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Create Innovation Opportunities by Changing Your Glasses

Often the best way to understand something is to forget what you understand about it. Look at things from another angle. Borrow someone’s glasses and view distortion. Or as Peter Murane of BrandJuice writes in Lessons From the Vinyl Sofa, “Getting stuck in information samesness forces people to only look at the world as it currently is, not think ahead to how it could be different.”

Over the past 30 years, I’ve had a few dramatic experiences where dropping preconceptions and viewing the situation from a “wrong” perspective created huge potential. I am wary about over-generalizing from one’s war stories, but here is one worth considering.

Early in my career at P&G, I was put on Pantene, a 30-year-old brand we had just acquired as part of the deal when we bought Richardson Vicks, a huge multinational healthcare company. Pantene was the smallest brand in our haircare portfolio – which included Head & Shoulders, Prell, Pert, Ivory, Lilt, and Vidal Sassoon – and there seemed little reason to keep it. We were told to kill it or sell it.

In those days, few brands were in multiple categories; for example, it was not a foregone conclusion back then that a shampoo would also sell a conditioner and vice versa.  But Pantene competed in several categories – shampoo, conditioner, treatments, and styling aids - despite having small shares in each of them. In fact, in the only category we cared about at P&G, shampoo,  Pantene’s share was a fraction of 1%. Clearly, by P&G’s standards, Pantene was a failure.

The only thing that made us pause was the fact that it sold pretty well at a few drugstore chains where our other brands tended to struggle. Before we dumped the brand, we decided to understand why. It turned out that buyers at these chains viewed haircare through different glasses. They didn’t look at shampoo, conditioner, etc. They looked at Total Haircare, the composite of several categories. And unlike P&G, they didn’t care about volume share; they measured dollar sales. When they totaled Pantene’s dollar sales in all the different categories, it was their #1 brand.

What P&G saw as not worth bothering with, they saw as a critical part of their business.

That insight led us to innovate Pantene’s business model. We tore up the P&G playbook. Where the Drug channel was an afterthought for our other brands, it became the single-minded focus for us. Because the channel wanted continuous product news, we became a product innovation machine on steroids, churning out large numbers new items twice a year (P&G brands were typically launching 1-3 new SKUs annually). Where P&G typically fought to keep shelf prices low with occasional discounts, our buyers wanted – and we supported – high shelf prices with frequent discounts.

Within two years, using the Total Haircare Dollar Share metric that we had to calculate by hand, Pantene was #1 or #2 in the 17 top Drug chains. It had become P&G’s second most profitable haircare brand. There was no more talk about killing or selling it.

I worked on Pantene for 3-1/2 years, and was lauded for breaking all the rules. But it’s hard to maintain a maverick culture in a process-driven company. A few years after I’d moved to another assignment, I heard that Pantene’s strategy was being retooled. That was certainly the right choice – it had outgrown its single-channel strategy – but the reason given made me sad: Pantene was internally viewed as a failure because its shampoo volume share was less than 1%.

Learning: changing your glasses can drive powerful innovation, but creating permanent change requires multiple stakeholders to be willing to view things differently.

Two decades later, I was given another brand in a similar situation, a chance to do the same thing, only better. This time, I made sure everyone was fitted with new glasses. Again, it worked. Only this time the changes stuck.

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