Alka-Seltzer and Febreze. What do these two products have in common? They both were propelled forward in terms of sales by two uniquely brilliant marketing ideas. For those of you who sell or market products or services for a living, the previous sentence probably got your attention. For customers, this will likely interest you as well.
Courtesy of author Malcolm Gladwell in his compilation book of news stories he wrote in The New Yorker magazine, called “What the dog saw,” these two products are explored. First, let’s discuss Alka-Seltzer, the product that combines aspirin and bicarbonate soda to help with heartburn and indigestion.
Here is the little known fact about Alka-Seltzer. While sold in pouches of two tablets within a box of pouches, the customer really only needs one tablet to help alleviate the problem. When Bayer was putting together the ad campaign, a jingle writer came up with the song, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.” This jingle conveyed the message that you needed two tablets, so Alka-Seltzer was packaged that way going forward (note two tablets were not deemed to be too much of a dose). One small jingle immediately doubled sales of the product.
Febreze had a tougher road to hoe, but it should not have been so hard. Like Alka-Seltzer, the product worked, in this case in eliminating odors. But, no one was buying it. Febreze was almost pulled from the market by Proctor and Gamble. Then, the company looked at footage of the product being used which revealed a surprising development. Women who used the product on their sheets would sniff the pleasant scent after they sprayed it on.
The light bulb came on. The ad campaign immediately shifted to sell Febreze as a fresher smelling odor fighter. Commercials showed women sniffing the nicer smell produced by the Febreze spray on their sheets and in bathrooms. Sales took off from there. And, Febreze now has many copiers in other products.
In both of these situations, the companies started off with a product that worked. Yet, in both situations, the marketing folks earned their keep. The sad fact is these same kinds of marketing efforts are used with products that are not as good as advertised or are over-sold as higher quality experiences. You pay more because you feel “you are worth it” as one slogan says. So, we buyers must beware.
We are creatures of habit. A book I often cite is called “The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. My niece thought I might like this and she was correct. I would encourage you to read it as well, as it articulates how much of what we do each day is based more on habit that is ingrained in each of us or in our organizations.
A friend who taught philosophy at University shared with me that Aristotle felt habits reigned supreme. In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” as referenced in Duhigg’s book, Aristotle said:
“…just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”
A few examples from “The Power of Habit” might help reveal further Aristotle’s belief. Paul O’Neill is a great example. In short, he came in and transformed Alcoa as its CEO in a very unheard of way. It unnerved so many financial experts, they told people to sell the stock once they heard O’Neill’s first speech. One analyst later said “it was the worst piece of advice I have ever given,” as under O’Neill, Alcoa’s earnings and stock price soared for many years. What did he do that was so unusual and successful? His first focus was to make Alcoa the safest company it could be, as its safety record was atrocious. In other words, he wanted to change Alcoa’s bad safety habits.
He consciously picked this as he explained later, as it was the one thing we could get management and labor to agree on – a safer workplace. So, what happened? Communication between the line workers and management improved as accidents and how to prevent them had to be reported within 24 hours. He showed by example, after a tragic death, that this mattered to him and was not window-dressing. He changed the habits of executives, managers and line workers by insisting that we cannot condone safety problems and must avoid them at all costs. Through the improved communication, other benefits occurred – processes had to be improved to make them safer, the workers were empowered to share ideas on how to improve processes, and management’s goals could be communicated more readily. By emphasizing the importance of safety habits, the company got better. And, so did results.
Another good example about habits is regarding Starbucks. There is a moving story about how a young man had fallen into bad and even criminal habits. His drug problem caused him to lose everything time and time again. Then, someone suggested he try to get a job at Starbucks. Someone gave him a chance and mentored him. But, it was really the Starbucks training that transformed him. The training told him how to serve customers well. It told him how to address situations with an irate customer. It taught him the need to be organized, as if you were not, the customer would be ill-served. This consistent training replaced his bad habits with new habits. He built on his success by first building his self-esteem through better habit. And, it spilled over into his personal life. Now, he is managing a Starbucks and improving his education.
There are numerous examples in the book, but one my niece and I both found interesting is about the fabric freshening product called Febreze. Now, you may not know that Febreze was almost pulled from the market as its sales were almost non-existent. It was a flop. Febreze’s inventor had found a way to chemically remove bad odors from fabrics. When it was first marketed, the elimination of bad odors was the pitch. Yet, that pitch only sold to people whose houses were a total wreck and reeked. The average homeowner did not buy it, at least buy enough of it. Before Proctor and Gamble (P&G) pulled it, they did more research of their target buyers.
Through this research, they discovered a habit in housewives (please forgive the gender reference), who after they made their beds with new linens, they purposefully inhaled the crisp, clean laundered smell. In fact, after they did any cleaning, the desire for a clean-smelling house was habitual. P&G realized people did not crave scentlessness, instead they crave a nice clean smell after they’ve spent 30 minutes cleaning. With this focus, a new marketing effort was launched and within two months sales doubled and then took off, spawning dozens of spin-off products. P&G’s Febreze provided the reward of a clean-smelling house to someone who cleaned it, which was the cue for the reward.
I use cue and reward, as these are two of the tenets of understanding and changing habits, whether they be smoking, nail-biting, eating bad snacks, drinking, etc. In short, Duhigg articulates:
1) Identify the routine (what leads to the habit and why, when and how does it occur?)
2) Experiment with rewards (to change a habit, a new reward has to be substituted, but it has to be fulfilling, so experimentation is needed)
3) Isolate the cue (what is truly the cue; what more than any other thing is causing the habit?)
4) Have a plan (this is what am I going to do about it, this is in my control to change and if I write down my plan, I will have a better chance of success).
One example was an office worker and his craving for a mid-afternoon donut, muffin or unhealthy snack. The routine was the person would leave his desk from boredom, being tired, just to get up, etc. and would go to the vending machine for a snack. The reward was the snack. The cue was harder to find, as various paths led to the reward. It turned out the cue was the time. Invariably, between 3 and 3:30 pm, the person would get the unhealthy snack. So, he noted this in a plan to do something differently. He experimented and felt if he purposefully socialized with others for ten minutes instead of getting a snack, the new reward would satisfy him. So, he planned and executed the plan by getting away from his desk at the same tim each day, forming a new habit. Instead of eating, he would talk with colleagues.
There are other habits noted that have been replaced by new rewards. The key is to find a new reward. If you drink, substituting something that takes the place of the drink will make it a new habit. It could be drinking fruit juices, hot tea, coffee, etc. or it could be taking a walk after dinner, when your old habit of drinking most occurred. The same would hold true with smoking. You have to find a new reward to replace the smoking reward. Otherwise, the old habit will have a better chance of returning.
Let me close how Duhigg did referencing a passage from William James’ book “The Principle of Psychology.” Note William’s brother Henry is an author of some renown.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and is bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Habits can be good or bad. If they are the latter and you want to change, the above steps are worth considering. The book is a good read, with many understandable examples. I highly recommend it. Let me know what you think.