Marketing – the Febreze story


After P&G had spent several years and millions of dollars developing Febreze, it sold poorly. An analysis of this failure led to a radical revision of its marketing that relied on an understanding of how people connected the use of a product to their daily routines and habits. The company found that it had to sell different aspects of the product than those it was designed to have.

In the mid-1990s, when the company rolled out the product across the U.S. after having test marketed it for the previous several years, P&G depended heavily on television commercials to introduce the public to its revolutionary new product that could eliminate unwanted odors. They showed people spraying clothing and furniture with Febreze to remove smells left by cigarette smoke and pets.

The company and its marketing team expected it to be an unqualified success. Instead, as Charles Duhigg wrote years later, “sales started small and got smaller. Febreze was a dud.” The marketers began earnestly researching the product to find out why it wasn’t selling. They interviewed customers and visited their homes. On one visit to a woman’s living room where her nine cats spent most of their time, the researchers recoiled from the odor. The woman, by contrast, had grown used to it from living with the animals and did not notice the smell at all. They found similar results in other houses with strong scents. The people who most needed Febreze did not realize it, they realized.

With that in mind, they watched videos of people cleaning various rooms in their houses, to see if they could figure out where and how to suggest people use Febreze. These results were inconclusive, so they again went into the field to interview people at their homes. They found one woman who used it regularly, and she let them follow her around as she cleaned. Her house had no serious odor problems, but she sprayed things down afterwards anyway, saying it felt “like a little minicelebration when I’m done with a room.”

“The marketers” Duhigg wrote, “needed to position Febreze as something that came at the end of the cleaning ritual, the reward, rather than as a whole new cleaning routine.” The company increased the perfume content, giving it a distinct smell, and redid the ad campaign in summer of 1998. Commercials for the product showed it being used the way the woman had, and print ads showed breezes blowing through open windows with curtains. “Febreze, the ads implied, was a pleasant treat, not a reminder that your home stinks.”

Sales doubled within two months and reached $230 million a year later.