Failing—to Win

How leaders turn fumbles into fodder for success.

August 16 2013 by Russ Banham


A Real Lemon

A.G. Lafley actually seems to relish his wrong turns during his first reign as CEO and chairman of Procter & Gamble nearly as much as his many successes (he’s widely credited with reviving P&G with his mantra of “The Consumer is Boss”). Each time he stumbled, he says it gave him an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the failure.

Such was the case with Fit Fruit & Vegetable Wash. On paper, the idea seemed a sure winner—an antiseptic liquid for soaking fruits and vegetables, ridding them of bacteria and pesticide residue. “Few items are handled more than produce,” Lafley explains.

P&G went full-bore ahead with the unique product concept, testing it four separate times in three different markets—the Philippines, Mexico and the United States—at a cost of $40 million or so. The research was spotty, however. The first test came back so-so and the next one followed suit. Still, P&G was undaunted. It had a golden goose in its hands.

Unfortunately, the market research was right: Fit proved unfit for consumers. “We learned they just wouldn’t change their habits,” says Lafley. “Even though this was a healthier alternative than simply rinsing a plum under the faucet with tap water, they just wouldn’t take the extra step.”

Another problem was retailers. “They didn’t want to display the product in the produce section, as it implied their fruits and veggies were dirty or tainted with insecticides,” he explains. “So they stuck it with the dishwashing products, where no one found it.”

The takeaway? “People do the same thing over and over and over,” he says, “and to think you can get them to change this behavior overnight is a bit of insanity. It reminded me of my mother when disposable diapers (a P&G staple) came on the market. She had used cloth diapers when we were babies and said if she had to do it all over again, [she] would still use cloth diapers.”