222,000 to support the cause, but the social enterprise notes there is still a very long way to go. 

Ratnatunga says customers continue to interact with, and appreciate, the purpose that’s been built into the business. Of course, this is no surprise as Shopify Plus found one in four Australians prefer buying sustainable options when they are not significantly more expensive, which Who Gives A Crap products certainly aren’t. Customers also appreciate an eco-friendly product that doesn’t contribute to deforestation, the always-changing marketing messages, seasonal designs, and willingness from the brand to share toilet-related puns and humour. 

This customer loyalty has been a huge growth driver for the business, given that it has leveraged this into subscription services that see people getting deliveries of the toilet paper they need, while also staying up to date with how their purchasing decisions are helping others. 

Ratnatunga suggests some of this was by design – when the co-founders were determining what kind of product they could use for a social enterprise, they intentionally looked for products that people would always need, to help reach their goal of giving everyone access to clean water and sanitation by 2050. But much of the brand’s loyalty comes from the marketing and communication it continuously shares with customers. 

“People don’t generally care about toilet paper. We needed to figure out a way to address this boring product, and also to address the environmental concerns about it,” he says. 

“We’ve benefitted from putting a lot of thinking into the customer experience, including how they order and receive it – with tools like Shopify helping us scale up and spin up stores in different currencies with the right treatments. 

“We’ve also benefited from making it simple for customers to gift the product, and then by offering things like limited edition wrappers and designs for unique moments, for that element of delight,” he adds. 

While the majority (53%) of Australian retailers are prioritising investments that help them better connect with their customers in the next twelve months, that number jumps to 69% for direct-to-consumer businesses like Who Gives A Crap, for whom customer satisfaction – and growth – is still paramount. Such is the cost of doing business in a market where only 36% of Australians identify as brand-loyal shoppers, but 90% say their loyalty can be bought with discounts, rewards, and members-only experiences.

The customer loyalty for a toilet brand has gone beyond what the co-founders could have imagined a decade ago. The Who Gives A Crap team has been sent photos from newlyweds of the product stacked up into giant wedding-cake shaped props at their wedding. One loyal household even invited the Who Gives A Crap team to their nuptials. 

“We never thought we’d be able to get people to care this much about toilet paper,” Ranatunga says.

“I still really love talking about toilet paper. Obviously, there is a long way to go in getting everyone access to a toilet, but those first ten years of building this have been amazing.”

Check out more insights from Shopify Plus in The Australian Retail Report 2023, offering an industry deep dive on pathways to growth and shifting consumer behaviour.