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Published by EH.NET (June 2005)

Davis Dyer, Frederick Dalzell, and Rowena Olegario, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. x + 467 pp. $29.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-59139-147-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael Landry, Department of Business Administration, Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

A cursory glance at Procter & Gamble reveals a corporate icon of superlatives and deep history: a pioneer in nineteenth-century mass marketing; one of the world’s largest consumer products corporations; the biggest television advertiser in the U. S.; a pioneer in the development of empowered employee work teams; and the inventor of synthetic laundry detergent, flouride-based toothpaste, and successful mass-produced disposable diapers. Even the broadcast programming referred to as “soap opera” — first on radio, then on TV — traces its origin and generic name to Procter & Gamble. With nearly 200 products over more than a century and a half, P&G has touched households internationally in areas of food, cleaning, medicines, and personal care.

How does one develop a history of a massive multinational marketing, technology, and manufacturing company? That was the challenge P&G in the 1990s presented to the Winthrop Group history consulting firm. P&G executives wanted a documentation of changes the company had faced and also a preservation of institutional memory based upon the company’s past.

Using P&G’s Cincinnati archives (“a model of its kind”) and other sources, Winthrop founding partner Davis Dyer, along with Frederick Dalzell and Rowena Olegario display thoughtful organization of the P&G story. First, they divide their work into four parts consisting of three eras. Part One is the Foundations Era of 1837-1945. Part Two is the Era of Related Diversification during the 1945-1980 explosion in consumer products. Then, in the Era of Heightened Competition and Globalization are Part Three, featuring international growth in the 1980s, and Part Four regarding competition in the shrinking world since 1990. Through the chronological record, Dyer, Dalzell and Olegario also trace five continuing P&G themes: a focus on branded consumer products, the company’s approach to creating and building brands, its commitment to rigorous experimentation, its tenacity in execution, and its ability to balance opposing pressures.

Culminating with P&G’s 1980s entry into China and its venerable philosophy of brand building, the book goes back to the partnership of candlemaker William Procter and soap maker James A. Gamble in Cincinnati in 1837. This was during the commodity era of the agrarian U. S. economy and candles and soap could be made on the farm. However, Cincinnati was plugged into the growing transportation infrastructure based upon the Ohio River and canals and before long Procter and Gamble were using them to ship their products. Initially at the mercy of winter freezes, the partners were able to even out their distribution cycle as railroads reached Cincinnati in coming years. In addition, Procter’s son George, engaged in aggressive marketing which increased production, and Gamble’s son, James Norris Gamble, applied chemical analysis to soap making, moving it from an art to a science. Here, of course, were the rudiments of P&G’s later success: marketing and technology.

Major growth came in supplying soap and candles to the Union Army in the Civil War. However, by the 1870s, kerosene-based illumination was undercutting the market for candles and consumer products were beginning to be branded and distributed on the growing railroad network.

P&G made its entry into branded products by 1879 with the introduction of Ivory Soap. Instead of traditional ingredients of tallow, grease, or lard, Ivory was similar to the premium castile soaps, but at a low price (the authors are noncommittal about endorsing company tradition that Ivory’s quality of being able to float was accidentally discovered). Beginning in the 1880s, P&G put massive amounts into advertising, becoming a major revenue source for magazines much as it later was for radio, then television.

Although Ivory was the primary product through the first half of the twentieth century, the authors at length trace the development of the first synthetic detergent, Tide, and how the success of its 1946 rollout catapulted P&G into the dynamic era of 1950s consumerism. Of course, from mid-century on, P&G diversified into myriad products, always applying its concepts of science, discipline, and aggressive marketing.

The book makes for an excellent history of a major corporation and a model of organization for coverage of a complex topic. Detailed tables from the P&G archives also make it a good reference material. While the authors obviously developed a close relationship with P&G and reflect a bias toward it, they have claimed editorial independence (including anonymous reviews) and have not hesitated to present setbacks to P&G (environmental issues surrounding synthetic detergents, the Rely tampon toxic shock problem, the initial inability to gain market traction in Japan).

Much of the book is a compelling read. Some parts, not surprisingly, may become tedious to those not interested in a specific area of technology and applied research; however, the authors have done a thorough job in providing a complete yet streamlined analysis of a mammoth organization with myriad products and diverse technologies. Each chapter ends with a page or so that essentially summarizes the chapter and attempts to put it into perspective with the rest of the book. This allows a reader to skip a chapter of less compelling interest and still learn of its significance to the whole of the P&G story.

Michael Landry is Associate Professor of Marketing at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas and an MBA from Colorado State University-Pueblo. His research interests include business history with an emphasis in transportation and advertising. He was co-author of “From Satire to Selling: Stan Freberg’s Venture into Advertising” in the 2005 Essays in Economic and Business History and has a forthcoming article in Michigan History entitled “Plymouth, Air Gun Capital of the World.”