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White Cloud: The Brand That Wouldn't Die

By Published on .

Credit: Illustration by Patty Alvarez

Procter & Gamble tried to kill it.

Nearly a quarter century later, Walmart deemphasized it as a private brand.

But White Cloud refuses to die.

In fact, the toilet tissue is rebounding as a national brand at Walgreens and a handful of supermarket chains, as well as at Walmart and its online affiliates, and on Amazon. That's due to Kruger Products, the Canadian manufacturer that now owns the brand for tissue categories, relaunching White Cloud this year with new packaging, and a marketing campaign built around a recent on-air promotional tie-in on "Live With Kelly and Ryan," arranged by Empower MediaMarketing in Cincinnati.

It's just the latest turn in one of the twistiest tales in packaged-goods history. The story of how White Cloud went from a Procter & Gamble national brand to private label and was then reborn again is one of entrepreneurship, luck and persistence trumping corporate efficiency.

Rescuing the brand

White Cloud isn't now and never has been close to being a category leader. It had a roughly 5 percent share of the then-roughly $4 billion toilet paper category when P&G flushed it in 1993, according to The New York Times. Nearly a quarter century later, as it emerges from being a Walmart-only brand, White Cloud has approximately a 2 percent share of the U.S. toilet paper business, according to Kruger.
With all-in toilet paper sales of around $10 billion (rounded up from Nielsen's $8.4 billion figure to account for unmeasured club and offline sales), White Cloud sees about the same $200 million in consumer sales it had when P&G discontinued it.

But there's more to White Cloud today. It's a brand name in categories such as paper towels at Walgreens and some supermarkets, as well as cotton balls, cotton swabs, diapers and baby wipes at Walmart and online.

The man who rescued the brand from the dustbin of packaged-goods history and still owns trademark rights for most categories outside tissue products is Tony Gelbart—CEO of Boca Raton, Florida-based White Cloud Marketing and former CEO of oral-care marketer Carewell Industries. He is now also working on plans to expand into even more categories.

The life cycle of a zombie brand

The brand name goes back to 1913, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records. P&G acquired it in 1958 as part of its acquisition of the Charmin Paper Co. But White Cloud was always second fiddle to Charmin, despite getting vigorous challenger-brand marketing in P&G's former every-brand-for-itself model, including $7.7 million in measured media support its final year under P&G, according to Kantar Media Intelligence.

White Cloud ads in the 1980s showed women earnestly proclaiming that their husbands didn't care about toilet paper, only to be confronted by hubby's secretly taped testimony to the contrary
(in ads from Leo Burnett). Later, animated clouds were shown manufacturing White Cloud in the sky as side-by-side demos showed White Cloud's superior softness and thickness compared with a "leading brand," which was P&G sibling Charmin. Another shows an earnest animated cloud conducting market research in Miami asking a woman whether she buys White Cloud because it's softer or thicker.

Credit: Illustration by Patty Alvarez

By the early 1990s, however, P&G was moving from brand management, where ambitious junior executives in adjacent offices battled each other as fiercely as outside rivals, to category management, where general managers tried to keep P&G brands from cannibalizing each other, sometimes by picking winners and losers. White Cloud lost. Charmin squeezed it out in 1993 just as White Cloud turned 80 years old, folding its softer-thicker product range into Charmin Ultra to boost the category leader.

Leo Burnett's loss was a gain for D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, which handled Charmin. In the agency world's own game of category management, DMB&B was later folded into Publicis Worldwide, and Leo Burnett became a sibling in Publicis Groupe.

Different playbook

White Cloud's euthanasia is the sort of move that companies have made repeatedly in decades since, but the playbook is different now. Companies generally try to sell their old brand names or keep them going at some minimal level to prohibit someone else from using the trademark.

That didn't happen with White Cloud. Instead, Gelbart, who in 1994 was still CEO of Carewell, which was competing with P&G in toothbrushes, laid claim to what appeared to be an abandoned trademark. P&G tried to get it back, but Gelbart prevailed after five years of litigation through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 1999 he relaunched White Cloud as a premium private-label with Walmart. He sold the tissue rights to Kruger a few years later, and worked with other manufacturers to expand it into other Walmart categories, including at various times paper towels, facial tissue, cotton balls and swabs, diapers, training pants, wipes, laundry detergent and fabric softener.

Changing strategy

By 2008, White Cloud had annual sales of $600 million across all those Walmart categories, according to an investment bank that tried to sell Gelbart's remaining trademark rights the following year. But Walmart also decided to remove White Cloud from its diaper shelves in favor of its own Parent's Choice brand. P&G, fighting a rearguard action on multiple fronts against its old brand at Walmart, looked to move into some of that space with its Luvs brand, and launched a WhereIsWhiteCloud.com site that would direct to pitches for Luvs.

Ultimately, Walmart returned White Cloud baby products to its shelves in at least part of the country and on Walmart.com (and later Jet.com). But even in its private-label life, White Cloud was never Walmart's top priority.

That led to the end last year of a 10-year exclusivity agreement for Walmart to sell White Cloud products, says Nadia Durasamy, marketing director of Kruger's consumer business.

"Walmart's strategy recently has changed, where they're focusing on their Great Value brand," Durasamy says. That includes both focusing on lower-priced products to compete against Aldi and other private-label-intensive retailers, as well as a more premium product akin to White Cloud, although it continues to carry the latter too, just on less shelf space.

"Walmart is considerably underdeveloped compared to all their competitors in the private-label space," Durasamy says. "And it's their No. 1 priority to get their fair share of the market."
Walmart declined to comment on its private-label strategy.

No regrets

White Cloud's national-brand reemergence includes Wakefern's ShopRite and Price Rite supermarkets, and St. Louis-based Schnucks, with more to come. "We're happy with where it is," Durasamy says. "But it's going to take quite a number of retailers to get [White Cloud] back to its peak" before Walmart started deemphasizing it.

The "Live With Kelly and Ryan" promotional partnership that played out this fall focused on the brand's "No Regrets" message—that moms may have small regrets in other parts of everyday life, but "we want to make sure she doesn't have the same regrets with her paper products," says Empower spokeswoman Meghann Craig. "We wanted to pair the No. 1-rated bath tissue product with the No. 1-rated talk show."

Consumer Reports has rated White Cloud a "Best Buy" on the basis of quality and price in its last two toilet-paper testing cycles, in 2014 and 2016.

Credit: White Cloud

So what does White Cloud actually stand for as a brand after all these years, with multiple owners and forays into far-flung categories? It's about quality at a value price, say both Durasamy and Gelbart.

White Cloud's marketing-services team also includes Slingshot for creative, Speakeasy for social media and Anthem Worldwide for design. It's had minimal media support until recently, mostly coupons in newspaper inserts or digital apps, and most people recall it as a Walmart brand rather than from its P&G days, Durasamy says. But it retains a premium position, competing quality-wise with some Charmin products as well as brands such as Kimberly-Clark's Cottonelle or Georgia-Pacific's Quilted Northern, and a tier above the latter's Angel Soft, according to Durasamy.

But White Cloud is priced 10 to 15 percent below its quality peers, she says.

In tissue as well as other products, the idea is to have White Cloud compete with premium brands at a lower price, while offering retailers better margins than national brands, akin to what they make on private labels, Gelbart says.

AFG owns the White Cloud trademark for wet wipes, but Gelbart's White Cloud Marketing retains it for most other categories, including feminine hygiene products, cotton balls and swabs, laundry and cleaning products, home furnishings such as mattresses and pillows, and even hair care and cosmetics. (It's not involved with a White Cloud e-cigarette brand.) Gelbart says he's talking with manufacturers about expanding the brand into other retailers, piggybacking with Kruger in some of those other categories.

But Gelbart, like just about everyone involved with White Cloud over the years, has other priorities, including working with some Israeli firms to commercialize consumer technology such as Autobrain, a device that plugs into automotive computer systems and interfaces with a mobile app to monitor maintenance issues and driving habits of teen drivers, among other things.

"I've had some offers" for selling the White Cloud brand, he says. "And I don't know what I'm going to do, because I'm moving into high-tech stuff."

It could be that White Cloud's next chapter is about to unspool.

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