The Insights Blog

CEOs, CMOs and Agency Leaders Should Role Model Customer Intimacy

CEOs, CMOs and Agency Leaders Should Role Model Customer Intimacy


When I was a young brand marketer at Procter & Gamble, word spread around the company that CEO John Smale would listen to tapes of consumer calls every day in his car on his drive home in the evening.

John G. Smale, Former P&G President, CEO and Board Chair

The. CEO. Listening to consumer calls.

That was astounding!

Soon after, many Brand Managers were mimicking Mr. Smale’s behaviors. We found out that we could request specially curated collections of the calls regarding our specific brand or brands.

I readily opted in and listened intently to my brand’s consumers talking about my products and their likes and dislikes. Over the years I heard homemakers compliment how light Crisco Oil was and how they loved the recipes we shared. And I also heard complaints about Crisco Oil’s glass jar and how messy the bottle would get from dripping oil. I learned that some consumers loved the fragrance of Tide, and others with more sensitive skin were concerned about that fragrance. Pringles’ users told us they loved the canister but wanted flavored Pringles. Jif users loved the product but worried about their kids handling a glass jar. I learned how consumers loved the resealable package and homemade taste of our Duncan Hines Chocolate Chip Cookies.

These conversations (as well as other more formal approaches to product and marketing research) led many Brand and Product Development teams at P&G to take action. A very long list of enhancements was triggered by these consumer comments. The Crisco Oil compliments encouraged us to share even more recipes; the complaints led us to add a drip-free cap and eventually to move to safer plastic packaging. Unscented Tide was developed and launched. Pringles flavors were developed and launched.

Mr. Smale’s role modeling of listening carefully to customers paid off. And not because of a speech, exhortation, or demand. It was his behavior that mattered. The CEO of the leading CPG company in the world was taking his precious time to listen to consumers!

What Does This Mean to CEOs, CMOs and Agency Leaders?

Your actions matter!

What you do as leaders is noticed. And copied.

Get out and interact with your customers and target audiences. Listen to them. Observe them.

Do you market consumer products? Follow John Smale’s lead. Listen to consumer calls. Read their social comments. Read research reports.

If you’re a B2B supplier, visit your customers. See their operations and how your product or services fit within their systems.

If you’re a retailer, spend time in your stores. Every week on social media I see a photo of Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell in one of Ulta Beauty’s stores. The message is clear! The stores, the people, and the customers matter to Dave and to Ulta Beauty.

Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell visiting the Naperville team

If you lead an agency, ask to see client research. Attend client focus groups. Go to your client’s stores and warehouses and call centers. Observe your client’s customers in stores. Do what you want your people doing.

Whatever business you’re in, leaders need to get out and interact with their customers. Remember – your actions matter and your people will observe and copy your behavior.

John Smale was born in Ontario, Canada, educated at Miami University in Ohio, and joined Procter & Gamble in 1952 as an assistant brand manager on Gleem toothpaste. Mr. Smale first made a name for himself as a marketer with Crest toothpaste. Mr. Smale persuaded the American Dental Association to endorse – for the first time – the cavity-fighting properties of Crest toothpaste. An amazing accomplishment and the rest of the Crest story is history. Mr. Smale went on to an amazing career – eventually becoming Procter & Gamble President (1974), CEO (1981) and Board Chair (1986), and CEO and Board Chair of General Motors. John was known as a no-nonsense leader with a focus on understanding consumers and commitment to business results. In my meetings with Mr. Smale, I distinctly recall that he asked good questions, listened intently, and made decisions. Mr. Smale passed away in 2011 at 84.

Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Zillow Group, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Ulta Beauty, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.