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If at Faust You Don't Succeed . . . Try Butterflies

Trends: Pearls of wisdom from Goethe's works grace one company's paper towels. They're selling well, but don't say goodbye to cutesy designs yet.

June 27, 1998|LINTON WEEKS | WASHINGTON POST

Early early morning and you're holding your first mug of hot hot coffee. You swing open the refrigerator door and--splat!--the butter falls to the floor. The dog dashes past. Coffee sloshes on your pants. You slam the java down, knocking a jar of jelly onto someone's homework. You curse your fate and reach for the paper towels.

That's when you notice the writing on the wall. Actually it's on the towel--a Sparkle two-ply. In a dopey green script:

"Nothing is worth more than this day--Goethe."

Hmmm, you say, swatting at the dog anyway. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on paper towels.

If only you had acted according to Goethe's personal motto: "Without haste, but without rest."

Last year Americans spent nearly $2.3 billion on paper towels. And, according to folks in the industry, we display them out in the open nowadays. (Earlier generations did not.) Style, therefore, matters. On most paper towels, the designs are treacherously treacly--butterflies, rainbows, antique autos. So who in the name of literary Romanticism chose Goethe?

For competitive reasons, says Ken Haldin, a public relations guy for Georgia Pacific, the Atlanta-based company will not divulge the name of the person who gave us Goethe.

Haldin will, however, let us speak with Jill Mattos, 31, the category marketing manager who oversees he company's paper towel and napkin brands.

"I control everything that happens with Sparkle and Coronet--paper towels and paper napkins," she says.

So is she the Goethe fan? Does she glory in the German who lived from 1749 to 1832? Was she aware Goethe took a daily meal in a tavern and fell for a bar wench named Gretchen who surely would have used paper towels if they had been invented? Is Mattos the one who read "Faust" and decided to save the world's soul?

"As soon as you trust yourself," Goethe said, "you will know how to live."

Mattos is not paid to trust herself. She was hired to figure out what consumers want.

"You really have to be careful," she says. "We strictly stick with what consumers like."

When Mattos took charge 4 1/2 years ago, she ordered a batch of "consumer qualitative research tests." More than 100 designs were submitted. Mattos and Shaun Markey, 38, her graphics and design manager, pared the choices to 80. Then they conducted elaborate consumer tests in Baltimore and Tampa, Fla., where Sparkle sells well.

So did people get giddy over Goethe?

Chances are, during the four days of testing, the 300 or so human lab rats weren't even aware Goethe's words graced the towels. Test rooms were set up to look like stores, with shelves of packages. The subjects--herded through in groups of 10--were asked to pick the top 10 designs.

Goethe "came up as a pretty high number," Mattos says. But so did a teapot design with the sentiment "A dear friend knows just how to warm the heart." The winning pattern involved ivy running along the sides of the towels and no words.

Mostly what customers were responding to, Mattos explains, was the design and color.

Late last year, the Goethe towels were "rolled out" at Georgia Pacific's Palatka, Fla., plant. Palatka, near Jacksonville, produces 190,000 tons of various tissues annually.

So far, Goethe is selling pretty well. This could be a trend.

As Goethe said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."

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