business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

For a city kid like me, taking on whitewater rapids has a special thrill. After all, while I knew how to change subways in New York at a young age, my abilities in the great outdoors are anything but in-bred.

So I was fascinated to learn that the key to running rapids was actually to stay faster than the current, because that’s the only way to keep me, not the river, in control of the boat. Seems like a perfect metaphor for today’s business world, doesn’t it?

What got me thinking about that this week were reports on the exceptional sales growth of Pepto-Bismol in the midst of the tough economic climate. On the surface, that growth really shouldn’t be unexpected. I have to believe more than a few of us went fumbling for the antacids as we watched stocks begin their plunge a year ago and our 401ks sank to a fraction of their former selves. Yet Pepto’s performance remained strong.

In the past year, the 108 year-old brand managed a 0.7 gain in share points for the liquid form; and tablets gained 2.5 points. And it managed that gain despite a 60% higher price than its private label competitors. Talk about bucking trends. Advertising Age went looking for an answer and seemed to come up with an idea: Pepto followed the rules of whitewater rafting: it paddled faster than the storm.

Ad Age noted that Pepto did a number of key things to accelerate its growth. The brand launched new ads just as the recession was exploding full force. What’s more, those ads took an unusual tack for an OTC remedy, using humor at a time when everyone seemed to need it most.

It would be wonderful to report that the gains were totally planned out, but the Ad Age article made it clear that even Pepto’s handlers at Proctor & Gamble were somewhat surprised by the success.

Pepto, it seems, provides a terrific metaphor for business success in today’s challenging environment. It’s a product with a clear message on what it does and doesn’t do. It’s nothing new or nothing all that special, but its value proposition is pretty clear.

On top of that, at a time when everything was getting cut back, Pepto had the good luck to be debuting a new ad campaign and one that grabbed the customer with a fun, easy to follow message. And while P&G wasn’t pouring extra funds into Pepto’s campaign, Ad Age points out the spending wasn’t cut either - a noteworthy decision in the current climate. So, by staying the course, P&G won.

I’m thinking P&G deserves extra credit all the same. It would have been easy to avoid the risk of a new advertising campaign as times turned tough. And it would have been understandable if the company cut back on advertising like so many did. Only, P&G didn’t.

In essence, P&G showed more than guts - they really did all the right things: identifying clear value, using creative selling and staying the course even as times got tough. It wouldn’t merit discussing if that action plan wasn’t simply so uncommon for the current times.

There’s one other lesson I remember from my whitewater rafting experience. When the river got really tough, our instructor explained, start paddling really hard. That seems like another easy metaphor for a tough economic climate.

Life still isn’t easy out there and it’s likely it won’t get easy anytime soon. But just soak in the lessons from pink antacids and whitewater. In short, keep paddling.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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