The former sales rep turned brand manager for the Crush and Hires soft-drink brands (which P&G later spun off) wrote a memo to Tom Muccio, head of P&G's Wal-Mart Stores sales team, and Denis Beausejour, then VP-advertising, arguing P&G needed marketers on the teams serving big retailers.
"Everyone knew this made sense," says Ms. Howell, 41. "The question was, of course, who wants to go to Fayetteville [the northwest Arkansas headquarters of P&G's Wal-Mart team]? And I said I will happily do that."
She arrived with no budget, no staff and a directive to determine what needed to be done. More than seven years later, her recommendations have led to marketers being added to P&G sales teams not only at Wal-Mart, but also Target, Tesco and dozens of others via market development organizations created in 1999.
Ms. Howell's work has led Global Marketing Officer James Stengel to list "pioneering" as one of Ms. Howell's personal "brand equities." In April, it also led to her returning to Cincinnati as director of the newly created First Moment of Truth Center for Expertise, where she'll train P&G marketers globally in how to do retail marketing.
The "first moment of truth" is P&G Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley's description of the choice consumers make in stores. "We will be coming into a time when retail marketing will become one of the most powerful marketing environments," Ms. Howell says. "It will have the ability to be transformational. Consumer product companies need to ensure that we are on the front end of that learning curve."
She's made a believer of Betsy Reithemeyer, VP-corporate affairs at Wal-Mart. "I have never met a supplier of ours who made such a strong effort or took the initiative or listened as well as [Ms. Howell] has to learn another company's culture, how they tick and in the purest sense honestly look for what is the win-win for both companies."
Ms. Howell's work has helped keep P&G's Wal-Mart sales growing even faster than the discounter's global growth; some analysts estimate more than 30% of P&G's U.S. sales come from Wal-Mart.
While Ms. Howell, like other vendor executives, always wanted to sell more merchandise, "the partnership with Dina became much more, because I have never had to worry about her crossing any lines," Ms. Reithemeyer says. "What she brought to us was always for the good of the associates, for the good of the community, good of the customer."
But what Ms. Howell has done in retail marketing is still widely unknown.
One example she points to is a "Respiratory Preparedness" program P&G has run at Wal-Mart for the past four years. It uses store displays and advertising to encourage moms to lay in supplies of cough-cold remedies, chicken soup and tissues in September or October, ahead of cold and flu season, so they won't have to visit the store when they or their kids get sick.
While she's not at liberty to discuss results, Ms. Howell says: "Clearly, any program that gets repeated for four years is working."
As in any other area of marketing, retail programs based on unmet consumer needs are what works, she says, noting, "Those are the ones you see getting repeated year after year."
Ms. Howell also introduced the retail giant to Give Kids the World. The charity, on whose board Ms. Howell serves, arranges trips to Disney theme parks for terminally ill children. Wal-Mart's security division has adopted the cause.