Adam Kiefaber is a longtime communicator, leading public relations teams at large financial services companies. Follow him on LinkedIn.
For the past decade, every corporate communicator has been trying (and likely struggling) to tell its company’s innovation story. Most of the time, the storylines focus on the tech and ideas of the future and rarely include a look to the past.
Procter & Gamble (P&G)has been regularly enhancing and producing products for more than 180 years under iconic, trusted brands like Charmin, Gillette, Oral B, Pampers and Tide. The company’s website says that it believes “in finding small but meaningful ways to improve lives–now and for generations to come.”
To better understand P&G’s story and how the company shares it, I interviewed Shane Meeker, P&G’s corporate storyteller and historian – and I was surprised at what I found out.
How communicating your past can help your future
Like other Fortune 500 companies, P&G celebrates its history. It has archives and a corporate museum, which is now called the P&G Heritage Center.
When Meeker, who started working at P&G 26 years ago, was asked to take over the Heritage Center, he was surprised by what he didn’t know.
“Since I was someone who had previously worked in the business, I immediately thought to myself that I would have loved to know that this was all here,” said Meeker, who has managed the Heritage Center for the past 11 years. “I knew of the archives but didn’t realize how much was really here and how it could have helped me with my work.”
With the help of his team of storytellers and communicators, the P&G Heritage Center has grown to be more than a celebration of key dates and product launches in the company’s history. It has become an employee destination where colleagues break silos across brands and functions to creatively dream up new ideas.
“It is so important that you don’t get siloed in your area of the business,” Meeker said. “You have to ask yourself if you actually know the innovations that are happening across your company and if you are keeping up with them because it might just spark the idea you need.”
There are many interesting stories at the Heritage Center about cross-brand innovation. One company favorite is about an oral care engineer, who after determining what was needed to whiten teeth at home had to figure out a way his product could stick to teeth and keep out the saliva which would reduce its effectiveness. To do this, the oral care engineer worked with an expert from P&G’s plastic food wrap function. The result was Crest White Strips, which had nearly $80 million in sales in 2018.
“These stories need to be accessible,” Meeker said. “And you must also be proactive in sharing them because these are key innovations that could get people thinking differently.”
How admiring your past failures drives innovation
The most popular exhibit at P&G’s Heritage Center is its Wall of Failures. It quotes JG Pleasants, the former P&G VP of R&D from 1955-1969, that reads: “No company can afford the luxury of rediscovering its own prior knowledge.”
Under Meeker’s watch, the wall itself has grown in popularity and now has a digital touchscreen that can be continuously updated and studied by visitors who can learn more about the projects that didn’t work – along with write ups of what the original objective was, what happened and why it wasn’t successful and what could have been done differently.
“The Wall of Failures doesn’t look back, it looks through,” Meeker said. “It can help you learn what not to do and what to be careful of. The higher-level learning has made it so popular that people want to access it all the time and constantly request for more examples including ones that happen outside the company.”
While the focus of the wall is on failures, Meeker pointed out that it is important to remember that not all these failed ideas are bad. He notes that many could have failed for other reasons, for example, it may have not been the right time or had issues in its initial design. One favorite story that is told on the wall is about Tide PODSÒ. Despite being launched as a new product in 2012, the original idea for the laundry detergent pacs at P&G failed in 1960.
These stories are so powerful that Meeker says it is important to be proactive in his communications. By driving more awareness to the Heritage Center, its Wall of Failures and making it more accessible through digital tools, he hopes his colleagues will be more aware of its value, so they are not surprised – like he was – when they see it for the first time.