Procter & Gamble Design Chief Discusses Product Design, Marketing in the Digital Age

Procter & Gamble Global Design Officer Phil Duncan addresses a Dean's Seminar audience.

Gillette: In the United States, the name conjures images of burly men with five-o-clock shadows and razors boasting an ever-increasing number of blades.

But when parent company Procter & Gamble brought their razor line to India, they knew that macho American design – and its price point – wouldn’t translate. They needed a razor suited for the rural Indian man, a consumer who lives in a two-room dwelling, often without furniture, and who typically still shaves with an old-fashioned, double-edged razor and a cup of water retrieved from a tap in the street.

“The Gillette brand has always been about the machismo, ‘Be the best you can be,’ 15 blades on a cartridge,” joked Philip Duncan, Procter & Gamble’s global design officer, describing the design challenge at a Dean’s Seminar Series lecture on Friday. “(In India), we had to really examine, what are their needs?”

Duncan addressed his lecture, “Purpose Inspired Innovation, by Design,” to a standing-room-only crowd in the ITW classroom at Northwestern University’s Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. His 45-minute talk and following Q&A focused on several innovative marketing and product design strategies undertaken by Procter & Gamble in recent years – an era that Duncan described as one of intense change for brand-builders.

A “fundamental shift” of the Digital Age has seen campaigns move away from classic focus groups and product research and toward more diverse marketing, social networking, and person-to-person contact. Furthermore, companies face increased cynicism and distrust from consumers, who want companies not just to provide helpful products, but to do good work.

Overcoming these challenges requires more than airing commercials, Duncan said – it requires building relationships with these increasingly savvy individuals.

“We really are trying to understand how we can build a one-on-one, meaningful relationship with every person in the world,” Duncan said. “Pretty daunting task, but again, technology and insights enable us to do that.”

Duncan also discussed how product designers are forced to shed old design ideas and think more globally. For example, before launching the disposable razor line in India, Gillette product designers, marketers, and researchers traveled there to interview men about their shaving habits.

The result was a razor unlike anything else in Gillette’s product line: extremely inexpensive, selling from street vendors’ windows for 15 rupees apiece (U.S. 31 cents); made entirely in India; and with wide channels built into the head to allow lather to come off more easily when using a small container to shave.

“Fundamentally, this really demonstrates the ideal way that we are learning how to work,” Duncan said. “(We are) seeking deep insights around how men shave and not expecting that the products and/or services we design today are going to meet those needs.”

-- Sarah Ostman