Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why P&G's Global "Persuasion" Strategy is Flawed

Sure, they’re Procter and Gamble the global packaged goods manufacturer. Yes they are in over 180 countries with some of the most recognized brands globally. But does this make them invincible? Not quite. In fact, like most businesses big and small, they are facing pressure in key regions from their biggest competitors, Unilever and Kimberly-Clark.

In light of this, they’ve openly turned to internal growth as their strategy. By growing share in their current markets they think they can win the race. This part of their strategy may be right on – it’s how they are executing it that could totally miss the mark

In a recent Businessweek article Bob McDonald, the current CEO of P&G outlined his strategy. Alarmingly, he talks about “persuading” customers in various markets to use their products. I think this quote sums it up nicely:

“That means persuading men in India to shave with disposable razors, convincing African women of the benefits of Western feminine hygiene products, and selling more teeth whiteners to Americans.”

Without even going into the ethics of this strategy which could be its own blog post, I’d like to discuss why this strategy will fail in the long run.

One word: culture. The products in our lives are cultural manifestations. They are artifacts that play specific roles in our norms, traditions, rituals, customs, rites, etc., etc., etc. As such, they are imbedded into our lives for specific reasons.

Now, this doesn’t mean that new products cannot be introduced into our lives, or old products re-introduced in new ways. Persuasion however, is not the way to go about it.

This is not dissimilar to the age-old marketing rule that states that acquisition is always more expensive than retention. Persuasion is more expensive than cultural adaptation. In the end persuasion is like pushing a boulder up a hill. It’s hard, it’s strenuous and the likelihood of it’s success is limited.

Instead, by taking the emic approach (design anthropology, user experience…) and creating new products or adapting existing products to seamlessly fit within cultures, they will find quicker and more sustainable adoption. Culture cannot be forced, nor can artifacts be forced into cultures. But brands and products can find long-term and happy homes through altruistic understanding of how they fit into the bigger picture. And this I believe is much more in line with Procter & Gamble’s stated purpose:

“We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come. As a result, consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit and value creation, allowing our people, our shareholders and the communities in which we live and work to prosper.”

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