The power of finding the right cues

The power of finding the right cues

In 1993, a scientist at P&G was playing around with hydroxypropyl beta cyclodextrin. It also happens that he was a smoker – and his wife hated the smell…

When he got home that evening, she asked him if he had stopped smoking. He was confused, because he certainly had not. But, she stated, there was no smell. So, the next day he mixed the chemical with water and sprayed it on fabrics that smelled of wet dog, sweaty socks and … well you get the picture.

The smell was gone. The company decided that had a blockbuster on their hands and started marketing it – as Febreze. However, this was just the start of a perplexing problem for P&G. The stuff just would not sell.[1]

The thumbs up

The test marketing for Febreze went swimmingly. There was even a park ranger who smelt of wild animals (mainly skunks) who could not get a date, and thanked the company from the bottom of her heart for the new opportunity it gave her in life to meet the man of her dreams, have children, and settle down. But, other than her, the market was less than enthusiastic – to the extent that P&G wanted to pull it. Essentially the ads reflected the power that Febreze had in getting rid of odours, such as the smell of Fido on the couch.

Looking for the vital cue

So a new team of researchers was pulled in. This time they saw the problem clearly after visiting a woman with nine cats. They asked her if she could smell what they were smelling. Her answer was no. And it was the same in the other hundred test homes. Scents are strange things – constant exposure gets them to fade. So, here’s the reason no one bought Febreze: There was no cue. The reason was missing. People got used to the smells around them.

The research group collected thousands of video hours of women cleaning their homes. I’m not sure it was the most exciting entertainment, but it all changed when one of the researchers proclaimed: “Did you see that?!”

The magic moment

What he had seen as a slight smile that crossed the face of each housewife as she finished cleaning the room. A moment of satisfaction.

So, that’s the cue they would use in their marketing. They dropped the tagline ‘Gets bad smells out of fabrics’ and positioned Febreze as part of the reward of cleaning a room, making a bed and all the other things men don’t (or can’t) do. So, the irony was that a product that was developed for getting rid of bad smells became the finishing touch for things that were already clean (everything got tweaked, including the product which got scented more strongly).
Today the Febreze range (in the USA) smells of success. I asked P&G if they sold it in SA. I got a terse “No”. Air Wick, which is available locally, has the payoff: “A touch of luxury”. Hmm…

Ref 1: Charles Duhigg: The power of habit (Random House Books 2013)