John Smale was chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble from 1981 to 1990. I saw him in his Cincinnati office just a few days before he retired. I was curious to know what he felt had most changed in the discipline of marketing during his career. He said that, for him, it was the very concept of the brand; what changed was the idea of what a brand is and what it can become. To explain, he told me that just a few weeks previously, a recommendation had been made to him to launch a toothbrush under the Crest brand. He had accepted it without hesitation. What’s interesting is what he said next. As a young brand manager, he had made the same recommendation decades before and it was vigorously rejected. Such an idea collided with the absolute dogma that reigned at the time: Product and brand were inseparable. One brand, one product. One product, one brand. It was unthinkable to risk diluting the image of the established product, in this case Crest toothpaste, by introducing a line extension. It was simply prohibited.

It was a coincidence that just before he left, Smale was led to take a decision opposite to that taken by his management a few months after he joined the company. Between the start of his career and his retirement, Procter & Gamble’s very rigid concept of the brand had profoundly and definitely evolved.

This anecdote is more eloquent than it might at first appear. It highlights the distance traveled in our understanding of what ...

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