How P&G saved a product by understanding consumer habits and changed the communication

In the late 90s P&G created an odorless air freshener spray. They launched a campaign showing a woman complaining about bad odor and remarking to her friend that using Febreze will eliminate odor. The marketers anticipated great sales but the product didn't take off at all.

Old Febreze ad


To understand why it didn't sell, they conducted in depth consumer surveys to figure out what went wrong. However, they could not find an answer until they visited the house of one of the respondents. The woman was a cleanliness freak with 9 cats. However, when the P&G team walked into the house they were overpowered by the strong odor of the cats. When the owner was asked what she thought about the cat smell, she replied saying "Isn't it wonderful, they hardly smell at all!". 

The reason why Febreze wasnt selling was because people don't detect bad smells because they get used to it. 

P&G then employed a Harvard Business School professor to analyze what went wrong. He watched hours of footage of people cleaning rooms looking for clues but it didn't reveal anything. 

They finally visited a consumer who actually used Febreze and tried to understand why she did it. She had a clean house with no odor and despite that she loved Febreze and she wasn't trying to get rid of any smells. The researchers followed her through the cleaning process and observed that after each cleaning task she would spray Febreze. It felt like a mini celebration after each task. 

P&G then realized that they were trying to create a new habit, instead of doing that they needed to piggy back on an existing Habit. They needed to position Febreze as something that came at the end of the cleaning ritual rather than as a whole new cleaning routine. 

More perfume was then added to the forumla and P&G filmed new ads showing women spraying Febreze at the end of the cleaning routine. Print ads showed open windows and a gust of fresh air. Within a few months sales doubled and there's been no looking back for Febreze.

Read more
NYT's article - How companies learn your secrets

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