Close-Up: P&G steps out from behind its brands

Procter & Gamble is poised to tear up its own rulebook and profess 'ownership' of its products, John Tylee discovers.

If all the pre-publicity turns out to be correct, then Procter & Gamble's upcoming new ad campaign promises to be so high in sugar content that it ought to carry a health warning.

Roisin Donnelly, the P&G corporate marketing director for the UK, probably wouldn't go that far, but she does concede that the latest ads - breaking on Mothering Sunday - will be "highly emotional".

These aren't words that would once have formed part of the marketing vocabulary at the consumer products giant, famous for having written its own advertising rule-book and for its single-minded strategy of introducing a product and explaining simply and clearly what it did.

However, the new campaign is unusual, not so much for the way it will declare the world's largest advertiser to be "the proud sponsor of mums", who have been at the heart of the company's marketing efforts for most of its 174-year history.

What actually makes this special is that, for the first time in Britain, P&G's advertising will make sure consumers know that it is the company responsible for such famous products as Fairy Liquid, Pampers, Crest, Olay and Charmin.

Although much of this forthcoming activity will take place in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics (of which P&G is a sponsor), Donnelly says this is a once-and-for-all change in strategy. She won't discuss budgets, but insists: "This will be a major part of our advertising investment."

P&G is reviewing the brands whose advertising will emphasise "ownership". But Donnelly confirms that Ariel detergent and Always sanpro products are among those to be included in the initiative that will embrace TV and print as well as significant online activity.

According to her, the move is in response to increasing demand by consumers to know more about the companies that make the products they buy, and the growing influence of the internet which allows them easy access to that information.

She believes this can not only drive product sales and bolster brand equity, but also enhance P&G's standing as an ethical and principled organisation.

The strategy of linking P&G directly with its products has been used by the company for some time when entering new markets. But the real impetus for it emerged out of its Team USA partnership at last year's Vancouver Winter Olympics.

This was followed by the signing of a ten-year marketing deal with the International Olympic Committee. It is estimated to be worth between $150 million and $200 million and includes three summer Olympics and two winter games.

Its success in Vancouver convinced P&G that it should extend the strategy to London 2012, citing research that confounded the usual theory that sports events always attract mostly male viewers.

It revealed that women aged between 18 and 34 made up 76 per cent of the US Olympic TV audience. As a result, the company used the games to promote 17 brands. And not just health and beauty products such as Pantene and Cover Girl. Pampers was also included.

And if the P&G "proud sponsor" spots that ran around the winter games are a guide, the advertising preceding 2012 looks like running on high-octane sentimentality.

Then, as now, the spots are the work of Wieden & Kennedy. One commercial aired in North America uses You'll Never Walk Alone as its soundtrack, and comprises a series of vignettes depicting mothers as unsung heroes and culminates with one rising to her feet as her daughter skates for Olympic gold.

"The W&K work was so successful that it made sense for the agency to repeat what it did for the Winter Olympics for us," Donnelly says.

P&G has had an online presence for the past 14 years, but she agrees that the amount of internet activity directed at women in the latest campaign would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

"At that time women weren't comfortable with the technology," she says. "They were afraid they either couldn't make it work or would break the computer if they tried."

Indeed, not so long ago it would have been hard to believe that P&G could have generated so much word-of-mouth on the web - and reinforced the relevance of its products - by challenging a group of women bloggers to live for a day like a housewife in the 30s, washing dishes with soapflakes and using good old-fashioned elbow grease to clean floors.

For Donnelly, such initiatives highlight the enormous importance of the internet to P&G's core market. "It's where women interact and find so much of the information they need," she points out. "Although we are, and will remain, a big TV advertiser, online is a place where we have to be."

Whether or not P&G's latest TV advertising would be too sweet for a Cannes jury's taste remains to be seen. Donnelly expects the company to have a presence at this year's festival to check out the best creative work from around the world and be inspired by it.

Never forget, though, that this is P&G. "Of course it's nice to win awards," she says. "But that's not what we're in business for."