The Cleaning Lady

The Procter & Gamble headquarters in downtown Cincinnati is known locally as the Two Towers. Built in 1985, the twin, octagon-topped buildings are sheathed in untold tons of white limestone and soar 17 stories into the Midwestern sky. From the outside, a visitor might guess that P&G could be a prosperous insurance company, but the appearance is deceptive. The company owes its 172-year history to fostering a culture of innovation and that means its legacy depends on risk-takers and innovators, albeit ones that work within a somewhat rigid corporate framework.

Years ago, Suzanne Watson thrived in a similar environment that was bound by inelastic rules, but rewarded improvisation and quick thinking: the basketball court. Watson was an “Orange Woman,” a guard on the NCAA Division I women’s basketball team at Syracuse University. Now she applies those qualities to one of the highest profile jobs in marketing — managing P&G’s Tide brand. Recruiter Howard Gross, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search in New York, says people in Watson’s position need to have qualities that are similar to a succesful athlete, including being “comfortable being in the limelight, and being held accountable, and, most importantly, being able to tolerate pressure.”

Ed Tazzia, a recruiting exec at Gundersen Partners in Detroit, agrees. “The marketing in [the P&G] environment is the driver of business,” he says. “In other companies, it’s driven by operations, finance … where the primary driver is the management of risks: ‘How much can I charge? Who should get a credit card?’ In packaged goods, no matter if it’s detergent or fine fragrances or health and beauty aids, the consumer packaged goods companies are driven by marketing people.”

Watson, now 34 and a mother of two, still has more than a trace of the confidence derived from being a star athlete. On a recent February morning, Watson emerged from an elevator at P&G headquarters sporting a pair of leopard-print pumps and a snug, black turtleneck. That day, she exhibited the ability to think on her feet in several instances and admitted that her dynamism, sometimes, has its downside. “I’m so energized by seeing change and moving things forward that sometimes,” Watson says, “I’m eager to move a bit faster than my feet can carry me.”

Watson needs all the mental bandwidth she can muster. Tide has some $3.5 billion in annual sales, but growth is threatened by the economy — consumers are tempted to switch to cheaper laundry detergents. For the 52 weeks ending Jan. 25, Tide topped the liquid laundry detergent category with $1.3 billion in sales, but its other variants, such as Tide Simple Pleasures, fell 43 percent, or $36 million in sales, per IRI. Private label posted much bigger gains, up 23.4 percent in dollar sales, or $115 million, for the same period.

“People feel comfortable with Tide,” concedes Paul Leinwand, vp with consulting firm Booz & Co., Chicago. “But a good percentage of people [using a less expensive brand] might just as easily say, ‘That product experience was fine, my clothes are clean, I saved money.'” Like any marketer, Watson is presented with an infinite array of media choices — TV, print, social media, radio, mobile, etc. — that makes supporting a brand like Tide arguably much harder than it was 10 years ago.

This morning, Watson’s workday starts in a seventh-floor “huddle room.” A space big enough for only four people, a table and an erasable marker board, these glass-enclosed conference rooms are all over P&G’s marketing floors. Just around the corner is Watson’s workstation — bare for the most part, save for a finger painting by her daughter, Naomi, and some Tide mock-up boxes lying around. (At P&G, side-by-side cubicles are meant to encourage “open collaboration” among colleagues). In the huddle, Watson is sitting with fellow P&Ger Rodrigo Coronel, her new digital mentor. Watson has never met Coronel before, which makes this a good time to outline her recession-era vision for the brand, one that depends on linking Tide with social good. The idea is human life requires four basic elements — and you can count on Tide for one of them.

“Food, water, shelter — and clothing,” Watson chirps, moments after the meeting, ticking off survival requirements on her fingers. “Clothing is one necessity Tide can deliver on,” she explains. “When things are bad, food, water and shelter are essentials. But being able to put a fresh T-shirt over your head? That is a small miracle, a ray of hope that things are going to be OK.” Just for emphasis, Watson holds a big jug of Tide aloft.

The idea of bolstering branded goods with philanthropy isn’t new, but it’s an increasingly popular option in a down economy. During this year’s Academy Awards, Frito-Lay ran ads for its TrueNorth nut brand, spotlighting people who have started community service projects. Kellogg’s Super Bowl ad was all about encouraging moms to nominate local playing fields for renovation. “With President Obama we are ushering in an era of service. Community service is bigger than green,” says Simon Sinek, president of Sinek Partners, a branding consultancy.

Still, when consumers are in penny-pinching mode, such an argument is hardly a cure-all. Coronel knows as much. In an economic downturn, he says, consumers aren’t just choosing between “Tide and the competition,” but “Tide and a fancy dinner, or Tide and something else.” As such, Watson and Tide are both looking for new ways to talk about value — including via digital platforms, which is what Coronel is here to discuss.

Watson seems more excited than daunted by the prospect. “One of the things I have a lot of passion and energy for is, ‘How do we connect with the consumer?'” she says.

Watson’s kinetic energy is no act. Watson’s head, however, is all business. After earning her MBA at the University of Michigan, she joined P&G as an assistant brand manager for Era in 2001. She never left. She also never forgot the aptitudes of the basketball court, so you might say that Watson now plays every position for Tide’s team. As associate marketing director, she’s responsible for everything from marketing and research to focus groups and finance.

And Tide is more than an important, heritage brand (see “Six Decades of Suds,” below); it’s also a farm team for P&G leadership. A.G. Lafley, the company’s CEO since 2000, had stewardship of the brand in his early years. So, too, did Susan Arnold, P&G’s first female company president, who recently retired. Watson’s supervisor, Alessandro Tosolini, also came from Tide, and he has since assumed oversight of North American fabric care.

It’s a position that requires an ability to think ahead, while also navigating the present. As Watson puts it: “It’s a balance of the fundamentals with pushing that envelope towards innovation.”

Such innovation during her tenure has come via variants like Tide Coldwater  (energy efficiency through the use of cold-water cleaning), Tide with Febreze Freshness (a union of two of P&G’s most successful brands) and, most recently, Tide Total Care, launched in partnership with sibling fabric softener Downy.

Though many of those innovations involved cross-brand synergy (i.e., adding Febreze or another P&G product to the mix), Watson’s current marketing challenge is more about simplifying the message behind the core one. “I really try to distill it to its simplest form, which is, ‘What is the consumer need?'”

Right now, she knows the need is stretching the family budget. Though her past launches came in advance of the official recession, she’s been working on that theme for quite some time. For example, Tide Total Care, launched last summer, claims to keep clothes looking new even after 30 cycles through the washing machine. “Consumers right now, more than ever, need ways and solutions to care for their clothes and have them last longer,” Watson says. These days, she adds, Total Care helps moms “make more economical decisions on the outfits she and her family wear everyday.” And with Tide in general, she says, the driving force of the marketing message must continue to center on making a difference — palpable, financial — in people’s lives.

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