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PG Has Something to Smile About

Paul Sagel and Bob Dirksing are two of the leaders behind an important new product for Procter Gamble — one that has its customers, as well as its executives, smiling about the company’s approach to innovation.

It is a Monday, the first day after the first weekend of truly hot weather in Cincinnati, and Paul Sagel is sunburned. He enters the conference room in Procter & Gamble’s headquarters complex, sticks out his hand, and grins proudly. His skin is bright red, but his smile is downright blinding. And it didn’t get that way just by brushing with Crest.

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The story behind Sagel’s spectacular smile has the makings of a case study in innovation. Big companies may have bulk and brawn and established brands, but few of them succeed consistently when they introduce new brands and new products to the world. No company has struggled with this challenge more publicly than P&G. For about 15 years, starting with the 1983 introduction of Always, a line of feminine-care products, P&G did not introduce a single new brand on grocery and drugstore shelves. Olestra, the fat substitute that had been under development at the company for years, turned out to be a disappointment.

Then, in the late 1990s, the company seemed to get religion, running a number of new brands through test markets and rolling six of them out nationally. One of those, a mop called Swiffer, was a huge success. But the expense of those simultaneous rollouts damaged the company’s financial standing, so it has dramatically narrowed the end of its new-product pipeline. Now the stakes are higher for each new item that does emerge, and so it was for Sagel and Whitestrips, the smile-brightening system that he was charged with inventing.

Two Heads Are Better Than One (Really)

Like so many innovations, the story of Whitestrips begins with adversity. A few years ago, after decades of dominance by P&G’s Crest, Colgate surpassed it in the battle for toothpaste market share. One way P&G decided to fight back was to redouble its efforts to create a product for consumers who wanted visibly whiter teeth but didn’t have $500 to pay a dentist to bleach them. As a product-development engineer in the health-care products group, Sagel, who is now 31, was an expert on the physiology of the mouth and took on the task of developing a gel that could do the whitening.

Successful research teams at big companies don’t just form on an ad hoc basis. In fact, the smartest organizations cast these groups like Hollywood movies, picking out specific people for particular roles. As P&G began to build a team around the whitening product, Gordon Brunner, the now-retired chief technology officer of P&G, made a crucial choice. He enlisted a grizzled, 30-year company veteran named Bob Dirksing to join the effort. Dirksing, 56, is a fellow in the company’s Victor Mills Society, an elite group of a few dozen P&G veterans with a track record for achievement in technology and innovation.

Dirksing has his own rules on how to build a team around a new product effort, which he teaches in creativity classes for P&G all around the world. First, he rejects the reflexive instinct that many companies have to pile only their most experienced people onto their most important projects. “The worst thing you can do during the initial part of a project is put a whole bunch of people on it,” he says. “Monologues aren’t sufficient either, because a single person working at a bench can only go so far. It’s best to take two people and turn them loose: an older person for wisdom and counsel and a younger one for energy and inspiration.”

Dirksing, rather than being resentful that his sidekick had already been selected, was thrilled to find Sagel waiting for him when he joined the whitening project. “Paul, he’s just a lot of fun,” Dirksing says. “He’s brash, as I was once. I like people who are not so cautious. What makes young people so exciting is that they don’t know things yet. People are not born creative, but they are born curious. By the time they spend a few years buried in big companies, they’re no longer curious. Then they wonder why they can’t be creative. I want to be stupid again. That’s when things are the most fun.”

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Can the Innovation Deliver?

Another important aspect of the casting for the whitening project was the blend of subject expertise. It was an attempt to see what would happen if people who were used to working in bigger groups of colleagues with similar backgrounds came together to solve a particular riddle. Sagel’s expertise applied most readily to the easiest part of the challenge facing the team: formulating a whitening gel that would bleach people’s teeth without eating them away.

The hard part was finding a way to apply the gel to the teeth and make it stay there long enough to do its work. For this, the team needed a “delivery device,” and Dirksing is one of the company’s most prolific inventors of these product applicators. Over the years, he’s come up with a flip-cap for Scope that prevents overpouring and a spray-trigger mechanism that helps keep heavy bottles from hurting users’ hands. He’s also an avid tester of everything he works on. At times during his tenure at P&G, colleagues have squinted at Dirksing across the lunch table only to realize that he was testing out Cover Girl mascara. If any of them had peeked under the restroom stall, they might have noticed him putting on his Always maxi-pads, just to make sure that they were properly comfortable.

All of Dirksing’s old delivery devices and much, much more are scattered around his office in a P&G technical center in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. Outside his office are machines that technicians can reconfigure to produce prototypes within days of when people like Dirksing complete their design specifications. So soon after he and Sagel met, they agreed that Dirksing’s building would make the most stimulating environment for their quest.

“I had arranged for people to move many times in the past,” says Dirksing, who sounds almost like a foster parent when he describes how he looks after his younger colleagues. “Instead of putting young people from Japan and other places in an empty office where they would get lost, I’d set up a work station right around the corner from mine. I could be their resource that way, and they could just tap me on the shoulder any time they wanted to talk, almost by just turning around.”

The Power of Proximity

Geographical proximity — both to one another and to the detritus of various other delivery devices in development — turned out to be crucial to Sagel and Dirksing’s efforts. For months, they struggled with their task. “We racked our brains,” Sagel said. “Other companies had tried to sell gel-filled trays that people would bite into, so we looked at those. We thought about painting the gel on somehow, but we weren’t sure how to keep the product from getting into people’s mouths.”

Then, one day, they spotted the prototypes for P&G’s Impress plastic wrap laying around Dirksing’s office. P&G designed Impress to be a better way to wrap food, but that wasn’t how Dirksing and Sagel ended up using it. “We realized that we could apply the gel to the wrap,” Dirksing explains. What followed was a scene straight out of second grade, with the pair cutting up strips of plastic with scissors, dabbing on the glue, and sticking it to their teeth without any regard for whether the bleaching gel might just eat the teeth away. “As soon as we put the strips on, we knew we had it,” says Sagel. “It was amazing how well they fit teeth and how comfortable they were to wear.”

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After many months of safety and efficacy testing, P&G’s brand managers swept in and christened the product “Whitestrips.” The product launched nationwide in May, at a cost of $44 for a two-week supply of the twice-daily, 30-minute treatment. That’s more than just about every over-the-counter item in your average drugstore, though it’s on par with a haircut, facial, or other treatment designed to improve your personal appearance.

At such a high price, it’s easy to imagine how the product could flop in the marketplace. After all, P&G has a (very recent) history of being utterly tone-deaf when it comes to predicting whether people will want to buy, say, products laced with fat substitutes that can cause loose stools. Still, all of the market research suggests that the demand is there. In 2000, according to numbers gathered by Dental Products Report, dentists sold roughly $1.5 billion worth of whitening services, and that number is growing at about a 25% annual clip. Thanks to the efforts of Sagel and Dirksing, P&G is alone in the drugstore with a product poised to take some of that market for itself.

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in New York.

Read more: P&G’s Not-So-Secret Agent