The scientists and marketing executives at Procter & Gamble were gathered around a beat-up table in a small, windowless room, reading the transcript of an interview with a woman who owned nine cats, when one of them finally said what everyone was thinking.
“If we get fired, what exactly happens?” she asked. “Do security guards show up and walk us out, or do we get some kind of warning beforehand?”
The team’s leader, a onetime rising star within the company named Drake Stimson, stared at her.
“I don’t know,” he said. His hair was a mess. His eyes were tired. “I never thought things would get this bad. They told me running this project was a promotion.”
It was 1996, and the group at the table was finding out, despite Claude Hopkins’s assertions, how utterly unscientific the process of selling something could become. They all worked for one of the largest consumer goods firms on earth, the company behind Pringles potato chips, Oil of Olay, Bounty paper towels, CoverGirl cosmetics, Dawn, Downy, and Duracell, as well as dozens of other brands. P&G collected more data than almost any other merchant on earth and relied on complex statistical methods to craft their marketing campaigns. The firm was incredibly good at figuring out how to sell things. In the clothes-washing market alone, P&G’s products cleaned one out of every two laundry loads in America. Its revenues topped $35 billion per year.
However, Stimson’s team, which had been entrusted with designing the ad campaign for one of P&G’s most promising new products, was on the brink of failure. The company had spent millions of dollars developing a spray that could remove bad smells from almost any fabric. And the researchers in that tiny, windowless room had no idea how to get people to buy it.
The spray had been created about three years earlier, when one of P&G’s chemists was working with a substance called hydroxypropyl beta cyclodextrin, or HPBCD, in a laboratory. The chemist was a smoker. His clothes usually smelled like an ashtray. One day, after working with HPBCD, his wife greeted him at the door when he got home.
“Did you quit smoking?” she asked him.
“No,” he said. He was suspicious. She had been harassing him to give up cigarettes for years. This seemed like some kind of reverse psychology trickery.
“You don’t smell like smoke, is all,” she said.
The next day, he went back to the lab and started experimenting with HPBCD and various scents. Soon, he had hundreds of vials containing fabrics that smelled like wet dogs, cigars, sweaty socks, Chinese food, musty shirts, and dirty towels. When he put HPBCD in water and sprayed it on the samples, the scents were drawn into the chemical’s molecules. After the mist dried, the smell was gone.
When the chemist explained his findings to P&G’s executives, they were ecstatic. For years, market research had said that consumers were clamoring for something that could get rid of bad smells—not mask them, but eradicate them altogether. When one team of researchers had interviewed customers, they found that many of them left their blouses or slacks outside after a night at a bar or party. “My clothes smell like cigarettes when I get home, but I don’t want to pay for dry cleaning every time I go out,” one woman said.
P&G, sensing an opportunity, launched a top-secret project to turn HPBCD into a viable product. They spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor. The science behind the spray was so advanced that NASA would eventually use it to clean the interiors of shuttles after they returned from space. The best part was that it was cheap to manufacture, didn’t leave stains, and could make any stinky couch, old jacket, or stained car interior smell, well, scentless. The project had been a major gamble, but P&G was now poised to earn billions—if they could come up with the right marketing campaign.
They decided to call it Febreze, and asked Stimson, a thirty-one-year-old wunderkind with a background in math and psychology, to lead the marketing team. Stimson was tall and handsome, with a strong chin, a gentle voice, and a taste for high-end meals. (“I’d rather my kids smoked weed than ate in McDonald’s,” he once told a colleague.) Before joining P&G, he had spent five years on Wall Street building mathematical models for choosing stocks. When he relocated to Cincinnati, where P&G was headquartered, he was tapped to help run important business lines, including Bounce fabric softener and Downy dryer sheets. But Febreze was different. It was a chance to launch an entirely new category of product—to add something to a consumer’s shopping cart that had never been there before. All Stimson needed to do was figure out how to make Febreze into a habit, and the product would fly off the shelves. How tough could that be?
Stimson and his colleagues decided to introduce Febreze in a few test markets—Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Boise. They flew in and handed out samples, and then asked people if they could come by their homes. Over the course of two months, they visited hundreds of households. Their first big breakthrough came when they visited a park ranger in Phoenix. She was in her late twenties and lived by herself. Her job was to trap animals that wandered out of the desert. She caught coyotes, raccoons, the occasional mountain lion. And skunks. Lots and lots of skunks. Which often sprayed her when they were caught.
“I’m single, and I’d like to find someone to have kids with,” the ranger told Stimson and his colleagues while they sat in her living room. “I go on a lot of dates. I mean, I think I’m attractive, you know? I’m smart and I feel like I’m a good catch.”
But her love life was crippled, she explained, because everything in her life smelled like skunk. Her house, her truck, her clothing, her boots, her hands, her curtains. Even her bed. She had tried all sorts of cures. She bought special soaps and shampoos. She burned candles and used expensive carpet shampooing machines. None of it worked.
“When I’m on a date, I’ll get a whiff of something that smells like skunk and I’ll start obsessing about it,” she told them. “I’ll start wondering, does he smell it? What if I bring him home and he wants to leave?
“I went on four dates last year with a really nice guy, a guy I really liked, and I waited forever to invite him to my place. Eventually, he came over, and I thought everything was going really well. Then the next day, he said he wanted to ‘take a break.’ He was really polite about it, but I keep wondering, was it the smell? “
“Well, I’m glad you got a chance to try Febreze,” Stimson said. “How’d you like it?”
She looked at him. She was crying.
“I want to thank you,” she said. “This spray has changed my life.”
After she had received samples of Febreze, she had gone home and sprayed her couch. She sprayed the curtains, the rug, the bedspread, her jeans, her uniform, the interior of her car. The bottle ran out, so she got another one, and sprayed everything else.
“I’ve asked all of my friends to come over,” the woman said. “They can’t smell it anymore. The skunk is gone.”
By now, she was crying so hard that one of Stimson’s colleagues was patting her on the shoulder. “Thank you so much,” the woman said. “I feel so free. Thank you. This product is so important.”
Stimson sniffed the air inside her living room. He couldn’t smell anything. We’re going to make a fortune with this stuff, he thought.
Stimson and his team went back to P&G headquarters and started reviewing the marketing campaign they were about to roll out. The key to selling Febreze, they decided, was conveying that sense of relief the park ranger felt. They had to position Febreze as something that would allow people to rid themselves of embarrassing smells. All of them were familiar with Claude Hopkins’s rules, or the modern incarnations that filled business school textbooks. They wanted to keep the ads simple: Find an obvious cue and clearly define the reward.
They designed two television commercials. The first showed a woman talking about the smoking section of a restaurant. Whenever she eats there, her jacket smells like smoke. A friend tells her if she uses Febreze, it will eliminate the odor. The cue: the smell of cigarettes. The reward: odor eliminated from clothes. The second ad featured a woman worrying about her dog, Sophie, who always sits on the couch. “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.” The cue: pet smells, which are familiar to the seventy million households with animals. The reward: a house that doesn’t smell like a kennel.
Stimson and his colleagues began airing the advertisements in 1996 in the same test cities. They gave away samples, put advertisements in mailboxes, and paid grocers to build mountains of Febreze near cash registers. Then they sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses.
A week passed. Then two. A month. Two months. Sales started small—and got smaller. Panicked, the company sent researchers into stores to see what was happening. Shelves were filled with Febreze bottles that had never been touched. They started visiting housewives who had received free samples.
“Oh, yes!” one of them told a P&G researcher. “The spray! I remember it. Let’s see.” The woman got down on her knees in the kitchen and started rooting through the cabinet underneath the sink. “I used it for a while, but then I forgot about it. I think it’s back here somewhere.” She stood up. “Maybe it’s in the closet?” She walked over and pushed aside some brooms. “Yes! Here it is! In the back! See? It’s still almost full. Did you want it back?”
Febreze was a dud.
For Stimson, this was a disaster. Rival executives in other divisions sensed an opportunity in his failure. He heard whispers that some people were lobbying to kill Febreze and get him reassigned to Nicky Clarke hair products, the consumer goods equivalent of Siberia.
One of P&G’s divisional presidents called an emergency meeting and announced they had to cut their losses on Febreze before board members started asking questions. Stimson’s boss stood up and made an impassioned plea. “There’s still a chance to turn everything around,” he said. “At the very least, let’s ask the PhDs to figure out what’s going on.” P&G had recently snapped up scientists from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and elsewhere who were supposed experts in consumer psychology. The division’s president agreed to give the product a little more time.
So a new group of researchers joined Stimson’s team and started conducting more interviews. Their first inkling of why Febreze was failing came when they visited a woman’s home outside Phoenix. 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, the woman explained. She vacuumed every day and didn’t like to open her windows, since the wind blew in dust. When Stimson and the scientists walked into her living room, where the cats lived, the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged.
”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 looked at one another.
“Do you smell it now?” a scientist asked.
”No,” she said.
The same pattern played out in dozens of other smelly homes the researchers visited. People couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives. If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scent. If you smoke cigarettes, it damages your olfactory capacities so much that you can’t smell smoke anymore. Scents are strange; even the strongest fade with constant exposure. That’s why no one was using Febreze, Stimson realized. The product’s cue—the thing that was supposed to trigger daily use—was hidden from the people who needed it most. Bad scents simply weren’t noticed frequently enough to trigger a regular habit. As a result, Febreze ended up in the back of a closet. The people with the greatest proclivity to use the spray never smelled the odors that should have reminded them the living room needed a spritz.
Stimson’s team went back to headquarters and gathered in the windowless conference room, rereading the transcript of the woman with nine cats. The psychologist asked what happens if you get fired. Stimson put his head in his hands. If he couldn’t sell Febreze to a woman with nine cats, he wondered, who could he sell it to? How do you build a new habit when there’s no cue to trigger usage, and when the consumers who most need it don’t appreciate the reward?
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