At Procter & Gamble I was a product manager for Vicks Vaporub in Canada. My job was to increase sales of venerable Vicks Vaporub - a mentholated salve sold as a cold remedy - through advertising. I was supposed to start by identifying obstacles to growth. In other words, identify the problems. Well, one of the problems was that sales of this forty-year-old product were declining and had been for some time. I knew what had to be done, or thought I did - just get those sales up.
When trying to identify a problem we often grab onto the obvious. If we were to go into a thousand business conference rooms on this day, the day you are reading these words, we would hear some variation of the same statement: "The problem is that our sales are down." In most instances that is not a clear enough statement of the problem to point us toward a solution.
We need to dig down beneath the obvious, to find the cause or causes of lack of growth. It might be because of a big turnover in the salesforce, or that our new people are untrained. It may be because of misdirected advertising, or that our competition has a great "price-off" offering. The trade may be responding to incentives that promote a competitive product, or an out-of-stock condition may exist. There may be delivery problems. There are many, many possibilities.
When I sat down to begin to formulate a solution, I thought about Charles Kettering, one of the great men in industry. His inventive genius is credited by many for having sparked the growth of General Motors early in the twentieth century. Kettering trained himself to never begin by looking for a solution. He would always focus on identifying the problem in terms of its primary cause. He would start by gathering information that would continue to define, and therefore narrow, the problem.
Kettering felt that the apparent problem (declining sales) was often not the real problem. He advised that we dig deeper and find the causes and then frame the problem statement in those terms. He believed that then the problem statement would point us toward the solution. One of his statements is quoted in business schools across the nation.
A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.
So in my responsibility as product manager, I began by following Kettering's advice of gathering information to narrow the problem.
I studied our company's research. A nationwide survey of cold product usage over a two-year period had just been conducted. There were some remarkable bits of information in that study, including this:
Vaporub was in 93 percent of homes (almost no other product is in that many homes!)
The average use-up rate of a jar was fourteen months (very few other products take so long to be used). Five years earlier it had been ten months.
There was a lot more information than that (some sixty pages more), but the startling revelations were contained in those three useful facts.
There were two other important facts. One was that all of our advertising was geared toward persuading the mother to buy the product. (But she didn't have to buy it. In 93 percent of the cases, she already had it in her medicine chest!)
The other fact was that sales of Vaporub were slowly declining and had been for the past five years.
I looked at all that information and thought to myself, "Wow. Our sales have been sliding for five years. Our advertising is way off-base. It's stupid. It shouldn't be focused on getting consumers to buy the product. Our dollars are being wasted. The agency should be fired. The copy message should be to use more when they use it. Or to use it for additional purposes."
I flustered on. "Our goal should be to increase the use-up rate of the product; maybe we should suggest that the customer throw it out after a year; or maybe we should decrease the size of the jar so it doesn't last as long, or change the formula so that it spreads more, or disappears into the skin so that they use more. Maybe we should advertise that the product be used for sore muscles . . ."
Whew! You can see the flights of fancy I became involved in - the tendency to rush to a solution - to come up with an idea. Charles Kettering would have disowned me.