In the pantheon of signs, symbol, and stories that help people understand Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) culture, one of the classics is how former P&G CEO John Smale got the American Dental Association (ADA) to change its approach to approving products and endorse Crest toothpaste, and then leveraged that endorsement to triple Crest’s market share.
Two of the fundamental pillars of a creative brief are benefit (the promise) and support (the reason to believe). In the 1950s, the main benefit of toothpaste was to prevent cavities – as it had been since fluoride was first added to toothpaste in 1914. There was relatively little differentiation between the top toothpastes on either benefit or support.
Smale saw an opportunity to differentiate through an expert endorsement – in this case, the ADA’s. The ADA had never endorsed a product, but P&G had developed a safer fluoride. So Smale went to work convincing them. It took literally years of effort including attending ADA meetings on his own time. But when he got the ADA’s endorsement and layered that on to Crest’s “Look Mom, no cavities” advertising campaign, Crest’s market share tripled and it became the market leader.
The story is told over and over again at P&G (and I suspect later at General Motors when Smale pulled it back from the brink of bankruptcy and restored it to profitability as its chairman, and also at J.P. Morgan and Eastman Kodak where he served on their boards) as an example of:
– The power of differentiation
– Different ways to differentiate
– Overcoming barriers
– Consumer focus
– Taking a long-term view
Crest went on to continued success behind other innovations. Smale, who died on Nov. 19, went on to become one of P&G’s most respected CEOs ever, serving as a great model for each aspect of BRAVE leadership: Behaviors, Relationships, Attitude, Values and Environment.
The ADA Crest endorsement is a prime example. Other examples include his willingness to work long hours, make the big bets on acquisitions, and face problems head on like P&G’s supply chain and approach to working with customers. I worked at P&G in marketing during the time Smale was CEO, and remember in particular his uncanny ability to ask the one question that got at the heart of the matter. Former P&G CEO John Pepper said this of Smale to Reuters:
John was the single most inspiring leader I have ever known. Period.
Smale was disciplined and driven, but always made time to make others feel important.
I remember John’s compassion best. He had the uncanny ability to make you feel like he was listening with an open mind to everything you said. I first met John as a brand assistant and felt it was remarkable a man in his position would care so much about what I had to say. It was inspirational and made me feel like a true owner of the business. – Ed Burghard, former P&G marketing manager
Smale was relentlessly focused on doing good over the long term.
He put the long-term strength of his organization ahead of the short-term impact of tough choices. And he embodied a commitment to improve the lives of our consumers in small and large ways and to have a positive impact on society. – Jim Stengel, former P&G CMO, in Advertising Age April 1, 2002
You can stop anybody at P&G dead in their tracks by asking “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?” Smale embodied the right thing.
I will remember John most for his character, how he represented the soul of the company: purpose-inspired, caring yet demanding, principled and humble. – Bob McDonald, current P&G CEO, in Cincinnati.com November 19, 2011
Smale was one of the great change agents, inspiring and enabling others from within. This was deep-seeded in Smale, as one of his early jobs was to gather petitions to help Cincinnati’s NuMaid Margarine change an archaic law prohibiting margarine from being yellow. The lesson he learned was to change laws, regulations and polices that inhibit progress. Not only can you choose where to play, but you can change your environment over time.
The one thing that distinguishes John’s career as the leader of our company has been his remarkable record as an agent for change. – Ed Artzt, former P&G CEO, in Cincinnati.com, November 19, 2011
This is a good example of step 2 of The New Leader’s Playbook: Engage the Culture and Your New Colleagues in the Right Context
Be careful about how you engage with the organization’s existing business context and culture. Crossing the need for change based on the context and the cultural readiness for change can help you decide whether to Assimilate, Converge and Evolve (fast or slow), or Shock.
Perhaps what was so remarkable about Smale was that he changed both P&G’s internal culture and external context for the better over the long term.
The New Leader’s Playbook includes the 10 steps that executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis uses to help new leaders and their teams get done in 100-days what would normally take six to twelve months. George Bradt is PrimeGenesis’ managing director, and co-author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan (Wiley, 3rd edition 2011) and the iPad app New Leader Smart Tools. Follow him at @georgebradt or on YouTube.