P&G plays catch up, turns to experiential marketing

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As executives of Procter & Gamble Co. deliberated over its communications-planning account in May, the media future unfolded, literally like a tent, a few blocks away.

Unilever's Lipton beverage brand, in its drive to "paint the world yellow," turned a street corner at the annual Taste of Cincinnati into a yellow-hued entertainment and sampling zone. Colgate-Palmolive Co. set up a sound stage promoting the 23rd annual Colgate Country Music Showdown, a talent search for country bands. P&G brands weren't evident, though that may soon change.

The company became the biggest adopter yet of communications-channel planning when it awarded its North American planning account, covering more than $4 billion in media, public relations and consumer and trade promotion spending, to Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group and Aegis Group's Carat. The latter is widely credited as the originator of the practice, which emerged in the mid 1990s in Europe, of considering all marketing-communications vehicles on an equal footing at the outset of the planning process.

P&G's European competitors-Unilever and Henkel-adopted the discipline as early as five years ago. Previously, planning for media and other options tended to be handled separately in most organizations, generally by separate agencies and marketer units. Both brand marketers and ad agencies have generally held higher status than promotion groups and agencies within many package-goods marketers. And trade promotion had its champions among powerful sales organizations. As a result, consumer-promotion marketers and agencies often got what was left over in the budget after media and trade budgets were set.

`experiential' marketing

For Unilever, which shifted from media to broader communications planning five years ago, the most obvious difference has been more events and other forms of "experiential" marketing, from street teams to movie-theater promotions.

"We are finding more nontraditional methods to communicate with the consumer, not because we want to, but because the consumer requires us to do that," said Dan Hilbert, director-integrated marketing, Unilever Home and Personal Care.

Ideas take precedence over communication channels at Unilever now, and events and sponsorships are the most noticeable change in the mix because consumers take precedence over both ideas and channels, he said, and experiential marketing fits their preferences.

"It's not about interrupting [the consumer's] lifestyle," he said. "It's about complementing it. ... The way you do that are media and touch points that are outside TV."

It doesn't hurt that retailers also love events, particularly Wal-Mart Stores, which pushes suppliers for "retailtainment" ideas that can play out in stores. Bringing the marketing idea to the store is a frequent topic in integrated-planning sessions, Mr. Hilbert said, and in-store events, such as visits by "Axe Angels" sampling teams or Suave-sponsored game shows, are often the ticket.

Cindy Tripp, P&G's associate director-North American media and marketing, said it's too soon to tell how communications planning will change the company's marketing mix. But Carat, which is joining P&G's planning roster, is betting that putting all communications options on an equal planning footing will give event and other experiential marketing a boost. The agency formed Carat Brand Experience earlier this year and in February hired Dale Tesmond, a P&G veteran who had headed Cincinnati ad and promotion agency Benchmark, as VP-managing director to head a Cincinnati office.

The Carat unit, a production company that contracts work to other shops, already has a sizeable non-P&G client base, including Intel, Microsoft and Honeywell.

"There's no doubt [communications planning] will mean more experiential marketing," for P&G, Mr. Tesmond said. "They're already doing more as it is."

breaking through

When P&G's Pepto-Bismol brand hosted a party at the Essence Music Awards in July, it gave the brand a chance to connect with African-American consumers in a way others didn't, said Vince Hudson, marketing director. "I've found it increasingly hard to develop breakthrough advertising in the past few years," Mr. Hudson said.

Communications planning is clearly the flavor of the week in marketing, and there's little doubt adherents are using more event marketing, said Erwin Ephron, principal of the media consultancy Ephron Papazian & Ephron.

"It's really about getting away from TV," he said of communication planning. The trouble is, despite a fivefold increase in cost-per-thousand and halving of ratings since 1980, TV still works better than other channels.

The more salient trend for the likes of P&G and Unilever may be the focus on building billion-dollar brands and shedding smaller ones, he said. Billion-dollar brands can still afford to pay TV's freight, Mr. Ephron said, because they almost always have positive ROI on TV spending.

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