Care, feeding and building of a billion-dollar brand

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It's Friday morning at Procter & Gamble Co., and while you'd never know it by his demeanor, Brian Niccol is under attack.

Not personally. But Mr. Niccol is North American brand manager for Pringles at a time when his potato-crisp brand faces its biggest-ever direct challenge in the form of Lay's Stax from PepsiCo's Frito-Lay. Stax launched in the U.S. in September and crossed the border in January to open a second front in Canada.

In a company known for its stiffness, particularly under fire, Mr. Niccol isn't showing it. He's relaxed and quick with a wisecrack, belying a P&G stereotype of unpersonable managers. At one point, he mentions his plans to host a "Survivor" party on a Sunday night when most of America will be at Super Bowl parties. The reason: His athletic-themed spoof ad for Fiery Hot Pringles lost out in P&G's internal Super Bowl derby to Charmin, but its runner-up status won time on the premiere of "Survivor 8" following the Super Bowl.

Mr. Niccol is a rare under-30 brand manager at P&G. Even before he took the Pringles job in December 2002, he had spent two years as brand manager launching Thermacare heat wraps. That stint is commemorated by a ballcap and other brand memorabilia that liven his cubicle-one of many cube farms throughout the very cubic P&G "central building" in Cincinnati.

wunderkind

Already managing one of P&G's billion-dollar brands at 29, Mr. Niccol has the markings of a wunderkind. He also has the added bonus, according to one former P&G executive, of working on a snack business considered "non-core," and thus relatively free of senior management meddling.

But his day is quite typical of the grindstone sharpening that noses get around here. Mr. Niccol gets in around 7:45 this morning, typical for him and many other P&G brand managers who trickle in before 8, despite snow-snarled traffic. The time before 9 will be one of the few quiet, meeting-free segments he'll spend alone in his cubicle as he catches up with e-mail, voicemail and reading. The rest of his day, which ends around 7 p.m., is filled mainly with meetings, both scheduled and impromptu.

Besides his 55-hour-plus workweek, Mr. Niccol takes his work home on the weekend. From Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley and Global Marketing Officer James Stengel comes the drive to spend more time with consumers. For Mr. Niccol, that usually means taking his wife on a Saturday shopping trip that spans four stores, representing the gamut of classes of trade, so he can check displays and chat up consumers.

He's been married three years. And while he didn't meet wife Jennifer at work, like many office-bound P&Gers do, he was introduced to her by a colleague. "I was complaining that I hadn't had any dates," Mr. Niccol recalls. "And at P&G, a culture of action, they took care of it for me."

His Friday morning starts with The Wall Street Journal. An article makes him wonder whether Pepsi's "It's the Cola" campaign reflects a broader shift by PepsiCo, including Frito-Lay, to focus on products and advertising ideas rather than celebrities.

Mr. Niccol's mind is on the competition a lot these days. His first meeting, around 9 a.m., is with Jason Thacker, assistant brand manager in charge of "Stax defense" and new-product initiatives. It's a natural combination in Mr. Niccol's mind: "Obviously, I'm cognizant of what my competitors are doing," he says later. "But I strongly believe the best defense is a good offense."

With Mr. Thacker, he's reviewing the weekly sales and share data from ACNielsen Corp. Stax recently has lowered its retail price under $1 at a major store account, and now P&G is tracking a wide array of other retailers starting to follow.

Pringles' cheddar-flavor version -comparable to a cheddar version of Stax-is 7% below forecast, but Mr. Thacker chalks it up to lingering effects of a tornado that shut down Pringles' Tennessee factory for several weeks last summer and made it miss out on back-to-school promotions.

conference call

Mr. Thacker also passes on what he learned at a bar over the weekend from an acquaintance-that another package-goods company has been working up plans for a co-branded flavor to pitch to Pringles. But the same marketer already has a deal with a regional competitor, Mr. Niccol notes.

Mr. Thacker is one of five ABMs who report to Mr. Niccol, along with a marketing specialist in retail design and a clerical support staffer. Mr. Niccol tries to meet with each daily, and his next stop is a conference room at 9:45, where he pulls ABM Nate Lawton to go over the comprehensive business review he'll present in the next few weeks to Jamie Egasti, VP-North American snacks.

Around 10, Mr. Niccol starts a conference call with two executives from his ad agency, Grey Global Group's Grey Advertising, New York. He goes over a laundry list of issues big and small-how music royalties are keeping them from getting extra mileage for the "Athlete" ad on CBS.com; an ABM's maiden voyage to a commercial shoot planned for Los Angeles the next day; plans to "on-board," in P&G-speak, African-American shop Carol H. Williams Advertising, Oakland, Calif., on marketing plans.

Mr. Niccol notes a corporate goal of spending 10% to 15% of media dollars on African-American ads for the top 10 to 15 brands, including Pringles. "It's got to be qualified copy [in other words, hit minimum copy test scores] to release the funds," he says.

Then he gets to the bigger picture. "In the mid-`90s, we had better advertising," he tells Grey's Lynn Janovsky, VP-group management supervisor, and Liz Mason, account supervisor. That was a period when now-defunct Wells, Rich, Greene handled the business. But, he adds: "I think we have a lot of momentum now coming out of the `Athlete' spot" set to break on "Survivor."

`get on board'

Talk shifts to work being done by Grey's Canadian agency team. "They need to get on board with the pace we want to go in," he says. "The pace is only going to go faster."

By 10:45, Mr. Niccol's focus has shifted to the store and a different conference room, as he meets with two sales managers and a finance manager to go over promotion plans. Item one: a promotion with a nontraditional retailer that has spun out of control, with prices so low they're upsetting other retailers.

"Does Jamie know about this yet?" Mr. Niccol asks, referring to Mr. Egasti. A sales executive shakes his head, somewhat sheepishly. They talk over ways to structure a new trade deal to help combat the more aggressive pricing on Stax in a way that treats all the classes of trade fairly, but they need more data to reach a conclusion.

Lunch arrives, to the same room, about 10 minutes ahead of the "Stax defense" meeting, which Mr. Niccol and crew will eat their way through.

From meeting to meeting, Mr. Niccol is spending as much time influencing decisions as making them. By the end of the day, he'll have had input on almost every aspect of the brand.

"The brand manager job is becoming a place where it's about influencing your cross-functional counterparts," Mr. Niccol says later. "I feel accountable to raise the red flag when we're saying we want to achieve X but we haven't resourced correctly to do it. ... I view it as carrying the torch of the brand equity."

He continues to carry that torch in two new-product initiative meetings, and regroups at the end of the day with his ABMs.

Then it's off to the weekend and that party themed to "Survivor," where the reality show's own torch-carrying tribe members are constantly reminded that "Fire is life."

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