Demythologizing the McElroy Memo

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 3, no. 1, 2009.

Stanley Moss

In the canon of English-language writings on brands and brand management, few documents possess the stature of the legendary McElroy Memorandum known as “Brand Man”. Authored in 1931 by a a 27-year old Proctor & Gamble promotions executive, it inserted into the practice of brand-building seven directives which shaped our perception of brand’s purpose and function in the ecology of the marketplace. This single manifesto created the modern Brand Manager. For more than seven decades its enduring words were regarded with a reverence like that for the Holy Grail, and perpetrated a set of attitudes which beg to be re-examined in the face of brand world today. McElroy is at heart a strategic marketing document. It prescribed dynamic relationships be instituted within teams, and dictated a rigid hierarchical schema for the organization. Its application helped P&G separate brand managers into parallel teams, with each team competing internally with other brands in the company’s portfolio. Teams were mandated to market their own products to the sales force.

While the youthful Neil McElroy understood a brand to represent a cold-hearted economic entity, such a narrow presumption no longer holds exclusively true. The McElroy memo was simply the first step in codifying brands as instruments of an evolving, organic process. The memo limits its focus to fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), those rapidly-produced products with short shelf lives, which need to be sold in large quantities in order to be profitable; in this particular category new-product creation factors mightily, competition is uppermost in everyone’s mind, and only good performance guarantees brand survival. Business schools, take heed. If McElroy is the foundation for all brands of the future, then we are in for rough waters. That’s because brands are no longer simply tools of marketing departments, or receptacles which hold psychological levers for creating demand and moving product. The equation has upended. Marketing today is a fraction of the brand equation.

We now understand brands to be deeper, broader, more dimensional entities than ever before. But a look at the memo shows why brands became the distorted commercial entities which later came back to haunt Brand Men, and why the discipline engages in such soul-searching, especially in Post-Globalization world.

McElroy’s point 1 shows us clearly where his priorities stand: he directs his Brand Men to take careful heed of units shipped. In the hierarchy of formalization we are dealing with a classic bean-counter mentality. It’s a short-term, simplistic directive which assesses quantity moved as of primary importance. It implies that sheer numbers dictate the highest imperative for brand evaluation. Nothing else takes precedence. There is no future, only an opportunistic present.

Point 2 instructs the Brand Men to examine carefully where brand development is heavy and “progressive”, an interesting and provocative term, especially taken in its historical context. In 1931 “progressive” might have inferred Communist leanings; today the term smacks of fringe cases at the periphery of political movements, possible techno-libertarians advocating secession from the union, free love and anarchy. McElroy asserts that numerical growth is the highest objective, that Brand Men should apply successful treatment to comparable territories. Today’s brand specialist focuses on greater sensitivity to local culture, and pays more attention to local need before overlaying some proven marketing strategy simply because it has worked to sell product elsewhere.

In point 3, McElroy gives five sub-directives for underperforming brands, what he refers to as “light” brand development. He charges his team to study past advertising and promotional history, then evaluate it in the context of the local territory both on supply and consumer sides. Find out the trouble, he writes mysteriously, employing a vast euphemism. Once the weakness has been uncovered, he counsels, make a plan. It’s a statement of pure brute economics, with managers warned to be certain that money budgeted will produce results. Abide by the corporate hierarchy, he goes on, clear it with the District Manager, get buy-in on the local level. In other words, tell your local manager what to do in his own back yard and tell him how to do it. Get him to agree. Next up: hype the sales force, keep them hammering the territory. Write everything down, document, evaluate, assess. In no place does McElroy ask, Is this product needed, redundant, obsolete? Does somebody else make a better one? Do consumers really want it? What consequences does its consumption carry? In 1931 fewer channels of mass media existed for oversight, there was no conception of a problem with disposability and waste, few corporations thought about notions of community, and the term sustainability would not be coined for 40 years. Listen up, brand managers: the world has changed.

Point 4 pins total responsibility on the Brand Manager for the concise communications connected to his brands. This presumes that anything the organization cares to say about product is apt. There is no reference to accurately reflecting product claims, or any consideration of ethical underpinnings. As long as what is said works, it is permitted.

Point 5 addresses the manufacturer’s expenditure at point-of-purchase, quantifying marketing effectiveness at the retail level. We see no recognition of the universe of stakeholder communities which are touched by a product’s existence. Today we acknowledge that advertising adds to mass sensory overload, a form of pollution in an overcrowded environment. McElroy believes if you put the message in front of the consumer, it will be consumed. This is the fundamental corruption of traditional advertising writ large.

Packaging is addressed, but only superficially, in point 6. The Manager is counseled to experiment with and recommend wrapper revisions. We are again firmly in the terrain of marketing, insisting that the package jump off the shelf, differentiated from its competitors, ramping up the claims, doing anything necessary to grab the impulse-driven buying decision. Not a lot of ethics here, and certainly not abiding by Massimo Vignelli’s famous dictum that “the best packages are invisible.”

By point 7, McElroy is back into his corporate ivory tower, advising his Brand Men to see District Managers a number of times a year to discuss any “faults in promotion.” Here is the crux of the unreality: as long as promotion is correctly tweaked, the brand becomes invulnerable. All hinges on the success of promotion, the product lives in a universe independent of any considerations except its own self-interest. Is it any wonder, with subtext like this, that society drifted into a delusional and mindless consumption-driven consciousness?

History is an odd and elastic commodity, which lurches ahead, but mostly plods along, and we have had seventy years of McElroy’s calculating marketing strategies laying claim to the brand. While McElroy is frozen in time, a kind of Peter Pan of brand theory, brand has grown up around the memo. Brands are our silent partners, devices which deliver inspiration, carry promises, help us create our own identities, and stand as symbols for who we are and what we believe. It’s no longer a case of simply selling more units than your competitors. The challenge for Brand Men today is to reflect an understanding of a bigger world out there than one driven by unenlightened self-interest and short-term profits, and that the time is now to focus on truth-telling, to advocate for the greater good, and to always consider the deeper ethical implications of our commercial conduct.

Stanley MossDemythologizing the McElroy Memo

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