Neil was a marketing manager at Procter & Gamble back in 1931 — and we product managers have a lot to thank him for. After all, Neil is somewhat of a founding father for product management, helping form the basis of the PM role that we know (and love) today.
Neil H. McElroy had a remarkable career that included serving in Dwight Eisenhower’s government and as the role of chairman of the board of Procter & Gamble. Neil was one of the first figures to set out the principles of brand management that are now commonplace in businesses across the world.
Neil was born in Berea, Ohio, and grew up in the Cincinnati area. He studied economics at Harvard and, after graduating, he returned to Cincinnati to work in the advertising department of The Procter & Gamble Company (a parent brand for global CPG products, like Gillette, Tide, Olay, and many more).
He was immensely successful and advanced quickly within Procter & Gamble — becoming company president in 1948.
Then McElroy went from household brands to the White House: he was appointed to the White House Conference on education as chairman in 1955-56. With one foot in the door, he was next appointed as secretary of defense by President Eisenhower — a role he served for two years. His core mission? To win the race against the Soviet Union’s "Sputnik" program.
Missile defense was a massive part of the Cold War, and McElroy oversaw a significant shift in US production of missiles. He began production of the Air Force Thor and Army Jupiter IRBMs and deployed them in Europe. He also pushed for further development of the Navy solid-fuel Polaris IRBM and the Air Force liquid-fuel Atlas and Titan ICBMs.
And as if that wasn’t enough for one man’s career, McElroy also oversaw the landmark Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 and helped found NASA. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom when he left the government.
It might be surprising that a US secretary of defense from the late 1950s is known as one of the pioneers of brand management. But Neil McElroy’s time at Procter & Gamble was transformational for our industry.
In 1931, during an advertising campaign for Camay soap, he wrote a now-famous memo in which he clarified the principles of modern brand management. Although product management these days is usually linked to digital products, it started out in the personal hygiene and healthcare sector, with a simple suggestion from McElroy to hire more people.
Neil McElroy’s memo argued that organizations should treat each individual product or brand as if it were a separate business — assigning a separate marketing team to work on each one. He set out the concept of the "brand man" with ultimate responsibility for an individual product. In McElroy’s vision, this "brand man" would lead the product’s sales, advertising, brand management, and promotions. They’d also suggest thorough field testing and client feedback — something that was quite radical at the time.
Fast forward to today, though, and you see a lot of McElroy’s ideas in modern product management. Most organizations do treat individual products as separate entities. And specific individuals are responsible for the success of the product(s) in their portfolio.
McElroy’s suggestions were not ignored: he got his hires, and his rapid ascent up the corporate ladder at Procter & Gamble shows that his ideas were a success. In the short and medium-term, he was hugely influential at Procter & Gamble. Largely thanks to him, P&G went through a thorough restructure — becoming a brand-focused company and carving the new role of the brand manager within the business.
During his time at Procter & Gamble, Neil also took on an advisory role at Stanford University. It was here that his ideas and concepts really expanded beyond P&G and the CPG field. He met and had a lasting positive impact on two young entrepreneurs named David Packard and Bill Hewlett. Two men who would, of course, go on to found Hewlett-Packard.
McElroy’s approach to brand management really took hold with David and Bill. They saw the idea of the "brand man" as bringing the decision-making process far closer to the customer. To them, a "brand man" could act as the voice of the customer within the company — giving users more influence on product development.
This arguably preempted much of the driving force behind agile by over half a century! Packard and Hewlett took these ideas and ran with them, centralizing this ethos as policy in their new company. The result? They credit HP’s staggering 50-year record of unbroken 20% year-on-year growth to the "brand man" ethos.
The role of a brand or product manager and the idea of customer-centric development is now commonplace. But it all started with a short memo back in 1931.