Can P&G build “real brands” with soul, history & substance?

When Piers Fawkes at PSFK writes a post entitled “How Long Can P&G Last“, you know it is going to catch my attention. Piers drives a very interesting question when he writes:

More and more consumers appear to be attracted to ‘real’ brands – brands with soul, history and substance – brands like Innocent Drinks or Method soap. These brands live because they reflect the values of the management and staff and the transparency generated by the web helps fuel the love of them.

Meanwhile over at P&G and Unilever brands appear to still be run from brand books by an army of brand managers who aren’t connected with the values each brand is supposed to contain. They sell faux brands that were created in an age of control – control of media and message.

Pretty bold statements to challenge the company that built the concept of Branding and Brand Management over 75 years ago. But you know what,

I agree with his stance completely

As I write about “Brands I Love“, I am actually writing about many of the concepts that Piers references. Brands like Method, Innocent Drinks and Help Remedies are real brands that mean something more because they have a story behind them. The love consumers have for theses brands is the same love the company employees have for the brands. They were able to do this because they started small and they started from scratch. They were able to build the brands up from the ground up.

But will they be able to hold this special feeling as they grow?

What I question is if these real brands will be able to stay real as they grow. Brands like Snapple had this feeling over a decade ago but they grew too big. They sacrificed their story for growth and greed. Will Method or Innocent suffer the same fate? Will the next generation of managers be able to carry the same ideals as the company founders? After all, look at the stumbles of Apple and Starbucks when they grew too big and the founders had to step aside for more “experienced” management to take the reins. That’s the great business/branding question of the ages and not one with an easy answer.

But back to the point of P&G and Unilever. Can these branding “houses” continue to grow in the face of “real brands”. Of course, they can but it will take a change. …and a big one at that.

Brand Managers and Big Brands have to start thinking differently

The age of control is over for Brand Managers. Our job for tomorrow is to be a Brand Steward. We need to guide our brand but the control needs to be in the hands of our consumers. We need to open the doors of our marketing to be about engaging these fans in a dialogue. We need to create products that make their experiences better. We need to invite them into designing our future product innovations. We need to stop interrupting them and help them start living.

But unfortunately it isn’t that easy

Making this change isn’t simple. Method and Innocent have a strong advantage as private companies. They don’t have shareholders to please and their people usually have skin in the game as part owners of the company. This lets them take more risks…it enables them to think a little differently. But that isnt an excuse…its merely a fact we have to overcome.

And we will overcome it. Maybe the future is in using our logistical power like Piers suggests. Maybe the P&G’s of the world should become Brand Venture Capitalists. We start making an investment in new brands, giving the access to resources (money, intellectual capital, retailer access) that will help them to grow. But we dont take a direct management control and instead let them operate independently. It would be a very different way of doing things but it might just work.

Consumers will vote with their wallet

In the end, this challenge of branding is what makes it so exciting to be in marketing right now (and for the future). We don’t have the luxury of living in a control world where we can just make a :30 second spot and watch sales grow as a result. We are challenged (both at big CPG’s and little start-ups) to build brands that consumers will vote for with their wallet. Branding is an election season that doesnt just come once every 4 years.

NOTE: I wouldnt question the passion of P&G Brand Managers, even if we are just working for a big company and old brands. When I started at P&G, I actually met a fellow marketer who had a tattoo of the brand he worked on…and it just happened to be a fabric softener brand. Tell me that isn’t passion for your brand!


13 Responses to Can P&G build “real brands” with soul, history & substance?

  1. paul says:


    I agree with actually both sides of the argument. Much of P&G is a well oiled machine that is very strong at strategic marketing. Where they have been historically strong is on marketing innovation. But it is clear that much of that is changing too based on some of the recent programs that have been put in the marketplace… and building one on one engagement with consumers across multiple environments… That being in the home, during use, at the consideration for trial / repurchase stage… to the decision process at shelf.

    Never count P&G out of anything. They might not move at lightening speed at first, but one they figure it out, they crush the rest of the competitive field.

    Oh, and any BM that is not passionate at P&G is usually label a 3, and slowly pushed out…. the leaders always rise to the top.

  2. Ryan Jones says:

    Great article. Very well put. I agree with a lot of what you have written here…I added a bit more to the conversation over at m-cause.

  3. Dave –

    Recently had a co-worker extol the many virtues of the Tide to Go stick. A challenge to CPG? Yes. But there is plenty of passion there from my perspective.

  4. Robin Brown says:

    Well, it is hard for a leading packaged goods brand to have the kind of authenticity that is so appealling to a certain segment of consumers. (Although that doesn’t alter the fact that consumers are highly committed to brands like Tide)

    However, there is one opportunity …sustainability. Marketers are required to open up their brands to scrutiny and develop a dialogue with consumers as a result of the increased focus on sustainability. This is the greatest opportunity for established CPG brands to develop an authentic, genuine relationship with consumers.

    Although not related to sustainability per se, I think Hellman’s ‘campaign for real food’ comes close to this.

  5. Finn McKenty says:

    Dave, great thoughts, and echoes some of the things I’ve often said about P&G.

    That said, I think most of the people who buy into the P&G-as-outdated-dinosaur line of thinking haven’t worked with the company. Obviously I don’t want to name names here, but I’ve had the pleasure of working with a ton of really incredible, passionate, smart people at P&G who absolutely “get it” as much as anybody at Method or whatever other upstarts and cool new rivals that are out there.

    As you said, the real challenge will be to see what happens to Method when they start to get big- really big. Also, what happens when the trends turn to something new? They’re making some excellent products right now, and the super minimal thing happens to be on trend, but it won’t be forever. And then what?

    This is the challenge of the rockstar: beating the “sophomore slump.” P&G has an amazing, well-oiled product development machine with some great people running it, and while they’re not likely to be the first to do anything cool, they’re also not going to burn bright and fade fast. If I could introduce doubters like Piers Fawkes to the bright, passionate clients I work with at P&G, I’m 100% sure they’d be singing a different tune.

    I know I was surprised. When I started working with P&G 3 years ago, I couldn’t have been more bummed. I had been working on action sports and entertainment stuff for the past few years, and wasn’t that stoked on fabric care. But looking back, I can say without a doubt that the stuff I’ve done with P&G is the most rewarding, and I can’t wait to see it hit shelves.

    Method, Innocent, etc are great brands and I think they’re doing great work. But let’s see where they’re at in 10 years before we start digging P&G’s grave.

  6. Dave Knox says:

    All – Thanks for the great responses. With just 5 comments, this has been one of my popular posts. I guess that goes to show that people are reading this blog in part because of my P&G association…so they like it when I talk about something realated to the company! P&G is a company with a lot of pluses and minuses…but frankly we have many more pluses and a whole lot less minuses than most company our size. The fact that 2 P&G Brand Managers (and no Unilever BM’s) responded to the PSFK post says something right there. So thanks to all and keep up the good conversation!

  7. Matt Carcieri says:

    What people often forget about P&G is its core driver. As the authors of the 1994 classic “Built to Last” discovered, there are very few companies that have succeeded over time. And what’s driven the success of P&G (and its 17 other enduring peers in the book) is a deep sense of human values — the very stuff that fuels the new “soulful” brands that PSFK highlights as attractive. P&G will certain need to reinvent the way it cultivates its brands, but it certainly has the DNA to thrive in the new world.

  8. Vincent Chan says:

    Dave, after reading this article, I have been thinking about what a “Real Brand” truely is for a long time…I have a few questions though.

    If ‘real’ brands define as brands with soul, history and substance. I am wondering if a brand can make up the history part itself…

    For example, for some new brands like “Gilly Hicks: Sydney” & “RUEHL No.925”, the company actually created a fictional background/history/story for their brands. Then the whole brand is built around that story. Do you consider these brands as real brands, too? If so, we can write anything we want for a brand’s history? I heard the founding stories of eBay and Starbucks are false, too…

    Lastly, while I believe P&G is the best in CPG brand marketing in the world, I think Limited Brands has done a great job in apparel brand marketing. They always bought underperform companies and changed them into some great brands…do you agree?

    Thanks a lot. Sorry that I am not as experienced as other readers here. 🙂

  9. Robin says:

    Brand “authenticity” is not about provenance. Brands cannot develop authenticity via a fictional history. Authenticity is about the relationship that a brand has with the consumer.

  10. Dave Knox says:

    Brands are about stories. The best brands have stories you want to share with others. It might be about how you found the brand or it might be about the brand/company itself. If a company creates that story with no truth behind it, people won’t be willing to share in the experience. Yes the company might be successful and stil lmake a lot of money…but it wont have passionate users and without them, the brand wont have a very long life.

  11. Brian Siegel says:

    What is P&G doing to ‘adapt to change’, and move faster in an ever changing environment? Yes, you do have shareholders to please, and this builds focus on having leadership that at times micro manages from above at any large company, fine tuning the P&L’s and orchestrating strategies that take longer to implement than private/smaller companies time to make a decision and move ahead. Are you suggesting that P&G should go “Neil McElroy” Part II and extend on the decentralized management system so there are smaller/faster independent business units? In theory this would work, but what do you think would happen if your leadership brands operated independently? They in a sense do, but in no way are they nebulous, which is good, and are structured to fit in the P&G way, culture, and processes that (in good and bad ways) work. I am curious as to more thoughts on changing organizational culture, how to harness energy and passion, and oiling up the machine and adding parts to stretch/perform in more agile motions. P&G isn’t going anywhere, but it sure would be neat to shake up the culture, work with different ideas, and challenge established systems = true innovation. The structure, leadership, training, and tradition works, but nothing is perfect, no one has 100% market share (unless it’s a rare metal or some outlier), and there is always room to grow and improve. Great perspectives and retaliation! When are you getting your tatoo and what of? I thought of getting the Kool Aid man or “Punchy”, ha. Rock on Dave, rock on!

  12. 1urk3r says:

    This thesis seems to ignore the fact that product authenticity trumps the illusion often created by brands. Dunhill, Doc Martens, Zippo, etc. have not only survived but maintained leadership (sales or brand metrics) – all with a marketing spend that is dwarfed by the Levers and Procters of the world. Diluting your product will only lead to an exponential rise in marketing budgets over time. She still remains your wife, not a consumer.

  13. […] I think Red Bull is truly a real brand with soul, hisotry & substance. […]

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