CPG: Perfectly Equipped To Win The Last War

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, we found out P&G CEO Robert McDonald attended West Point and studied the war tactics of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Now he’s using his considerable military training for two objectives: penetrate territory held by competitors in emerging markets and win back consumers, two-thirds of which have switched to cheaper substitutes for at least one basic household product, food, or beverage.  But, like so many other consumer products firms, is his “army” perfectly trained and equipped to win the last war?

Consider also these tidbits. The annual Beloit College Mindset List “provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college fall”.  In it we learn the graduating class of 2014 thinks email and most technology is just too slow.  Because they’ve grown up in a digital world, they can’t write in cursive, don’t wear wristwatches, and DNA fingerprinting has always existed. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 75% of teens 12-17 years of age now own a cell phone, one in three sends more than 100 text messages a day, and more than 80% use their phone for multimedia purposes including photos, games and internet access.

The point is this: for a variety of reasons, technology being one of the largest, consumers and the marketplace are changing faster than ever.  Yet, most CPG firms are “perfectly trained and equipped to win the last war”.  They are designed for a different reality, a different consumer.  The methods of creating new products, how they go to market and the way they try to influence consumers are not substantially different than they were 10, 20, or in some cases, 30 years ago.

Another thing is obvious: the design of a business matters.  Design thinking matters.  In many cases, the way a business is designed needs to change quickly to avoid going the way of cursive handwriting: relevance eroding over time.  P&G is fighting this erosion.  Will they be able to change and adapt themselves to the new realities or will they slip to their own Waterloo?  I wonder if Robert McDonald studied that part of Bonaparte’s history.