How a woman with nine cats helped launch a billion dollar product. It’s not what you think.
1: Proctor & Gamble, one of the largest consumer goods firms in the world, was convinced their promising new product Febreze was going to be a big hit.
P&G should know. They are the company behind Pringles, Oil of Olay, Bounty, CoverGirl, Dawn, Downy, Duracell, and dozens of other successful brands.
For Febreze, “they spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor,” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Drake Stimson, a thirty-one-year-old superstar with a background in math and psychology, was chosen to head up the marketing team. Drake and his team positioned Febreze as something that would allow people to rid themselves of embarrassing smells. They created a television commercial featuring woman and her dog Sophie: “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” said the woman, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.”
Commercials aired in several test cities. The marketing team gave sway samples, put advertisements in mailboxes, and paid grocery stores to position Febreze near cash registers.
“Then, they sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses,” Charles writes.
Febreze was DOA: Dead on Arrival.
2: An emergency meeting was called. Perhaps P&G should cut their losses on Febreze “before board members started asking questions,” Charles writes.
Drake and his team pleaded for more time. A decision was made to assign a team of PhDs to figure out what was going wrong. The newly-assigned researchers began conducting interviews.
“The first inkling of why Febreze was failing came when they visited a woman’s house outside of Phoenix,” Charles writes. “They could smell her nine cats before they went inside. The house’s interior, however, was clean and organized. She was somewhat of a neat freak, she explained. She vacuumed every day and didn’t like to open her windows, since the wind blew in dust.”
When Drake and the scientists entered her living room where the cats lived, “the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged,” writes Charles.
“What do you do about the cat smell?” a scientist asked the woman.
“It’s usually not a problem,” she said.
“How often do you notice a smell?”
“Oh, about once a month,” the woman replied.
The researchers were perplexed. “Do you smell it now?” a scientist asked.
“No,” she said.
This sequence occurred again and again in other smelly homes which the team visited. People didn’t notice most of the icky smells in their homes. “Bad smells simply weren’t noticed frequently enough to trigger a regular habit. As a result, Febreze ended up in the back of the closet,” Charles observes.
The situation appeared grim. “If he couldn’t sell Febreze to a woman with nine cats,” wondered Drake, “who could he sell it to?”
3: Then, something interesting happened.
The scientists spoke with a woman in a suburb near Scottsdale. She had four kids. Her house was clean, but not compulsively so. She had no pets. There were no smokers. It wasn’t the type of house with “smelly problems.”
“I use it every day,” she said of Febreze.
“How? What smells are you trying to get rid of?”
“I don’t really use if for specific smells,” the woman said. “I use it for normal cleaning-a couple of sprays when I’m done in the room. It’s a nice way to make everything smell good as a final touch.”
When Drake and his team returned to headquarters, the researchers asked the team to join for them for a meeting. They had spent the prior night watching videos P&G had collected over the years of people cleaning their homes. The scientists “cued up the tape of one woman—a twenty-six-year-old with three children—making a bed. She smoothed the sheets and adjusted a pillow. Then, she smiled and left the room,” Charles writes.
“Did you see that?” the researcher asked excitedly.
“He put on another clip. A younger, brunette woman spread out a colorful bedspread, straightened a pillow, and then smiled at her handiwork,” Charles shares.
“There it is again!” the researcher said.
The next clip showed a woman in workout clothes tidying her kitchen and wiping the counter before easing into a relaxing stretch. The researcher looked at his colleagues. “Do you see it?” he asked.
“Each of them is doing something relaxing or happy when they finish cleaning,” he said. “We can build off that! What if Febreze was something that happened at the end of the cleaning routine, rather than the beginning? What if it was the fun part of making something cleaner?”
More perfume was added to Febreze so it now had its own distinct, fresh scent. New commercials were created. This time they were “designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug,” writes Charles. “In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine.”
P&G relaunched Febreze in 1998. Revenue in the first year was more than $230 million. Today, Febreze and all of its spin-off products account for more than $1 billion a year.
Drake was promoted. His team received their bonuses after all.
“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”
Understanding this “craving” is key to understanding how new habits are formed.
Reflection: Think about a habit I do regularly. Can I identify the reward I get when I do or complete the habit?
Action: Journal my answers to the question above.