ANA Update: How P&G, J&J, Sharpie Learn From Flops

There must be something confessional in the air in Orlando: Just 24 hours into the conference, CMOs from Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Newell Rubbermaid were already confessing their brand blunders.

Some advised tackling the problem head on. When a distribution issue for Johnson & Johnson’s o.b. ultra tampons caused them to be scarce, “at first, we didn’t say much except that we had a distribution problem, and we were simply out of stock,” says Kimberly Kadlec, J&J’s worldwide vp of global marketing. “We said there was a shortage, and people got irate.” But then the product started cropping up on eBay for upwards of $150 a box. “There was a black market in our tampons, and we knew we had a problem.” 

So the company decided that an apology was in order -- but not just any apology: Customers could enter their name in the brand’s Web site and be rewarded with a personal “I’m sorry,” crooned by a cheesy singer, who even reveals your name in his tattoo as he releases a conciliatory dove into the air. (Lyrics included lines like “I know I’ve been away and I let you down.”) In all, she says, the company issued 65,000 unique apologies, as well as 1 million making-nice coupons, “and consumers got their product back.”

P&G’s snafu, P&G’s Global Marketing & Brand Building Officer Marc S. Pritchard says, was a misguided move that took Pantene away from its “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” roots to solving women’s “4:00 flop.” Flop was the operative word. “They voted, and we lost,” he says. The brand was quickly moved back to its positioning, including spot-on creative from Eva Mendes, and regained its lost share.

For Newell Rubbermaid, the gaffe was actually caused by a celebrity, not solved by one. In an effort to boost its sagging Sharpie sales back in early 2008,  says Ted W. Woehrle, SVP and CMO, it signed one of the world’s biggest athletes to promote it, which seemed to make sense. After all, the brand had considerable dominance as a great way to sign your autograph. “But the dreamy-eyed David Beckham didn’t help. Our share continued to slide.”

That year, it switched to Draftfcb, “and we realized that as tech had become a much bigger part of our lives, writing was losing some relevance. We revisited our core users, and realized we were in a great position to bring back self-expression. There was a big contrast between the creativity of Sharpie fans and the formatted personality-less templates of the digital age.”

From there, the company moved to the “Uncap what’s inside” campaign, and has since moved more deeply into its positioning as an instrument of creativity, “and become an advocate for artists and self-expression,” says John Kenny, EVP, head of planning at Draftfcb Chicago.

Since then, Sharpie has moved not just from being a leader in markets, but a leader among all writing instruments.

“We do a lot of testing and a lot of failing,” says Kadlec. “The trick is to create a culture that when you do fail, you learn. “

“That’s what world class athletes do to improve,” says Pritchard. “Take the time to learn what you didn’t do well.”

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