Prepare to Expect the Unexpected

mikael selling
Mikael Selling, founder and CEO of Opticom.

If you’re so green, why do consumers still see red when they think of forest products? And more importantly, what can you do change it? Mikael Selling, co-founder and CEO of Opticom Consulting Group, shares some food for thought.

We know that the fight for the consumer’s attention is getting tougher—add it to the list of challenges which are growing in the post-pandemic, politically-fragile world we now live in. With just about every input cost on the rise, marketing and communication might seem the obvious place to make cuts. It isn’t. On the contrary, there has never been a better time to think about your position in the market and the robustness of that position in the face of the unexpected.

It’s a tough climate and uncertainty abounds. But there are some knowns: Consumers worry more, not less, about climate change, and their willingness to make sustainable choices is increasing when given the right information. Their awareness of health and hygiene concerns has also been heightened by the pandemic. The first shelves to empty during the panic buying of lockdown were those stacked with bathroom tissue. This means opportunity for tissue producers.

What do consumers think when they see your brand? Does it signify sustainability? Does it tell a story? We know that forest products by their very nature elicit an emotional response more often than a rational one and very often it is still negative, however underserved that may be. Misconceptions and ignorance about the sustainability of the industry still abound. The right stories are still not getting told, and when they are, they are not always getting through.


There are some great exceptions. The recent award-winning Unapologetically Human campaign by Kruger Products in Canada reached more than 85 percent of Canadians with the message that being human means we all use the bathroom, blow our noses, spill things, cry, make a mess, and mess up. It’s what connects us. (And by implication, Kruger Products’ household tissue products are always there to help and reassure, to celebrate, empathize, etc.) The ad draws the right emotional response: Kruger Products’ brands are indispensable to the business of being human.

Why are we not seeing more of this clever communication? Our research suggests that consumers are hungry for information and the reassurance that they are making sustainable choices, but they don’t always get it. Papermakers rely heavily on their suppliers, the pulp producers, for information when it comes to the provenance of their fibre, for example. And hopefully, the environmental director and procurement department are well aware of the well-managed forests they source their fibre from. But there are gaps in the knowledge trail. Support is not always as comprehensive or readily available as it could be from the start of the chain. And when it is, the pipeline of information is often blocked or simply ends well before the news reaches the consumer.

the recent award winning
The recent award-winning Unapologetically Human campaign by Kruger Products in Canada reached more than 85 percent of Canadians with the message that the company’s products are indispensable to the messy business of being human.


It’s not deliberate. Pulp producers are striving for transparency and keen to be responsive when their customers ask for information. The trouble is defining what is useful and when. It’s no longer enough to stick an FSC or PEFC label to a product and hope the consumer will see it as a green light for a clear conscience. Our research shows that the closer to the consumer we travel down the value chain, the clearer the information needed—yet the more gets lost in translation or lost altogether.

A typical example might be pulp buyers who return to the office after visiting a pulp supplier. They are all the wiser and pleasantly uplifted by the great environmental credentials they have just witnessed in the supplier’s forests. But with little time to discuss the experience in more detail with the rest of the sales department, let alone the marketing and communications team, the enthusiasm fades with the knowledge of the trip. It could be lack of time or lack of back-up materials to make the job of spreading the word easier. Whatever the reason, the message gets diluted—and that’s before reaching the next step in the value chain.


Start with your own department. Do you know enough about your pulp suppliers to include their sustainability message as part of your own campaign? If not, why not? If you don’t know their story, how can the consumer possibly understand yours?

We can help here, by working with the pulp producers in your value chain to put together information and a sustainability story that travels. Collaboration is crucial, yet while different players in the chain are often willing, they are not always able to bridge the gap between communication departments and different stories. We can support pulp producers to play their part in getting their sustainability message across to your customers in a way that is understandable, relevant and communicable beyond their immediate audience.

Why is this important? It comes back to where we started, with the fight for the consumer’s attention. If a customer is wondering whether they can recycle a carton, they are unlikely to resort to looking at the fibre producer’s webpage (if they even know who they are in the first place—again, unlikely).


The consumer wants a simplified, easily accessible and relevant message that resists distortion through the links of the chain and enables them to make a sustainable choice they feel good about, possibly in a matter of seconds. Complicated quality parameters are great for the environmental director, but not for the salesman who is trying to convince the retailer one brand is worth buying above another. There are easy points to be scored here for both pulp and tissue producers if they work together.

Beware of sitting back and thinking plastic has had its day and that the consumer understands the inherent advantage of forest products. Plastic producers are fighting back hard, and fiber-based materials need to defend themselves. We were surprised by some of the results of a recent customer survey for which we interviewed 1,500 consumers across the U.S. Europe and China. Some 35 percent said they didn’t think paper packaging was a renewable material while 29 percent believed wood to be a fossil-based material. A significant 42 percent believed we can rely on recycling paper and board indefinitely without the need for any new virgin fibre in the system.

The current climate of uncertainty and intensifying cost pressures is precisely the time for a well-managed sustainability story that you might even see translated into a price premium. Witness the success of the free-range egg versus the egg from caged hens, for example. They taste the same, but many consumers choose the free-range box and pay a premium for a greener, feel-good decision. They can only make this choice if they have the right information. Might the right story mean they choose your product next? It’s worth finding out.

To discuss the subject more with Mikael Selling and find out more about Opticom’s branding and sustainability communication services, visit