More great moments in received wisdom


Following is a re-post from my business website that involves a great story about marketing. I like it because it demonstrates marketing is not always the cut-and-dried subject marketers would have you believe. Something usually escapes the model …


The following New York Times article discusses an infamous case in the US concerning the predictive power of the data collected by Target. It involved a “pregnancy prediction” model used by the store to determine which customers were pregnant, and their likely due date, based on the pattern of their purchases.

It’s an interesting story and there’s an even more interesting one raised as a side note in the article: the story of the marketing of Febreze, a product developed by Proctor & Gamble that eliminates bad smells.

The received wisdom of marketing is that the customer buys a solution to a problem. What’s great about the Febreze story is that it illustrates this is only tangentially true, or even flat out untrue in cases.


Proctor & Gamble began marketing their new product as per the Marketing 101 textbook, running ads showing people dealing with unpleasant smells: a woman complaining her jacket smells like smoke when she eats in a particular restaurant, a woman worried about the smelly couch her dog sits on, etc.

They put the ads in “heavy rotation”, sat back to wait for the sales and then … nothing.

“Febreze,” it seemed, “was a dud.”

The marketing team panicked and began conducting in-depth interviews to determine what was going on.

The first inkling came when they visited a woman who lived with nine cats. “The scent was so overpowering, that one of them gagged.” A researcher asked the woman, “What do you do about the cat smell?” She replied, “What cat smell?”

A similar situation played out in other smelly homes they visited. “The reason Febreze wasn’t selling,” they realised, was because “people couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives.”

The second breakthrough came when they visited a woman with four children who didn’t appear to have any odour problems as there were no pets or smokers. To the surprise of the researchers, “she loved Febreze.”

“I use it every day,” she said.

“What smells are you trying to get rid of?” a researcher asked.

“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 as she cleaned, and at the end of each task or room, she would spray with Febreze. “Spraying feels like a little mini-celebration when I’m done with a room,” she said. At the rate she was going, the team estimated, “she would empty a bottle of Febreze every two weeks.”

The team went back over the videos they had recorded when visiting the previous homes, and noticed similar patterns. Febreze wasn’t being used to solve a problem – an unpleasant smell – it was being used as a reward for cleaning, an underlining of the fact cleaning had occurred.

So they changed the ads. Now they showed “open windows and gusts of fresh air.” Women were shown “having finished their cleaning routines, using Febreze to spritz freshly made beds and just-laundered clothing.” Febreze, the ads implied, was “a pleasant treat, not a reminder that your home stinks.”

Within two months, sales doubled. A year later, “the product brought in $230 million.” Eventually, P&G began “mentioning to customers that, in addition to smelling sweet, Febreze can actually kill bad odours.”

At the time the article was published, Febreze was “one of the top-selling products in the world.”

Click here to read the full article, How Companies Learn Your Secrets.


This post is from a 30-day series on my business website called It speaks about language and communication. To read previous posts in the series, go to It speaks.



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