Navigating through the labyrinth of aisles of your favorite grocery store while paying close attention to a hastily scrawled list of items to be purchased generally leaves little room for speculation. It’s a safe bet that few customers grabbing a roll of Brawny paper towels off the shelf and tossing it into their shopping cart wonder how the product got there in the first place.
Georgia-Pacific’s Port Hudson operations plant on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and St. Francisville—which produces Brawny, Quilted Northern toilet paper and Spectrum brand printer paper as well as a plethora of private labels—wants to change that.
The plant, which took part in a nationwide rollout of a rebranded Brawny earlier this year, is striving to place an emphasis on local production, says Keith Wahoske, plant manager and vice president of Port Hudson operations.
Brawny has struggled as a brand in the past because of an outdated image, Wahoske says. In response, Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific has made improvements to Brawny by dividing the perforated paper towel into half-sheets as well as making it softer and more tensile than its predecessor.
“Sales have been climbing, and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” Wahoske says. “Last year, we knew some of the problems the brand was having, and several of the trials for the new product were held here.”
The new Brawny hit retailer shelves in April. But in May, Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. filed a lawsuit charging Georgia-Pacific with trademark infringement and unfair competition.
P&G says the new Brawny copies the bowtie emblem of Bounty ExtraSoft, a 2008 line of the four-decade-old Bounty brand that calls itself “the quicker picker-upper.” Georgia-Pacific calls the suit “meritless,” but Wahoske is more blunt.
“The current lawsuit going on between Procter & Gamble and Georgia-Pacific is over whether or not Brawny copied the quilting pattern from Bounty,” he says. “There’s obviously not a lot going on in the paper towel industry if they’re arguing over the shape of the quilting in court.”
Brawny’s rebranding also has insulated Port Hudson from some of the losses sustained by similar facilities nationwide because of the economic downturn.
“In a recession, customers tend to look more for value and less at premium products,” Wahoske says. “We haven’t seen a lot of that because of our brand. We’ve been very fortunate.”
The only reduction Port Hudson has seen, Wahoske says, is in demand for larger bundles of products, such as a 15-roll package offered by Costco. Instead, that need has funneled into smaller bundles of the same product.
Cheaper than rolling out a new product, Brawny’s rebranding is a good move for Georgia-Pacific, says Randle Raggio, an assistant professor of marketing at LSU, where he teaches a branding class among others in the MBA program at the E.J. Ourso College of Business.
Rebranding a product means tweaking its image to conform to the image that the brand’s targeted customers have. In Brawny’s case, the image of the lumberjack has been updated to be more clean-cut as well as scaled on the packaging itself.
“It’s usually very difficult to change the image a customer has of an existing brand,” Raggio says. “By reducing the impact of the lumberjack and replacing him with a modern guy, it obviously resonates with more women because sometimes you just don’t need a lumberjack to get the job done.”
That Brawny is locally produced also helps because it instills customer loyalty. If customers in the Capital Region have family ties to one of Georgia-Pacific’s 970 employees, chances are they’ll choose Brawny, Wahoske says, and the added emphasis placed on value doesn’t hurt, either.
“We needed to create a value-driven brand,” he says. “Something that is consistent and that our customers know will be a great product every time.”
Location-driven branding works in an economic recession because consumers have been jolted out of their normal spending habits, Raggio says.
“That gives me a reason to stop and think about why I’m buying Brawny,” he says. “Otherwise, I might be focusing more on cost or not paying attention at all.”
Built in 1968 as a pulp and paper mill, Georgia-Pacific ceased production as a pulp mill in 1998 as the company shifted its focus to consumer brand-driven products. The Port Hudson plant garnered its first tissue machine in 2000 and added its first paper towel machine two years later.
Port Hudson currently runs four conversion lines for toilet paper and three for paper towels, which can produce 6,000 cases of tissue and 7,000 cases of paper towels each per day. The plant, which runs 24 hours a day and seven days a week, pays approximately $88 million in wages annually, shipping products along the Gulf Coast and in the Midwest.
Koch Industries, the largest privately held company in the United States, purchased Georgia-Pacific for $13.2 billion in 2005. The transition, Wahoske says, has been good for the company, which had been publicly traded until the purchase. With no shareholders, he says 90 cents of every dollar made off Georgia-Pacific’s products is reinvested directly back into the company.
“Now we aren’t focused on Wall Street or answering to stockholders,” he says. “We’re focused on improving and marketing our products, which is right where we should be.”
THE PAPER TRAIL
A step-by-step description of the making of Brawny paper towels at Georgia-Pacific’s Port Hudson operations plant:
1 Logs are trucked into the Georgia-Pacific sawmill and fed into a debarking machine, which shakes and strips the bark from the logs. The excess bark is fed out of the machine for use as fuel. [pictured left]
2 The logs then travel into the chipper, which shreds them into chips. The chips are stored in separate piles outside of the mill according to their classification as hardwood [gum and oak] or softwood [pine].
3 Hardwood chips are fed into two continuous processing towers, which slowly pressure-cook the chips with white liquor, or cooking chemicals, and remove the lignite from the chips. When they are bought back to atmospheric pressure at the end of the process, they resemble a brown mush, or pulp. The used chemicals, now called black liquor, are separated and recycled.
4 Softwood chips are brought by conveyor through a cleaning system, which inspects the chips for quality. They are then deposited into four batch digesters, which mix them with white liquor and removes the lignin. At the end of the process, they also resemble brown mush.
5 The hardwood and softwood are separately bleached white and sent to vats to await the papermaking process.
6 Hardwood and softwood chips along with slurry [reused paper from the plant] are combined in the blend chest. The mixture then undergoes a six-step cleaning process. [pictured left]
7 The mixture is heated and fed into the paper-towel machine, which dries the mixture and spins it into fluffy sheets of paper towels. The machine produces a parent roll of paper towel 120 inches in diameter and can produce up to 227 tons of paper towel per day.
8 The parent roll is sent to one of three towel converter machines, which stamps patterns onto and perforates the paper towels. The machine then inserts a cardboard core. Each of Georgia-Pacific’s three paper towel lines can produce 7,000 cases of paper towels apiece per day. [pictured left]
9 The paper towels are cut to size and sent for packaging.
10 Once packaged, the paper towels are placed in cases ready for shipping.
11 Cases are shipped immediately to retailers on the Gulf Coast and the Midwest.