Ethnographic Error and the genius of AG Lafley at P&G


There’s an interesting article on A.G. Lafley in yesterday’’s Wall Street Journal.  Lafley is the CEO of P&G.  P&G is probably the most important consumer goods company in the world today. It makes Pampers, Pantene and Tide, and invented the soap opera and the very idea of brand management. P&G "graduated" Jeffrey R. Immelt (GE), W. James McNerney Jr. (3M), Meg Whitman (eBay), Steven M. Case (AOL) and Steven A. Ballmer (Microsoft).  By most accounts, this company is, at the moment, the world’s most vital marketer, an accomplishment widely attributed to Lafley’’s leadership. 

The WSJ piece is mostly a celebration of Lafley’’s sensitivity to the consumer.  For a lot of CEOs, consumer sensitivity is somebody else’’s job.  Not Lafley.  On a recent trip to Venezuela, he made a pilgrimage.  He climbed a steep set of concrete stairs to the cramped kitchen of one Maria Yolanda Rios. 

For an hour, Mr. Lafley sat in the corner of Ms. Rio’s kitchen, where bright yellow paint peeled off the wall, and listened to the young mother.  [Rios produced] 31 bottles of cream, lotion, shampoo and perfume and place them on the embroidered tablecloth.  She has two lotions for her feet, one for her body, one for her hands and another for her face. […]  "It’s her entertainment,”" Mr. Lafley said.


Sound the buzzer!  Wrong answer, Mr. Lafley. We can’t say it’’s entertainment unless the consumer says so, too. We can’’t impose our categories. And even if Ms. Rios thinks of these lotions as "entertainment,”" chances are her notion and our notion are not the same. But, take it from an anthhropologist, it is almost certain (and yes I have done the ethnography here, a little, anyhow) " entertainment" is probably not our opportunity for explanation.      

These lotions are about notions, specially, Ms. Rio’s lotions about her notions of what it is to be a woman, wife, mother, daughter, and a Venezuelan and the way she thinks about things like "beauty," "skin," "softness," "scent," "touch," "husbands," "love," "sex," and "sensuality."   Does she want her skin to glow or to shine?   Is beauty something she "puts on," "pulls out" or "draws up?"    Do lotions create effects that speak mostly to her or for her?  In sum, what are the cultural foundations of what Ms. Rio’s thinks a lotion is and does? 

I’s going to take more than an hour to sort this out.  We are going to have to ask Ms. Rio to tell us a great deal about herself and the way she sees the world.   "Entertainment”" is almost certainly going to prove a misleading take on Ms. Rio’s notion of lotions.

But that’’s ok.  Because Lafley is not doing the research here.  Someone else is.  What Lafley is doing is demonstrating that he believes in the importance of listening carefully, in person to the consumer as a person, in their home, as the single most important way that P&G make good on its committment to the "consumer" in consumer goods. 

No, Lafley’’s strength is not ethnography.  Lafley’’s strength is something altogether different, something the Wall Street Journal missed completely.  More on that tomorrow.  (Because blogging goes where the WSJ just can’’t.)   


Ellison, Sarah.  2005.  P&G Chief’s Turnaround Recipe: Find out what women want.  Wall Street Journal.  June 1, 2005.  p. 1.

6 thoughts on “Ethnographic Error and the genius of AG Lafley at P&G

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Before reading the next post, let me say how much I agree with your evaluation of the WSJ’s interpretation.

    The word we’re looking for here is, “projection.” It’s what Dr. Rorschach had in mind with those blots.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Before reading the next post, let me say how much I agree with your evaluation of the WSJ’s interpretation.

    The word we’re looking for here is, “projection.” It’s what Dr. Rorschach had in mind with those blots.

  3. Virginia Postrel

    The relevant ethnographics here is the ethnographics of P&G’s culture, and in that context seeing “entertainment” as an important and valid category for skincare products is a major statement. Traditionally, P&G would have seen such products as strictly functional. I’ve been told that P&G managers have even been hard to convince that the smell of shampoo, as opposed to just how well it cleans, is legitimately considered important for customers in developing nations.

  4. Grant



    I agree that Lafley’s “entertainment” gets P&G out of the utility box.

    (When I first started working for Jeep in the 1980s, (one of the creative directors told me that if he let his client (Jeep) get away with it, every ad would be a loving documentation of products specifications with special attention to superior turning ratios!)

    But I think smart marketers have been thinking “outside the USP” for some time now. Certainly, P&G has, i would guess.

    And there is, I would insist, something very wrong with airly assigning meanings, when marketing success depends on getting it precisely right. I am pretty certain that the engineers in the product develop lab would take exception to Lafley dropping by to throw names and numbers into the decision making process.

    Thanks, Grant

  5. Mrs.Larkin

    Well I’m very surprised to hear about Mr. Lafley’s interest in how the consumer feels. I have been a consumer of their Clairol hair coloring since the late 70’s. Inside my box of hair dye has always been the colorant, an instruction sheet with gloves, and a small container of conditioner to be applied after the colorant was rinsed out of my hair. Today is my husbands birthday. We have reservations at a very nice restaurant tonight. Yesterday, I bought my Clairol hairdye and applied it this morning. The box has a new look. What I didn’t know, until after I had applied the color and was about to rinse my hair, was that the small bottle of conditioner isn’t in the box. I checked the other box I bought and it also has no hair conditioner. Panic set in. I have dry hair and have found other hair color products leave my hair frizzy and like straw. Only Miss Clairol doesn’t do that thanks to the conditioner they include. So after rinsing my hair, I now have a mess of frizzy straw like hair. And I’m furious. NOWHERE on the box are you informed that it has been excluded. And when I called the hotline number, I was refused information on who owns Clairol and where I might file a complaint. Apparently Clairol only has color consultants running their company????
    Clairol aka P&G, needless to say, has not heard the end of me.

  6. Brian Siegel

    Truly listening to others (or in this case consumers) displays your culture, how your business will operate (and be successful or not), and reveals that we need to appeal to a different perspective on the mere word ‘consumer’. People are more than what they consume, and seek items of substance, meaning, value, connection, purpose, and yes – a genuinely engaging experience that appeals to the notion it is important to have is as a part of their daily life. To be ‘entertaining’ certainly has an aura about it that is challenging to discover between a product and consumer. The art of business and marketing is aligning these together, and mold ones perception of what the product is and what it does to the Brand and name (of that value/quality entity). For example, when one needs a tissue, they may say “Kleenex”, when they need detergent, they may say, “Tide”, this is success, and one can then build strategies and teams to surpass sustainability by being more than a product, but an experience – creating a more than loyal customer and company relationship, something more meaningful, and bigger…

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