Cheeky Panda Gets Cute With Clean

Cheeky Panda Gets Cute With Clean
Julie Chen and husband Chris Forbes, shown here with son Leo, founded Cheeky Panda in 2016.

Disruption isn’t normally associated with the toilet paper category, but a quirky company with a unique brand called Cheeky Panda is out to change that perception and save a lot of trees.

Founded in 2016 in the United Kingdom, London-based Cheeky Panda has its origins in Europe, where it entered the market with a limited range of items. It gradually gained distribution with major retailers there that aligned with the upstart company’s vision of sustainability, and soon the momentum allowed for entry into other product categories that could be manufactured with bamboo.

Cheeky Panda decided to enter the U.S. market last May, right about the time that Americans were behaving irrationally and hoarding all types of paper products. The surreal scenes of long runs of empty shelves forced retailers to impose purchase restrictions on whatever product quantities they were able to procure, and that created an opening for Cheeky Panda.

“The shortages definitely accelerated our conversations with major retailers. It has probably moved us forward as a brand by 12 to 18 months,” says Chris Forbes, who co-founded the company with his wife, Julie Chen. “We have been talking to all the major retailers in the U.S.”

What Forbes and Chen have been talking about is a brand with a unique value proposition that checks all of the boxes when it comes to global mega-trends that are driving purchase of some of the best-selling brands. Cheeky Panda’s products are made with bamboo, which is a marvel of nature due to its abundance, fast-growing nature and biodegradability. There are more than 1,000 species of bamboo, and its fibers are suitable for everything from apparel to furniture to flooring to even products soft enough to touch consumers’ most sensitive areas. Bamboo’s versatility and environmental attributes are summed up in Cheeky Panda’s advertising slogan: “Sustainability never felt so good.”

“When we were going to meet Julie’s parents for the first time in China, we squeezed in a visit to the factory where we were going to make our products. The thing that struck me the most was it took about five hours from the airport to the factory and the whole way, all we saw was bamboo,” Forbes recounts. “Bamboo is an amazing material.”

In addition to relying on an ample and renewable source of raw material, Cheeky Panda lives its sustainability mission in other ways to help drive authenticity. The company maintains that its products have “no chemical nasties”; it’s a Certified B Corporation, which means that it meets the highest standards of social and environmental impact; and it doesn’t use plastic as an outer wrapping on its core products.

Cheeky Panda Gets Cute With Clean
The distinctively packaged Cheeky Panda portfolio now consists of 20 products in four categories available in 23 countries.

“We are showing the big guys that they don’t have to use plastic,” Forbes asserts.

From the Top to the Bottom

Forbes and Chen founded Cheeky Panda in 2016, when Chen was looking for a more rewarding career.

“I was running an online shoe business, and I had taught myself a lot about digital marketing and social media,” Chen says. “I always want to do something bigger and more meaningful. Shoes are shoes, and they are my passion, but they aren’t that meaningful.”

She started designing packaging for a brand that would be rooted in sustainability, with bamboo as the primary raw material source; launched a crowd-funding campaign; lined up production capacity; and secured a spot on Amazon’s Launchpad, a platform billed as a place where shoppers can “discover big ideas from small brands.”

Cheeky Panda certainly fit that bill, and Forbes shared his wife’s vision enough that he walked away from his career to help build an innovation-focused, authentic company intent on disrupting a mature category.

“I was running a global executive search business working with financial services firms and hedge funds, so it was a bit of a change for me, stepping out of financial services to selling toilet paper,” Forbes notes. “I went from the top end of the market to the bottom end. We started with toilet paper; then people said, ‘Can you do facial tissue?’ and would ask about other products. If there is a market for it, we run with it.”  

That’s what’s good about being a small brand, according to Forbes, who describes himself as an “environmental entrepreneur.” Cheeky Panda has the ability to make decisions very quickly and take risks, which has enabled it to grow its brand portfolio to 20 items across four categories available in 23 countries. It also helps that the company, like many small brands, stands for something.

“We are a purpose-driven, high-quality lifestyle brand focused on sustainability,” Forbes says. “We are also a fun brand.”

The fun, playful nature of the brand belies a fairly dramatic growth story with even bigger potential. Available in the United States for less than a year, Cheeky Panda has secured major distribution deals with such notable companies as Rite Aid and United Natural Foods.

“We have the capacity to manufacture 100 million pounds in our current supply chain,” Chen says. “That is a reasonably good size, but the market is so big, it is a fraction of the market. The combined categories we are in are valued at about $50 billion.”

Products are currently sold under the Cheeky Panda brand in categories such as household, which includes toilet paper and facial tissue; baby; beauty; and professional services, including janitorial products.

A Toilet Twin

Giving back is a key aspect of any values-driven brand, and Cheeky Panda is no exception. It supports three main organizations, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the World Land Trust, and Toilet Twinning. Then, to secure organizational support, it created Team Ocean, Team People and Team Earth among headquarters employees to align with the respective groups.

Toilet Twinning is the most novel of the groups, and is a great fit with Cheeky Panda’s flagship product. The organization uses donations to help build toilets in areas of the world that lack them, increase access to clean water and promote hygiene principles. Those who donate become a “toilet twin” with the one they helped build, and even receive an image and the coordinates of their toilet counterpart.

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