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.