Friday, May 21, 2010

Hope floats.


Spare a thought for the mightiest beast from the Age of the Great Lizards, the seminal 20th century marketer Procter & Gamble. Against any sensible bet, P&G is lumbering away from the mass media tar pit it helped to create, and apparently into a future that is every bit as bright as its past. I read this piece yesterday about their e-commerce play, and for about the sixth time this year found myself marveling at their dogged capacity to evolve.

P&G doesn’t just exemplify old school branding, they invented the game. So you’d think they’d have the deepest commitment to that old status quo, and a culture so hidebound that they’d perish sooner than betray themselves by changing. You’d think they wouldn’t have much more to teach us as we merrily skip our way into the giddy, crowdsourced, there-are-no-bad-ideas future. But I’m starting to think that you’d be wrong about that.

A long time ago, I did a tour of duty on a couple of P&G brands, Ivory and Olay. In those days, working on P&G really was like compulsory military service: a lot of character-building menial tasks, a rigid hierarchy, strict rituals, and a certain amount of public humiliation. But it made you stronger, and it was a great credential if you wanted a career in strategy. Still, it took some time to realize that what made them so maddening to work with is also what makes them so formidable, and maybe even as good a model for 21st century branding as they ever were the 20th century kind. Here are some examples of what I mean:

They were devout custodians of the past. Long before we used terms like ‘storytelling’ to make sense of branding, no P&G brand manager was ever far from his brand’s historical reel. Whatever advertising or promotion a brand did had to make sense in the context of what had gone before.

They were not interested in your opinions. They were contemptuous, of them, in fact. What they were interested in was the product of your analysis. The fact that you were in the room did not entitle you to speak. Only the fact that you knew what you were talking about, from the ground up and over time, could do that. And lost credibility took time to recover. A lot of it, sometimes.

They took the same unsentimental view of advertising as a farmer takes of his livestock. Cute only incidentally, but mostly just there to do a job. Thus, no commercial got produced until it had objectively proven in testing that it could outperform whatever it was meant to replace, regardless of how long it had been running. Different wasn’t enough; different, in fact, was regressive. It had to be better, or it didn’t get shot regardless of how many agency creative directors wet their pants laughing at the storyboard.

Advertising ideas had to be predicated on the product they were selling. The story in an ad had to be impossible without it, in fact. The practice of amusing viewers and hoping to be rewarded with a transaction was not on the menu in Cincinnati, and advertising awareness was among the least interesting metrics they collected. It was all well and good that the audience heard the shot, but it didn’t matter unless it hit the target.

They were deeply suspicious of innovation. They were allergic to the Hail Mary, to the unfettered creativity, to the idea that their own orthodoxy was an obstacle. They preferred to be who they know they are, preferred their brands to stay in character, because they know that works. There is a reason why Warren Buffett was and remains a P&G shareholder.

And there were no soloists. You just never saw a careerist using a P&G brand to make himself famous, something that happens sometimes even at P&G’s closest rival, Unilever. The steward of a brand was bound to it and to the system that created it, and the way to succeed was to objectively build its business, while leaving the brand at least as healthy as she found it for whoever succeeded her.

When just about anybody can anoint themselves a genius, maven or (shudder) jedi of branding and there’s an unlimited supply of shiny new paradigms mocking the past, it’s reassuring to see that there might be some kind of connection between being disciplined and accountable, and being successful. Continuity is badly undervalued in branding these days, despite mounting evidence that it’s the only thing consumers still trust.

Slow down. Trust facts. Do what works until it doesn’t. It’s not glamorous, but it turns out that this might just be the best age defying formula ever to come out of Cincinnati, Ohio.

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