Georgia-Pacific scores hit with Quilted Northern Ultra Plush

For many consumers, last year was a good time to cut back on luxuries. Except, maybe, for one.

Toilet paper. Specifically,  Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, which recently was named the top-selling new nonfood consumer packaged good in 2009 by SymphonyIRI Group, a market research firm.

When Ultra Plush, billed as "the first three-ply ultra-premium bath tissue available nationwide," was rolled out by Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific a little over a year ago, people were scrimping on everything from dinner out to college choices. So spending millions to launch a higher-priced product could reasonably be expected to cause some head scratching.

"There were a lot of skeptics, both inside the company and out," said Andrew Towle, vice president and general manager of  the company's consumer tissue category.

"It is a bit counter-intuitive at first glance," said Susan Viamari of SymphonyIRI.

But GP sold $135 million worth of Ultra Plush in the first year, far eclipsing every other  new nonfood product, as well as beating every new food and beverage product other than Campbell's Select Harvest soup. Among the big-budget products  it beat out were Tide Total Care, Bud Light Lime and Green Giant Valley Fresh Steamers.

"There's something like 10,000 new product launches a year," Towle said, "so to be recognized among all those as No. 1 is extraordinary."

All new product launches are risky, marketers say. They can cost tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to get into stores. But bath tissue presents its own challenges.

First, there's the name. Many people would just as soon avoid saying toilet paper. There are also the delicate ways that product attributes are described. Words like "soft" and "luxurious" are preferable to, say, "cleansing."

Ultra Plush succeeded, the company said, because it responded to needs, particularly those of age-35-plus women, who make the vast majority of decisions on which toilet paper to buy for the house. Among its selling points is that it offers three plies instead of the standard two, a sign of increased quality to consumers.

Ply refers to the number of layers in a single sheet of tissue.

No more fiber is used in the three-ply, the company said, because of design innovation, offering an environmental bonus.

Patrick Davis, senior director of marketing for Quilted Northern, said that during the recession the top and bottom price segments in bath tissue have seen increased sales, while the middle market has waned.

While some in the middle have turned to value brands, he said, others are "trading up to get a little more luxury because they're making so many other trade-offs. It's that luxury they feel entitled to treat themselves to."

GP executives said they do extensive and, in the case of bath tissue, sometimes rather personal consumer research to determine what new products might be needed, then go about developing them. That includes having consumer panels test prototypes, then provide feedback.

"In these groups," observed Sean Fallmann, president of North American Consumer Business for GP, "things get pretty open and honest."