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P&G’s Marc Pritchard says its ‘startup mentality’ to brand building makes the grade

Procter & Gamble (P&G) is 183 years old, but its top marketer Marc Pritchard wants each of its brands to think, and act, like a startup. He tells The Drum how encouraging his teams to focus on ‘lean innovation’ and product development in amid a pandemic is delivering results.

Oral-B, Gillette, Febreze and Bounty are not necessarily the first brands that spring to mind when you think about innovation, but under the watch of P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard, these brands have been reinventing the consumer experience over the last year through new product launches, inclusive design updates and sustainability initiatives.

That’s because since 2019, long before the pandemic reared its head, Pritchard has been asking his brand marketing teams – some of which are custodians of household products that are hundreds of years old – to think like startups.

In January 2020, Pritchard took to the stage at CES in Las Vegas (remember real-life conferences?) and charted out the FMCG giant's new marketing playbook, which he said was centred around “leading constructive disruption in innovation and brand building”. At the time, he spoke about a willingness to quickly switch strategies to meet the demands of a society under pressure; almost pre-empting the transformative year ahead.

Now, almost 12 months deep into a pandemic that has wreaked catastrophe on the economy and changed consumers forever, he is confident his approach is paying off.

“I’ve been working with our chief research, development and innovation officer [Kathy Fisher] to encourage our marketing teams to adopt a startup mentality in terms of how we build our brands,” he explains.

Lessons from the startup world

Over the past 18 months, P&G has been leveraging the strength of being one the largest consumer goods manufacturers on the planet, while also embracing the agility of a startup.

“R&D, marketing, communications, design and research all had their own sequential processes up until a year ago,” says Pritchard, who is nominated for this year’s Global Marketer of the Year Award by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA). However, when he looked around him at the increasingly competitive FMGC space, flooding with startups and DTC brands, he realized these siloes had to be broken down.

“I just thought, startups don’t operate this way, so why should we. We studied the startup world and adopted the principle of lean innovation,” he notes. The result was the launch of an internal programme dubbed Growth Works which sees a team of in-house development experts work with brand marketing leads to giving P&G’s portfolio a competitive advantage.

This initiative has spurred a number of tech-heavy product launches from P&G. This includes the Oral-B iO electric toothbrush, which uses AI to produce 3D images of users’ mouths and give insights into their brushing habits. Lumi by Pampers, a smart baby monitor system that combines a video with an activity sensor and app to let parents access their baby’s sleep, feeding and diapering patterns, has also been developed out of this closer relationship between marketing and product development.

There’s been more amusing inventions, with clear marketing intent, such as the RollBot a cute robot with an electronic teddy bear face whose job it is to ‘deliver’ Charmin toilet paper rolls to bathroom users on command.

“That was a spoof on innovations in the bathroom, but what we did is introduce this pretend robot at the same time as the real innovation which was Charmin Forever Roll – a huge roll of toilet paper that lasts for up to a month – and little did we know just how important that would become at the start of the pandemic,” says Pritchard.

“A big part of this year has been looking to constructively disrupt amid all the other disruption going on,” he adds. “And how do we help consumers and create growth and value for the industry while doing this?”.

Along with the successful experiments already launched, Pritchard confirms it has a further 180 in the pipeline.

“It’s really started to culturally shift how we do things, people move with much greater speed. It’s also affecting everyday processes. It’s informed our thinking in the pandemic and has encouraged different teams to work together to make things happen, so it’s been a pretty significant shift in helping us innovate and build our brands.”

A force for good, and a force for growth

Though some global brands have struggled financially in the pandemic, P&G’s place as a purveyor of essential household, personal care and cleaning goods have allowed it to thrive.

Earlier this month, the Cincinnati-based FMCG behemoth reported an 8% increase in revenue, to $19.7bn, and a 20% rise in operating profit for the most recent quarter.

The positive results also aligned with a hike its marketing spend and a commitment to purpose-driven, sustainable marketing. At the start of the pandemic it quickly pivoted its global disaster relief program, donating millions of products are from more than 50 of its brands in more than 55 countries to ensure families had basic access to everyday basics.

It also used its marketing muscle to fill the void left by governments to promote mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as to advance the conversation on more controversial social issues – using brands such as Secret to highlight how women were bearing the burden of the pandemic.

The business teamed up with TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio to promote social distancing via the #DistanceDance too.

For Pritchard, doing good is well and good but his brands need to be a force for growth too, and though the business constantly bakes purpose into its brands it’s conscious of measuring this in terms of not only perception but also sales and profit.

“If you're a force for good without growth, you're philanthropy. And we're not philanthropy. If you're a force for growth without good, you're a mercenary. We're not that either. So it has to tie together.”

You can vote for Pritchard, or any of the other finalists for the WFA Marketer of the Year Award, here.