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Cultural and Religious Barriers: Prospects for Greater Market Penetration of Toilet Paper

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In April 2015, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs announced a new Islamic fatwa which allows Muslims to use toilet paper. If the word spreads and the new rule is adopted by other countries with large Muslim populations, it will be good news for toilet paper manufacturers. They have struggled with low demand in the Muslim world, where water has been traditionally used for cleansing, with toilet paper only playing a supplementary role. Consumers in many other developing markets, not necessarily Muslim or not predominantly Muslim, also often remain loyal to a range of traditional practices for cleansing which do not include toilet paper. The changing toilet etiquette, especially alongside rising incomes and urbanisation, can open a wider window of opportunity for tissue manufacturers. However, success is predicated on manufacturers’ understanding of deeply rooted traditions and the adoption of marketing strategies that work alongside these traditions.

Per Capita Consumption of Toilet Paper in Asia, 2014


Source: Euromonitor International

Working with and not against traditions

Socioeconomic factors, such as incomes, infrastructure and level of urban development, are frequently discussed among the key factors that hinder market penetration of toilet paper. Many low income consumers, especially those in rural areas, generally cannot afford the “luxury” of toilet paper, due to budget constraints. A clear manifestation is low per capita consumption of toilet paper, at less than 0.5 kg in 2014, in countries like India, Vietnam and Philippines.

Where affordability is the main factor inhibiting wider usage of toilet paper, manufacturers have been pursuing low-pricing strategies, often through bulk packages. Private label has also been gaining traction in the market, although it still accounts for only a small proportion of toilet paper sales, especially compared to strong presence of private label in developed markets.

This tendency highlights the fact that even when toilet paper is officially decreed to be halal, adoption of toilet paper might well remain low among Muslim consumers in developing countries, due to the income factor. However, exploring habitual consumption and the impact of cultural and religious barriers to use are critical for tissue manufacturers to design successful market penetration strategies.

Singapore is a case in point. Historically, toilet paper has been permitted to be used as a cleansing method among the Muslim population in the country. However, not many Muslims in Singapore opt for this choice, especially when they are at home. Using water to wash and a piece of cloth to wipe is their preferred cleansing method. Only in away-from-home channels, such as restaurants, offices and hospitals, will they use toilet paper, if water spray is not available. The habit of using water for cleansing originated from the religious belief that water was an essential part of ritual purification. This belief is rooted so deeply in Muslims’ daily lives that toilet paper manufacturers find it hard to break the barrier. Consequently, per capita consumption of toilet paper among Muslim consumers is relatively low in Singapore, especially in retail channels.

Where religious and cultural factors play a major role, breaking consumers’ habits is challenging. Thus, tissue manufacturers should invest in efforts to educate consumers about different uses of toilet paper, and design products suitable for other occasions, in addition to toilet hygiene. An example can be found in the Philippines, where Sanicare Products Asia Inc has not tried to alter local consumers’ habit of using tabo – a water dipper – for cleansing. Instead, it promotes the idea that toilet paper can be used to wipe after using tabo and to dry the hands.

In Thailand, many local consumers, especially in rural areas, remain loyal to their habit of using water for cleansing after toilet visits. However, they use toilet paper to wipe mouths and faces or clean kitchens instead of using more expensive types of tissue paper, such as facial tissues or kitchen towels. Consequently, leading brands, such as Scott and Cellox, have introduced a number of toilet paper product ranges featuring soft and antibacterial properties suitable for non-toilet usage occasions.

Away-from-home channels also open up growth opportunities for toilet paper manufacturers. In Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, away-from-home channels outpaced retail channels in percentage growth terms over 2009-2014, in terms of volume sales. This trend is set to continue over the 2014-2019 forecast period. Indeed, toilet paper is increasingly prevalent in away-from-home channels, even in Muslim countries. It offers convenience to local people compared to carrying towels, and meets the needs of international visitors.

In conclusion, religion and culture affect toilet etiquette in many countries worldwide. However, the underlying factors which prevent penetration of toilet paper are low incomes and traditional hygiene habits. Tissue manufacturers can break the economic barrier by pursuing low-pricing strategies. The barrier of tradition is more difficult to overcome. However, tissue manufacturers can attempt to promote multipurpose application of toilet paper and introduce new products that suit non-toilet usage occasions. The B2B segment is also a growth avenue worth exploring.


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