In my twitter stream this morning was a quip about Proctor and Gamble having a new strategy. I clicked through.
I landed on an old-school designed page with a 66 year old woman’s face smiling at me. She was Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the author of the article. It was a Harvard web site. Her bio was monstrous: named professorship at Harvard Business School, 25 years of experience in strategy consulting to Big Brands, former editor of Harvard Business Review. Listed by a British newspaper as one of the “50 most powerful women in the world”. And she wrote some books.
If you know me, you probably know I was less than impressed. Old school credentials mean little to me. Oh sure 30 years ago you had to be great to be great. But somewhere around 30 or so years ago, you only had to be better than someone else to be great. More recently, you merely had to know someone great, to be great. Lately, it seems you simply have to say how great you are, to be great. And anyone can write a book… even people who don’t write their own books are book authors. Best sellers? You can pre-sell your way to the best seller list today. There’s even a search marketing book selling for twenty something dollars that is practically famous for including a $200 advertising credit for Microsoft’s AdCenter system. What profit-minded web marketer would not buy a $20 book that includes a $200 rebate? I expect that author to publish claims of his “best selling book author” status any day now.
Ms. Kanter’s article says Proctor and Gamble is revamping business strategy around values. Reaching out to the consumers, to understand their modern value systems, and speaking to those values with innovative new products. Making their world a better place. Sound familiar?
We saw this generations ago (or last week on Mad Men for you young ‘uns), and almost every day since. Corporations telling us how their products improve our world. Unfortunately, those corporations exploited every available opportunity along the way. They would improve one aspect of life with a consumer product, and exploit every other aspect of life that was not being monitored.If the people were ignorant of some other aspects of their miserable or soon to be miserable lives, the corporation would exploit that in the profit equation. They sell one product that makes life better, while making life much worse (in the long run) through the manufacturing and selling that same product.
If a community used drinking glasses in the school cafeteria, that could be spun as expensive, dangerous, and unsanitary. Glasses can break. Unsanitary meant germ-fostering. Germs are a problem, so getting rid of germs would improve quality of life. Viola.. a values-driven business strategy to sell disposable cups to school systems. It would not require a hard sell, just some marketing. Any responsible parent would choose germ-free over unsanitary. As long as the community didn’t know that bleaching process used to make white paper cups would destroy their rivers and streams, or that the foam used in foam cups would require the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and never degrade once “disposed” of, the corporation would profit from the matching of product to values. No one counted carbon molecules, and to this day no one measures the local water consumed to produce products shipped outside of the local community. Exploitation. It’s profitable. No one considered how glass was sanitary itself, glass could be recycled locally, and no one did a factual risk analysis for broken glasses. None of that was profitable.
Now Ms. Kanter tells us Proctor and Gamble is at it again. She cites an example from colorful far away India. She tells us “In India, about half of men’s shaves are done in barbershops where barbers break double-sided blades in two and use them repeatedly. (Ouch! Unsanitary and bloody inconvenient.)”
Contrary to Ms. Kanter’s apparent assumptions, I read that example as rather sustainable. According to my values (based here in the US, like the “Himalaya Team” at Proctor and Gamble, which is based in Boston), I’d rather see a metal razor blade re-used than see a disposable, plastic-handled Gillette razor thrown into the trash to be dumped in a landfill next to a (former) trout stream. Ms. Kanter reports that Gillette has innovated a new razor product to match the Indian community’s values. She tells us “The team’s razor-and-blade innovation, they report, involves simplification to the essential features to do the job, an affordable cost through manufacturing innovations, and new way to reach lower-income shavers. They preach health as well as grooming benefits.”
India is a country fraught with water problems and economic growth issues. Is it wise for them to adopt some new Gillette disposable razor system, no matter how much better it is than it used to be? Do we know anything about actual sanitation risks of barber-wielded razors? I would think a shaky-handed barber would go out of business pretty quickly. Think about this…. if half of the shaves in India are done by barbers, that’s local money going through local commerce. A self-employed tradesman could actually live without working for a corporation at minimum wage. If they buy Gillette disposables, the money goes through channels to overseas companies, and the garbage stays local. So does the packaging garbage. The barbers will have to take jobs at Wal-Mart (stocking the shelves with Gillette razors?). Haven’t we already learned the pitfalls of this type of global commerce? Aren’t today’s value systems already aware of the evil of this sort of “making lives better through consumer products” approach? And Ms. Kaner calls this new and innovative?
I have no doubt Proctor and Gamble will succeed. It’s “too big to fail”. There will always be a community ignorant of the exploits and willing to adopt the products, believing the marketing and hoping for a better life. There will always be corrupt or selfish government officials willing to trade away their people’s well being for incentives (While advising corporations, Ms. Kanter notes the importance of earning “favorable treatment from government”).
But I also believe that today, more than ever, the consumer is in a position to tell these corporations how they need to make their products. Those Indian men are already saying “it is good to visit the local barber for a shave. It is good to have strong community, and to reduce waste and support local commerce.” Ms. Kanter says P&G is listening and innovating. I disagree. It seems to me P&G is listening and maneuvering, trying to work around the changing value systems because profits are down and they need to sustain global growth in order to continue to please shareholders and support executive at P&G and on Wall Street. I suspect that if P&G had done research to show there were real sanitation concerns associated with the use of re-usable razors in barber shops in India, those barbers would address the root problems of cleanliness. They would have to, in order to keep their customers. But I doubt P&G could sustain profitability selling such minimal solutions into that market. After all, the real reason those barbers are not using disposable razors now is probably cost, not environmental awareness.
We, you and I, not corporations, need to lead the front on values. The Internet and Social Media, especially, helps educate everyone and eliminate the pockets of exploitable communities. It helps get the word out in both directions… what works, and what does not. Where there is no Internet, there can be people carrying knowledge of how the rest of the world works.You and I need to discuss openly, in public, what works and what does not. The conversation needs to take place in the open, not behind closed doors in some research and development department of a consumer products corporation.
Our world has gotten smaller. Do you have any idea where your garbage goes today? We won’t always have overseas garbage dumps for our toxic waste. We won’t always have ignorant communities with corrupt politicians willing to trade the health and welfare of their people for American dollars. It was practically yesterday that some were suggesting we dig holes in the arctic ice and bury our waste, yet already that ice is melting and the ice caps are breaking up. Where would that buried waste be now? The ocean has already begun to regurgitate the trash we’ve been dumping into it for the past 70 years. Where will it go now? Who will clean it up? I guarantee it won’t be Proctor and Gamble or Gillette.
HarvardBusiness.org is old school, and Ms. Kanter is old school, and as a former editor at Harvard and current consultant to big brands, she will get her stuff published. But that doesn’t mean it’s good or worthy even. And you don’t have to buy it, or read it. And most of all, you don’t need to put it into my Twitter stream. Instead, tweet something valuable. I’ll retweet it if you do. Together, we can lead on values, and perhaps keep one step ahead of the “innovators” at places like Proctor and Gamble as they seek new exploits to drive their profits. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the idea that maybe, if not today then someday soon, there will be better odds of a barber in India reading Twitter than an executive at Proctor and Gamble reading Twitter. Wouldn’t that be great? That would lead to innovation, for sure.