Sunday, March 7, 2004

P&G's brushes bring new spin to big brands


Technology innovation drives consumer product development

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Kerry Vetter, of Covedale, a P&G researcher, tests a Tide Stainbrush. In the foreground are Stainbrushes he rigged to test bristle durability.
Photos by GLENN HARTONG/The Cincinnati Enquirer

At Procter & Gamble Co., the Crest brush is connected to the Dawn brush. The Dawn brush is connected to the Tide brush.

And they're all connected to P&G's bottom line.

In a line descended from the Crest Spinbrush introduced with great fanfare in 2001, Cincinnati-based P&G is rolling out two new brushes nationally this month.

The Tide Stainbrush and the Dawn Power Dish Brush each has been adapted to its own use. But both arise directly from Spinbrush technology.

Few expect the new brushes to be blockbuster products, with sales reaching hundreds of millions of dollars. But they're the newest examples of P&G's strategy to spread its technologies all over the company. That lowers engineering and research costs and gives P&G a steady stream of new products.

In Procter-speak, it's called "connect and develop."

In a company that has boasted for more than a century of its powers of innovation, this is the newest form. Under chairman and chief executive A.G. Lafley, P&G has spread human tooth-care technology to animals with Iams pet food, food-wrap technology to teeth with Crest Whitestrips, and laundry technology to hair with Clairol color.

The goal is simple: To add revenue, satisfying the demands of Wall Street investors for top-line growth and setting the stage for healthier profits and stock prices.

"The key here is, they create buzz for the umbrella brands," said Ann Gillin, a Lehman Brothers analyst who studies P&G. "It's all incremental inches adding up to a foot, which is just as effective in my opinion."

Others disagree. They say this isn't real innovation but just trading the tremendous brand recognition of Dawn and Tide - both market leaders - for inexpensive new products that consumers don't really need.

"There will be a novelty factor," said Cynthia Ewer, editor of the Internet site www.organizedhome.com. "But do I see these coming into common use in households? Uh-uh."

"I think it's a safe innovation strategy," said Tom Vierhile, editor of the new-products journal Productscan Online. "But this kind of strikes me as a bit of overkill. They're kind of like solutions looking for a need."

Alone for the weekend

At P&G, the expansion of the brush started in oral care. Crest had seen a huge success with the Spinbrush, piling up sales of more than $200 million a year after buying the technology from a small company for about $475 million.

Steve Jacobs is a principal scientist in P&G's toothpaste business. In July 2002, he was doing the laundry one weekend when his wife was out of town and found himself wondering: Wouldn't a powered brush help get these stains out?

"I was facing my wife's array of cleaning supplies," Jacobs recalled. "So I just grabbed a toothbrush and put some Tide on it and went to work.

"I was like, 'Man, there's got to be a better way.' Then it dawned on me, why not use one of our old Spinbrushes?"

After that worked well, Jacobs called colleagues in fabric care and set the ball rolling. P&G research soon showed that nearly three-quarters of consumers pre-treat their stains. The average family deals with 11 clothing stains a week, averaging about 2 inches each.

Fabric-care researchers tweaked the Spinbrush. They added fabric-safe bristles, modified the angle of the handle and added a secure grip. They used the same manufacturing in China that produced Spinbrush.

By last fall, P&G was selling the Tide Stainbrush on the Internet, eventually moving 25,000 units. Advertising for the nationwide launch broke this weekend.

The Dawn brush went through a different process. About the same time Jacobs was calling fabric care, John Osher, the entrepreneur who sold P&G the Spinbrush technology, presented a new idea to P&G's corporate business development group: a battery-powered brush for washing dishes.

Within a couple of weeks, P&G had a full product-testing team in place. By October, the company did an early promotional launch and will unveil the product nationally this month with a suggested price of $7.99.

Along with new products such as a disposable "Wash & Toss" dishwashing towel with Dawn in it, the add-on products should keep Dawn sales growing at 6 percent to 7 percent a year, well above other companies in the dishwashing product category, brand manager Ernesto Levy said.

"Dawn is trying to change the rules in a market that people think is sleepy," said Karl Ronn, a vice president of research and development in P&G's home care unit. "It's not as sleepy as people think, and it's definitely not sleepy at P&G."

Innovation or invention?

Connect-and-develop is the latest innovation strategy at Procter. Often called the "lifeblood" of the company, innovation has undergone a transformation since Lafley took over in June 2000.

Under former CEO Durk Jager, P&G stretched for breakthrough products, trying to develop blockbusters that would develop into the Tide or Pampers of the next generation.

Jager started the ball rolling on Actonel, the osteoporosis drug that soon will become P&G's next billion-dollar brand. And he spurred the development of Swiffer, the highly successful floor cleaner.

Under Lafley, P&G has focused more on supporting its existing big brands and scaled back its corporate innovation fund, seeking lower-risk, lower-ambition programs that will add steadily to P&G sales.

And he has promised to continue to support those initiatives.

Lehman Brothers analyst Gillin said P&G has produced some breakthroughs in the last five years, most notably Actonel and Olay Daily Facials. She also is eagerly awaiting results from Intrinsa, a patch for female sexual dysfunction that P&G is researching at its pharmaceutical unit in Mason.

Lafley and others say the company's innovation pipeline is healthy and will keep producing incremental revenue for P&G brands.

"I don't know what they've got under the hood, but I would imagine working in a company like that, there's a lot of pressure to come up with the next home run," said Vierhile of Productscan Online. "It's probably low-risk for them to do this. The old P&G would've waited for someone else to do it, then bought the company."

Those who want P&G to focus on "home-run" innovations such as Swiffer would miss out on dozens of valuable ideas, Ronn said.

"They're confusing invention and innovation," he said. "They're both very important things. Invention is an ingredient in this cake. If you let invention be the whole cake, you're going to be limited in your innovation."

Ronn said P&G wants to be a destination for entrepreneurs to sell their product ideas. He recalled the day Osher pitched an early version of the Dawn Power Dish Brush to P&G.

"If you want entrepreneurs to come to you with their ideas, then you have to be entrepreneurial in return," he said. "We told John that day, 'Look, I want to do it.' "

E-mail cpeale@enquirer.com




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