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From Sinking Product to Top-Selling $1B Gem

In the mid 90’s, Procter and Gamble stumbled onto a new air freshener innovation that they were certain would be an instant best seller.

This was like no other air freshener. Other products on the market were designed to mask the air with perfumes — some successful, some not. P&G’s innovative emulsion was designed to actually absorb bad odor molecules.

I want to make sure you understand this. The Febreze molecules absorb the molecules producing bad odors, so the smell actually disappears. 

Game changer!

In technical terms, the product is an uncomplexed cyclodextrin in an aqueous solution. Blah blah blah. Fortunately, P&G understood the value of a good name. They dubbed it Febreze — a name derived from the words “fabric” and “breeze.”

Even better: The product was colorless, odorless, cheap to manufacture and wouldn’t stain fabrics. It had everything going for it. 

It was the product that every marketing or advertising team would kill to get their hands on. Everything about this product was innovative, effective, value-added.

In their minds, Febreze was a sure-fire winner. With the patent secured, the P&G marketing team went to work.

As a rule, P&G does an excellent job of testing and research to make sure their marketing campaigns are successful.

They thought they understood the market.

They thought they had accurately identified the benefits for the consumer: If you want to get rid of a bad odor — and not just temporarily mask it — use Febreze.

The team created a TV ad that showed women who wanted to eliminate cigar smoke or pet odors from their clothing and furniture. They ran the ad (featured below) nationwide, high-fived each other and waited for the numbers to roll in.

The first sales came in small.

They were stunned, but patient.

And then revenues took a nosedive.

What the?

Management was dismayed. At P&G, failed products rarely get a second chance.

Their surefire product was now in danger of getting the ax.

The marketing team scrambled. Did they really understand the market? Were they operating under the right value proposition? They decided to research what they had done incorrectly.

The team worked with researchers to conduct in-depth, in-home interviews.

During the course of those interviews, they hit on something interesting. The team visited a woman who lived in Phoenix — a self-proclaimed neat freak. She took them on a tour. The home was clean and organized.

And then they entered the living room.

Where nine cats lived.

Nine.

One of the researchers actually gagged because of the overpowering odors.

As they talked with the woman, they asked, “What do you do about the cat smell?”

“It’s usually not a problem,” she said.

“Do you smell it now?”

She said, “No, isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all.”

This conversation played out again and again across the country.

The people with the worst smells in their homes didn’t actually smell them.

These consumers had become “noseblind” (a term later coined by Febreze and run in subsequent ads). They had grown accustomed to the smell and could no longer detect them.

Febreze had been suggesting to consumers that when they smell the bad odor, it’s time to use Febreze. But most people didn’t smell the bad odors in their homes because they had grown accustomed to them. Nothing triggered them to actually need the product.

In effect, Febreze was not reaching the people who needed it most.

The marketer’s dream had turned into a marketer’s dilemma. They understood what was not working about the original ad, but they still had no idea how to fix it.

 

Back to the Data

P&G needed to figure out a new way to reach people. A new way to help them understand how Febreze could add value to their lives — even when they didn’t realize they needed it.

P&G went back to the data. They studied hours of video footage watching people clean their homes. They found nothing.

They conducted more interviews. 

And then they had an a-ha moment.

They visited a woman in Scottsdale, AZ. (Lots of a-ha’s coming from that part of the country, right?)

This woman had a pretty clean home. No obvious odors. No pets. No smokers. And to the surprise of the research team, she claimed that she loved Febreze.

They couldn’t understand why.

“I use it every day,” she said.

“What smells are you trying to get rid of?”

“I don’t really use it for specific smells,” she said. “I use it for normal cleaning. A couple of sprays when I’m done in a room.”

They followed her around the house and watched her clean. She made the bed and then sprayed the comforter with Febreze. She vacuumed and then sprayed the carpet with Febreze.

Then she added, “It’s nice, you know. Spraying feels like a little mini-celebration when I’m done with a room.”

All kinds of light bulbs turned on!

 

A Turning Point

The researchers went back to the video footage and watched people clean. Then they saw the interesting phenomenon that they had previously missed. After people finished cleaning, they looked over what they had done and gave a little smile.

A little mini-celebration. It was a reward for a job well done.

The insight was seemingly minor. So much so that every one of those researchers had missed it again and again.

In reality, the insight was powerful. 

And pivotal. 

And not only saved Febreze from the scrap pile, but turned it into the surefire success they all suspected it could be.

The marketers realized they needed to position Febreze as a reward at the end of their cleaning ritual. The trigger to use Febreze was actually the cleaning routine — rather than smelling bad odors.

They went to work.

First, they made changes to the product. The original product had no scent. They added a proprietary perfume to the formula to give it a distinct fresh-smelling scent — like a breath of fresh air.

Then, the new ads came out.

They showed people finishing various cleaning tasks, spritzing the room or the bedspread or the furniture, and then taking a deep whiff and smiling. They subtly positioned themselves as the end of a successful cleaning routine. The final touch to get out any lingering odors.

The product, which had been designed to completely absorb bad odors, was now positioned as an air freshener to use when things were already clean.

Within two months, sales doubled.

Febreze earned $230 million the next year.

In 2011, Febreze hit the $1B mark.

Years later, P&G now talks about the Febreze technology as an odor-blocking capability and has included the technology in its laundry detergents, such as Tide and Downy.

Febreze remains a top-selling brand throughout the world.

 

So What Do You Do With This?

As a Marketing and Insights Consultant, this is the kind of work I do for clients every day. We frequently visit consumers in their environments, video record them doing common tasks, and then pour over the details of those videos looking for those precious opportunities for our clients.

We focus on the functional, emotional and social “jobs” that people are trying to accomplish through their normal tasks, routines and behaviors. This theory comes from Clayton Christensen. If we understand those “jobs” to be done for customers, then we know how to design solutions, value propositions and messaging to appeal to the target audience.

The answer is simple:

Design for the appropriate jobs.

In the case of Febreze, the marketing team thought the primary job to do for customers was functional: Eliminate bad odors.

The actual primary job to do was emotional: Make consumers feel good about their cleaning routines.

By positioning Febreze correctly, P&G was in fact doing that job on behalf of consumers. The consumers rewarded P&G with $1B in annual revenue.

 

So how do you make sure you’re watching for the most important moments?

In my ten years of consulting experience, I can tell you that the answers you seek are always in the details. You just have to learn which details are most important.

In this case, when originally watching the video footage, the researchers glossed over the mini-celebration. They hadn’t even noticed it. They had focused so much on the cleaning actions of the consumers, they had missed the most important moment — that fleeting moment of pride in the work.

Finding those key moments requires keen observation, sharp listening, and reading between the lines. Stalking skills work to your advantage too. Or hire a good Marketing and Insights Consultant. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

The effort requires you to focus on the consumer’s entire experience and body language.

A Word of Advice: Study the details from different perspectives.

A change in perspective is an effective way to open your mind to new ideas.

Let me illustrate.

I’m no artist, but I have always wanted to draw a little better. Art classes didn’t really do anything for improving my skills. One day I stumbled on the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Edwards seemed to suggest that even people with no drawing skills could learn to draw well — and she had plenty of visual proof to support her claim. I decided to give it a try.

I learned that my brain was getting in the way of my drawing and that I needed to learn to let go of my traditional thinking.

Her argument was that when attempting to draw, our brains and our logic take over and dictate what certain things look like. 

If, for example, I wanted to draw a face, my brain would instruct me that a face had certain elements — oval head, eyes, nose, mouth. My traditional thinking would dictate where each fell in relation to the others. 

So my drawings of faces all ended up looking the same — and they didn’t really look like faces at all. (They didn’t even look like Picasso faces. They looked like lame emojis.)

My brain actually distorted my vision. 

Edwards suggested that readers should try drawing upside down — to trick the brain.

I tried it. I found a photo of a German Shepherd. I turned the photo upside down and drew what I saw.

With the image upside-down, my brain did not see a German Shepherd — or even a dog — but instead only registered shapes, lines, spaces, shadows. So I drew shapes, lines, spaces and shadows. 

I turned my results right side up and voila! I had drawn a German Shepherd!

Study the details from different perspectives!

 

Look with New Eyes at Your Dilemma

In the business world, you can discuss in the boardroom what you think your clients’ jobs to be done are. But that won’t get you very far. Remember, P&G thought they knew the job to do for consumers.

  • Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • You must observe your customers. 
  • Talk to them.
  • Listen to their stories, their experiences.
  • Look at how they do things.
  • Study their body language, their facial expressions.
  • Pay attention to what really matters to them.

Then you will have the right starting point from which to identify the primary jobs to do and ideate solutions to help them.

 

A Love Story

So I love Febreze.

I love the product and its story.

Most importantly, I value the lessons learned. I use it everyday — and it really makes me feel like I have a cleaner house.

Squeaky clean.

Gotta stop writing now. My wife is cooking with onions, so guess what’s about to make an appearance.

 

If you enjoyed this article, please share it and recommend it so others can find it!

 

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Bryan Searing