Theres 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. Rios 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. [ ] "Its her entertainment," Mr. Lafley said.
Sound the buzzer! Wrong answer, Mr. Lafley. We cant 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?
Is 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 Chiefs Turnaround Recipe: Find out what women want. Wall Street Journal. June 1, 2005. p. 1.