April 28, 2008
Lynn Liccardo on P&G and Listening to Consumers

Regular reader and commenter on the Consortium blog, Lynn Liccardo, recently wrote me regarding some comments from Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley she found interesting, especially considering our common interest in P&G's two soap operas. Lynn served as a member of my Master's thesis committee here at MIT and is contributing a piece to the collection on soaps I'm co-editing with Consortium consulting reserachers Abigail Derecho and Lee Harrington. Also, see Lynn's recent piece Henry Jenkins shared here.

From Lynn:

As I watched Charlie Rose's interview with A. G. Lafley, P&G's CEO, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to hear anything about P&G's two long-running soap operas, As the World Turns and Guiding Light, and indeed, I did not. But what I did hear has enormous and immediate relevance for the current sorry state of these two shows.

I was immediately struck by several "ironies," as Sam Ford described the situation I relayed to him. I, however, think we're way beyond irony here - well on our way to cognitive dissonance. When Lafley talked about his experience as a supply officer in the Navy, running a PO on a military base in Japan, and described complaints as "these little clues you can use to improve your product...you should treasure complaints," I immediately thought of Alina Adams, who clearly wasn't copied on the "we should treasure complaints" memo.

In his thesis, Sam described a discussion on the PGP official SoapBox Fan Discussion Board Adams moderated in which she certainly did not welcome, much less treasure, fans' complaints. Dismissive was more like it. (See Sam's blog post about the situation. And as an aside, P&G's not alone here; CBS's VP for Daytime, Barbara Bloom, wasn't exactly treasuring fans' complaints about Guiding Light's new format, when she said to TV Guide's Michael Logan, "I think everybody who's complaining needs to lighten up.")

I did a little poking around about Lafley, and the ironies abound. When Fortune named him to its Power 25 list, editors noted that, under Lafley's leadership, P&G had "refocused on consumers and rejuvenated core businesses." Lafley was on Charlie Rose as part of a promotional tour for his first book, The Game Changer An excerpt was published on the Fortune website under the title "The Consumer Is Boss". The excerpt describes P&G market researchers getting out of their offices and into the field to understand how consumers actually use P&G products, in this case, how a working-class Mexican family uses P&G's laundry products.

Sam has long argued that the future of soap opera depends on their being treated as brands. And P&G practically invented branding and market research. While Alina Adams may not "treasure the complaints," P&G actually does a fair amount of market research on their soaps (operas that is). So, why the disconnect? Well, it's because P&G does a fair amount of market research on its soaps (operas, that is).

I'll explain. From "The Consumer Is Boss":

Starting in about 2001, P&G developed the "consumer closeness" program to create such experiences. "Living It" enables employees to live with lower-income consumers for several days in their homes, to eat meals with the family, and to go along on shopping trips. In a related program, "Working It," employees work behind the counter of a small shop. That gives them insight into why shoppers buy or do not buy a product, how the shopkeeper stacks the shelves, and what kind of business propositions are appealing. The idea behind Living It and Working It was to sit down with the bosses and to hear what they needed, even if they couldn't articulate it directly.

This makes sense when it comes to figuring out why people buy P&G products. Rich or poor, from the USA or Mexico, we all have to clean our homes, do laundry, wash our bodies, and brush our teeth. So, the researcher shares an experiential frame of reference with and subject. That's why Paz Soldán could recognize "the big aha!":

"By spending time with women, we learned that the softening process is really demanding," recalls Antonio Hidalgo, P&G brand manager for Downy Single Rinse at the time of its debut in March 2004. A typical load of laundry went through the following six-step process: wash; rinse; rinse; add softener; rinse; rinse. No problem if all this is just a matter of pressing a button every once in a while. But it's no joke if you are doing the wash by hand or have to walk half a mile to get water. Even semiautomatic machines require that water be added and extracted manually. And if you get the timing wrong, the water supply might run out in the middle. "The big aha!" says Paz Soldán, was discovering how valuable water was to lower-income Mexicans. "And we only got that by experiencing how they live their life."

But soap operas aren't fabric softener, or detergent, or anything else that P&G manufactures. And therein lies the problem.

Lynn's intent is to begin a dialogue with these thoughts, not just for soap opera fans but those interested in industry rhetoric in general. If you have any thoughts, feel free to leave comments here, or e-mail me at samford@mit.edu.



Since I'm not employed by P&G anymore, I can comment on these things now. I feel like this is unfair criticism. Why? Because PGP (P&G Productions) is run completely autonomously from P&G. The reason she wasn't copied on the "we should treasure complaints" memo? Because she actually wasn't copied (and, to be fair, I don't know her or the details of the situation, so this isn't a qualified judgment).

The soaps are autonomous and are run w/their own philosophies and management principles. P&G does run much in the way AG describes it. To lump his book and comments as rhetoric is disingenuous.


surya --

thanks for your comment. i think we are actually more in agreement than not. i wasn't suggesting that there's was anything wrong with lafley's approach at p&g; exactly the opposite. what struck me was the disconnect between lafley's approach with how pgp approaches their soap opera.

you note that "the soaps are autonomous and are run w/their own philosophies and management principles," which i see as precisely the problem. if pgp brought the same ethos to making soap opera p&g brings to selling soap, the shows would be in much better shape. this is the argument i make in the second part of my post; i hope you'll take a look and comment there as well.

and one more thing: "as the world turns" and "guiding light" were created by p&g, and however separate and autonomous pgp may be from p&g, in the public's mind, these soap operas will forever bear the p&g imprimatur, as well they should given the billions of dollars in revenue soap operas generated for p&g in decades past.