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

June 13, 2008

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!